The moral hazard that is Estrada’s return to politics. Published on January 26, 2010.
The decision of the Comelec’s second division to qualify Joseph Estrada for the presidential election in May, reached on the ninth anniversary of his people-powered ouster from Malacañang, invites the Filipino citizen to consider, yet again, the ex-president’s sins against the nation.
In two recent editorials, the Inquirer observed the distinction between the legal impediments Estrada faces (which the second division blithely set aside, in favor of a sweeping populism) and the moral hazard that Estrada’s return represents.
This distinction, I think, is crucial to our evolving understanding of the democratic project.
Many Filipinos object to the very idea that a failed president can serve in the presidency again. But as the first editorial pointed out, the issue before the Comelec was whether the Constitution—not past performance, not much-publicized adventures in morality—bars Estrada from running for reelection. In other words, the notion of “failure,” of whether Estrada was a “good” or “bad” president, ought not to figure in the legal debate.
As I have written before, the phrasing of the prohibition, that the president is ineligible for “any reelection,” seems clear enough; the deliberate inclusion of the word “any” reflects the framers’ reconsidered view. Sadly, instead of vigorously advancing a contrary legal view, the Comelec’s second division merely passed the burden of decision to the electorate (in theory) and to the Supreme Court (in reality).
As the second editorial argued, however, there are in fact many reasons other than the strictly legal to disqualify Estrada from running again. Many of these have to do with public virtue, a democratic republic’s true foundation stone.
Estrada’s new lease on political life thus gives all of us (or, well, maybe just me) the chance to sharpen our thinking on the kind of morality political office requires. I raised similar points in two columns last April; I trust Estrada’s example will help me push my argument forward.
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In an ideal world, political office should be reserved for those of undoubted personal integrity. The familiar example we use to illustrate the point is powerful precisely because it speaks to common experience: A philandering husband, we say, makes for a corrupt politician, because he would be forced to skim money off the treasury to fund his extra needs. Hence, don’t vote known adulterers to public office.
In reality, however, the truth is more complicated. To confine our discussion to heads of government alone: Some of the best (that is, most effective) politicians have been less than faithful to their wives; indeed, to choose just one example, the most consequential US president of the 20th century was the fascinatingly complex Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (He was an artful liar, too.) Conversely, personal probity is no guarantee of competence in governance, much less of success.
But the republican form of government is based on the notion of public virtue. I take John Adams’ definition for my own: “There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.”
Emilio Jacinto’s “Kartilya,” the primer he fashioned to orient members of the Katipunan, is marked by this same regard for public virtue. The fifth principle, for instance (cribbed from Filipino.biz.ph, using a copy based apparently on a National Centennial Commission “handout”) reads: “Ang may mataas na kalooban, inuuna ang puri kaysa pagpipita sa sarili; ang may hamak na kalooban, inuuna ang pagpipita sa sarili kaysa sa puri.”
We can translate this as follows: “The noble man places honor before self-interest; the lowly man puts self-interest before honor.”
To be sure, a strong sense of personal virtue underlies Jacinto’s founding principles. Consider the ninth: “Ang babae ay huwag mong tingnang isang bagay na libangan lamang, kundi isang katuwang at karamay sa mga kahirapan nitong buhay; gamitin mo nang buong pagpipitagan ang kanyang kahinaan, at alalahanin ang inang pinagbuharan at nag-iwi sa iyong kasanggulan.” We can translate this as: “Don’t look at woman as a mere plaything, but as your equal and companion in life’s hardships; tend to her weakness, and keep in mind your mother who bore you and raised you.” But even here, the notion of public wellbeing is transparent.
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In sum: the moral fact that disqualifies Estrada from serving in the presidency again is not his serial adultery; it is his conviction for plunder. That his absolute pardon erased that conviction is legal fiction—that is to say, it is a construction, a fact created by legal processes (which we must all respect, if we want the rule of law to take effect).
But that he ran the illegal numbers game jueteng from Malacañang, and abused the powers of the presidency by putting pressure on the public insurance systems to purchase a controversial stock on which he, the President of the Philippines then, earned a P180-million commission—these remain facts that cannot be erased by the pardon. Only their legal meaning has been changed.
Their moral content remains the same: They prove that the highest official of the land violated public morality. He placed his own self-interest ahead of the public good.
All things being equal, I would of course prefer not to vote for an adulterer. Allow me, then, to tweak this column’s title, thus: An adulterer, maybe; a plunderer, never.