Public officers are accountable because no one has a right to public office. It is public trust—so goes the well-worn phrase, but there are two things captured here: trust in the sense of reliance, and trust in the legal sense—something held by one for the benefit of another or of others. Because public office is a trust in both senses, he upon whom it is bestowed must be held to account for the use of its powers and the exercise of its prerogatives. The Divine Right theory of kings was precisely absolutist because it held crowned heads accountable to none but to God alone! And so there is good reason to assert that accountability to the people is de essentia in regard to a democracy.
That is just the problem with our democracy in the Philippines. The mechanism of accountability, precisely for the highest officials of the land who wield the most power and are in the likeliest position to be whimsical and oppressive, is unwieldy. Impeachment is almost always doomed to fail when the members of Congress wear the colors of the incumbent Chief Executive. On the other hand, for just that same reason, the process of impeachment can also be used against the enemies of the president. The disgust of the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago and the late Senator Joker Arroyo at the conviction of Chief Justice Renato Corona are the most credible condemnatory statements against the abuse of the impeachment process.
When the government is parliamentary, accountability is swift. The Prime Minister and the government face the opposition in Parliament and must answer grueling, embarrassing and relentless questioning—with a good deal of heckling to complete the recipe of parliamentary democracy. A serious lapse in judgment by a senior minister may invite the reproof not only of those across the aisle but even of members of the governing party. And when a Prime Minister obstinately stands by a beleaguered minister, the whole government faces the threat of collapse, usually through a no-confidence vote.
But the most effective source of accountability is popular outcry and an unyielding demand for explanations. This is the reason that the master-strategist of an administration will endeavor to build a considerable reserve of popular support and goodwill. The Aquino administration rode on the crest of sympathy for Cory who had then just passed away, and it continued to keep the public spell-bound for some time with its populist maneuvers—the prohibition of “wangwangs” and catchy lines like “Walang mahirap kung walang corrupt.” But all this soon lost its luster and people grew tired of an oligarchy that pretended so hard to be “makamasa.”
President Rodrigo Duterte has followed a similar track. He cornered a very convincing majority of the nation with “mass appeal” and his tough stance against criminals—who can become the collective embodiment of everything that Filipinos fear, especially in themselves! And so the demand for accountability is not heard much, and when it is, those who courageously raise it are soon pelted and pilloried. Some will persist. Most will prefer the more sedate life offered by silence.
But if there is anything that the past administrations have made clear, it is that accountability cannot forever be waylaid, and there is comeuppance. Erap was booted out of office and then convicted. GMA spent plenty of time—unjustly to my mind—in detention, only to be subsequently acquitted. PNoy is fending off, almost with pathetic futility, demands that he hang for PDAF and DAP. Were I president—which I never will be —I would allow the processes of accountability to run their course. No matter that Rody Farinas valiantly stood by President Digong and made short shrift of Alejano’s impeachment complaint on some frankly untenable legal theory, it will do well for the President to ask why such an attempt at unseating him was even made. And even if Jude Sabio’s letter may go no farther than the drawer of the ICC’s Prosecutor, it will also help to ask what the allegations are and how one may correct either the reality or the perception—for both are equally important. In any case, the futility of demands for accountability is never an argument against accountability. If anything at all, it only highlights its necessity and its indispensability!