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NOVEMBER 27, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 21

You Can't Impeach Everyone
Asian politicians should let their (flawed) elected leaders complete their terms

It's Hitting the Fan Now

The impeachment of President Joseph Estrada threatens to take the lid off the region's most volatile democracy

While the world's eyes are focused on the deficiencies of the U.S. electoral system, bigger constitutional problems are confronting a few of Asia's fledgling democracies. Impeachment proceedings now loom over elected leaders in Taiwan, Indonesia and, of course, the Philippines, even though all three men have several years remaining in their terms of office.

COVER: There's No Turning Back
Two weeks later, the world still awaits a definitive result. The mood in Florida is getting ever more rancorous and ugly, but neither candidate can afford to give up now

THE PHILIPPINES: It's Hitting the Fan Now
The impeachment of President Joseph Estrada threatens to take the lid off the region's most volatile democracy
Viewpoint: Let Asia's elected leaders finish their terms

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It is somewhat tempting to view these as examples of Asians following America's lead. In the U.S., political partisanship tried to convert personal behavior into a "high crime," and Congress wound up with an ultimately unsuccessful impeachment trial against Bill Clinton. But there is more to what's happening than simply copycat behavior. Each of the Asian political crises involves uncertainty over the proper distribution of power between the president and the legislature. In each instance, there are signs that those who lost power in the previous election are trying to use extraordinary means to return to office. It's a recipe for continuing political instability.

The situation in the Philippines is especially worrisome, since the political system had seemed stable, delivering two smooth transfers of power after the departure of former strongman Ferdinand Marcos. The allegation that current President Joseph Estrada received a cut from illegal gambling operations appears serious. But could it be a pretext for the anti-Estrada forces to unseat him? As Filipino columnist Joel Rocamora wrote before the scandal broke: "ExposEs of corruption form a vital part of our system of political competition ... but nothing systematic is ever done about corruption because the 'outs' do not wish to poison the well for the time they manage to become the 'ins.'"

No one went to jail for the pillage committed during the Marcos era. Indeed, several major beneficiaries of the corrupt dealings that took place then are now in the legislature presuming to judge Estrada. Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ran for the vice presidential slot in 1998 alongside presidential candidate Jose de Venecia, a Marcos crony who mastered the politics of pork. Estrada is being accused by an opportunistic regional boss who typifies the worst class of Filipino politician. Adding to the charges against the President is a chorus of criticism from sectional forces that want him out: the Makati business community believes (rightly) that his administration is incompetent; the church, which under Jaime Cardinal Sin has always lusted for political influence, resents Estrada's overt contempt for its views on sex and gambling; the left is disillusioned by the emptiness of the President's pro-poor rhetoric; Arroyo, backed in part by opposition figures from the Fidel Ramos era, simply wants power.

Whatever the facts in the case, the political Elite know perfectly well that large sums of cash routinely change hands. Much of the money derives from fringe businesses like gambling that oil the wheels of the political system and will help determine the outcome now. Filipinos may have made a poor choice in 1998—though it is now forgotten how mediocre the alternatives to Estrada were—but the essence of democracy is to accept the result for the allotted term, not to try to reverse it by using one arm of the system to destroy the other.

The same applies in Taiwan, where President Chen Shui-bian is accused of nothing more serious than canceling a nuclear-power project (though he handled the affair poorly). Taiwan's fledgling democratic constitution attempts to balance the legislative and executive branches. But it cannot work if a legislature dominated by the opposition seeks to make the presidency untenable, by pretending the directly elected leader has acted unconstitutionally and must be removed. The Kuomintang, which had been in power for so long, now seems reluctant to accept the electoral consequences of the national split.

Indonesia's situation is slightly different. For one thing, the President is elected indirectly—by the MPR, the largely elected people's consultative assembly. The MPR thus also has the right to remove him, but it is surely the constitution's intent that the President fulfill a five-year term. Effective governing is impossible if the President, who constitutionally is meant to have strong executive powers, is subjected to constant impeachment threats by an MPR that consists mainly of legislators. Whatever President Abdurrahman Wahid's failings, the push to unseat him on flimsy grounds mainly serves the interests of those who want to lay the groundwork for a return to Suharto-style autocracy.

It may be that Asian democracies with strong, elected presidencies would do better to shift to parliamentary systems like those found in the monarchies of Thailand, Japan and Malaysia, or in Western countries such as Germany, where the President is a ceremonial figurehead. Incompetent prime ministers can more easily be removed. But this is a separate question, and not one to address at a time of constitutional crisis. For now, Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines need to make their constitutions work as intended, not to use dubiously motivated impeachment threats to bypass the system and thwart the popular will.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong columnist and consultant

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