Philippines democracy on trial

Historians looking back on the 20th century (which ends in 23 days) will likely see the impeachment trial of a president in the Philippines as the century's final act of bringing forth more democracy in the world.

The trial, and Philippine politics in general, may seem like a distant soap opera. President Joseph Estrada, a former B-movie star, faces corruption charges, and will use his Robin Hood appeal among the poor to try to avoid a conviction in the Senate.

But in the Far East, as in Latin America, Africa, and much of the world, such a peaceful and constitutional means of removing a leader is a rare and inspiring event.

The Philippines can be credited for setting an example for moves toward democracy in Asia by its 1986 ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. That "people power" revolution helped motivate activists in Taiwan and South Korea to demand full democracy. It inspired a pro-democracy revolt in Burma, and created a model for the ouster of long-time ruler Suharto in Indonesia two years ago.

Even this year's ouster of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia was almost a textbook version of what happened to Marcos 14 years ago.

Now the impeachment trial offers another helpful exercise in democracy for the world's poorer countries.

Among the wealthy elite in Manila, the temptation is to avoid a trial and just protest enough to force Mr. Estrada to resign. They worry that he might try to bribe his way out of trouble. He only needs eight votes from the 22 senators to block his ouster.

While protests worked against Marcos and his military force, such street pressure under a constitutional government would set a bad precedent for a country with a freshly restored democracy. With a long history of much flouting of the law in the Philippines, a proper impeachment will help build respect for the law.

This trial, which began yesterday, also highlights a disconnect between the elite, who have mostly run the country for decades, and the vast millions of the poor. Despite strong charges that he took millions in gambling payoffs and mismanaged the economy, Estrada remains popular among the poor (although barely) because of pro-poor campaign rhetoric.

Making sure the voices of the poor are heard at the trial can only strengthen democracy in the Philippines, and again set an example for other countries.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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