Respecting democratic institutions

MANILA, Philippines — The much talked-about “An Inconvenient truth” reminds me of the visit here on Feb. 9 last year of former US Vice President Al Gore. Upon the invitation of Ambassador Alfonso T. Yuchengco, the American leader delivered a riveting lecture cum PowerPoint, explaining the ill effects of global warming.

However, what equally impressed me was our private conversation regarding his electoral battle with George W. Bush during the 2000 US elections, characterized as the “closest” in American history.

Florida cliff-hanger. Recall that the electoral votes in the 49 US states, except Florida, showed Gore slightly ahead. Florida voters indicated their choice of candidates through “ballots designed to be perforated by a stylus but which either through error or deliberate omission, had not been perforated for a machine to count them. In some cases, a piece of the card’a chad”(was) hanging by two corners. In other cases, there was no separation at all, just an indentation on the card.” For this reason, the automated machine did not count them.

The issue was whether those imperfectly-punched ballot cards (that the machine was not programmed to read) should be manually counted. If they were, Gore’s victory would have been sealed. If not, Bush would win.

To Gore’s jubilation, the Florida Supreme Court decreed a manual recount. But on Dec. 12, 2000, the US Supreme Court, by a slim 5-4 vote, reversed the verdict, holding that the “use of standard-less manual recounts violated the equal protection clause.”

Aside from assailing the decision’s weak legal moorings, critics blamed partisanship in the US Court. They claimed that the five majority votes were cast by Republican appointees. Bush was the candidate of the Republican Party. They also pointed out that Florida’s Comelec was headed by a cabinet member of Bush’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and not by an independent constitutional officer.

Gore’s patriotism. Despite these widespread howlings, Gore accepted the verdict of the US high court and conceded victory to Bush. So, I asked him: “Why did you not pursue your remedies in the public fora, in media and in the streets of America. After all, you won the popular vote.”

Gore’s reply was quick: “There is something greater than me. The survival of our democratic institutions is more important than my personal victory. The Supreme Court had spoken. Though I disagreed with its decision, I had a duty to respect and obey it.

“If I had protracted the battle to America’s streets and parks, there would have been chaos and political upheaval. The manual recount would have taken many months. Meantime, no one would have been sworn in as President that ensuing January. Can you imagine a leaderless United States?” he asked rhetorically.

Gore was tall and husky. But in my esteem, he immediately rose 10 feet taller. I believe history will always cherish his selflessness and patriotism. He may not have become President, but he will be remembered better than many who had sported that title.

If this electoral aberration had taken place in the Philippines, I am wondering what would have happened. Would the loser have demonstrated the same healthy respect for democratic institutions? Or would he/she have led an armed revolution?

Note, however, that unlike the 1986 Philippine election that triggered Edsa I (commemorated anemically this week), there was no allegation of massive cheating during the Bush-Gore face-off. The only issue was whether the imperfectly-perforated ballots should be manually counted.

Filipino excuses for failures. When Filipino politicians fail to deliver on their promises, they fault our democratic systems and institutions, instead of themselves. Some want to junk the system of checks and balances allegedly because it causes gridlocks and delays; thus, they justify their inability to deliver basic services to our people.

But wasn’t the system instituted precisely to stop railroading and abuses? Wasn’t it created to avoid the concentration of power in one official and to prevent absolute power from absolutely corrupting?

Our governmental setup is not perfect, and our Constitution can stand some improvements, but we should not undermine our basic institutions just because our leaders have failed to produce the desired results.

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