WHEN "PEOPLE POWER" brought down Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos nearly 20 years ago, it was a cause for celebration. But when a second "People Power" revolt in 2001 stripped power from Joseph Estrada, the country's democratically elected president, the celebrated method lost its luster. The Philippine Congress could have used its constitutional authority to impeach and convict Mr. Estrada for corruption. Instead a slim majority in the Senate scuttled the trial. Concluding that the government would not hold the president accountable for his actions, the people, regrettably, decided to take matters into their own hands. Now another difficult political situation is looming.
Mr. Estrada's successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, has been accused of trying to influence election officials to inflate her totals in last May's presidential race -- even though it is widely believed that she would have won anyway. Her cause was not helped when a former presidential staff member testified in a legislative hearing this month that election officials were each handed envelopes of cash after a dinner with Ms. Arroyo. (She denies such a meeting took place.) The president's interests also were not advanced when several members of her cabinet resigned over the allegations and a top election official has reportedly fled the country.
The evidence against Ms. Arroyo is not overwhelming, but a fair and open legislative inquiry would help clear the air. The good news is that there doesn't seem to be any momentum for another uprising; indeed, polls suggest most Filipinos want to see the matter resolved through the democratic process. The military and the country's Catholic church -- which played huge roles in past uprisings -- have remained neutral. We hope that this time around the system will work as it is intended.
Unfortunately, Ms. Arroyo has come up with a radical distraction: She wants to move from a presidential system to a parliamentary form of government. Part of her rationale seems to be that a no-confidence vote -- the traditional method of non-election-year leadership change in a parliamentary system -- would be less dangerous to her interests than impeachment, the divisive way leaders are unseated in a presidential system. Her ploy will not eliminate her most critical problem, however. A large majority of Filipinos, according to the polls, want Ms. Arroyo either to resign or be impeached. Changing the basic framework of government will not overcome her apparent unpopularity. Nor will it help win the confidence of the foreign investors desperately needed to boost the country's ailing economy.
If political reform is what Ms. Arroyo is after, she should focus on the electoral process that has undercut voter confidence. Tracking campaign contributions, moving from manual vote counting to an automated system, strengthening enforcement of election laws and increasing voter education ought to be top priorities. They are key steps toward instilling political accountability in the system. Popular uprisings rarely curb corruption and only weaken democratic institutions already in place. Presidential stonewalling doesn't help either. Real people power in the Philippines? Make the democratic system work as it should.