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A People-Power Precept

If Americans need one more lesson in how bad money can erode good democracy, they can take it from last week's "People Power II" revolt in the Philippines.

A popular movement against corruption led to the ouster of President Joseph Estrada on Saturday, four days after his Senate allies derailed his impeachment trial.

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Graft and greed in high places had become so pervasive during Mr. Estrada's three-year rule that even the military and Supreme Court joined the nonviolent effort in the final days to force his resignation.

In fact, their actions - buzzing helicopters and a dubious court order - severely strained the rule of law and the nation's Constitution. When the head of the military finally joined the crowds at a street rally hours before Estrada fled, a band fittingly played "Wooly Bully" (a 1960s song by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs).

Still, the lesson for Filipinos - as in many Asia nations in recent years - is that freedom means little if top officials accept money to influence their decisions. Estrada was accused of keeping multimillion-dollar bank accounts under false names.

Does this lesson from the Far East mean that Sen. John McCain should enlist the US Army and start a Filipino-style "constitutional coup" in his latest effort at campaign-finance reform?

No. American voters can, if they want to, still elect lawmakers or presidents committed to not accepting large amounts of campaign money from special interests. They also can observe due diligence in keeping better informed about who's giving how much to whom. But it's instructive to see how much Filipinos were willing to put their democracy at risk to remove officials who follow the money rather than the people's will.

Their strategy was simple: just slowly withdraw legitimacy from the ruler. Filipinos used the passive power of peaceful rallies and quiet pleas to potential allies (often through text-messaging on cellphones) to isolate the president. In the end, an abandoned Estrada had to slip out the back of the presidential palace.

Some of the same dynamic is at work in the US, though its effect is different. The Congress and presidents have felt a cold shoulder of indifference from American citizens because of a widespread knowledge that money mainly talks in Washington.

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That indifference causes many Americans to just not vote or to avoid elected representatives. Some resort to protests, court litigation, or occasionally violence, to get their way. Just look at how much the Internet is being used to rally public causes. People feel normal political channels are so tainted by money their voices can't be heard there.

The Philippines now realizes that it wasn't enough to oust one dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in the original "people power" revolt of 1986, without making sure its democracy had enough transparency and accountability to prevent corruption.

In taking over from Estrada, former vice president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has pledged to "change the character of our politics in order to create fertile ground for true reforms."

Her key word is "character." Without demanding a certain honesty and purity from elected officials that can curb the influence of money, a democracy is not really within the power of the people.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society