It’s all over. President Benigno S. Aquino III has won the Palace-Faura War.
Following Chief Justice Renato Corona’s overwhelming conviction by twenty out of twenty-three senators in his impeachment trial, and amid talks of a move by Corona’s camp to appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile made the sternest warning yet: “I will say this very frankly and I hope they understand. If they will question the jurisdiction of the impeachment court and reverse our decision, we will defy them. If they want a constitutional crisis in this country, they will have one.”
In the Supreme Court, meanwhile, the ousted Chief Justice’s declared nemesis, senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, immediately took over as acting magistrate. Supported by the majority of the high court’s justices, Justice Carpio’s first act was a political statement: An order to all members of the country’s secretive Judiciary to release their heretofore unavailable Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN). To me, that was a signal that the Supreme Court is distancing itself from its disgraced former chief, as well as an attempt to protect the Judiciary’s integrity that suffered a serious blow from the ousted Chief Justice’s infractions.
Ousted Chief Justice Corona has not been above plunging the country into a constitutional crisis to keep his post, but this time around he has no other choice. It’s a checkmate. The battle has been lost.
For President Aquino, it’s been a victory of sorts. He’s spared of the prospect of spending the remainder of his term as a lame duck, and he has succeeded in removing a major booby-trap designed by the unlamented Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to weaken his presidency (See Manuel L. Quezon III’s “A Diminished Presidency“). But I wouldn’t call it a total victory for Malacanang.
I have long maintained that the impeachment project was merely a dangerous bluff intended to push Corona into resigning. Corona called the bluff, resulting in a long, protracted battle that gave the President’s enemies an ammunition to attack his moral standing. The President was accused of trying to co-opt the Judicary’s independence and consolidate power, and only to save his Coujangco clan from bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the Prosecution’s case was so weak it had to be saved by the Defense’s extra-ordinary bungles.
It’s tempting to say that the President had to rely on luck in winning this battle, but that would be dismissive of the behind-the-scenes horsetrading that the President’s political operators had to undertake to win over several senators. In the midst of an unpredictable Fortuna, the President employed a bit of Virtu as well.
But that’s the point: The President had to spend too much political capital to gain the needed votes to convict Corona, and you just have to wonder if the President has enough of his capital left to implement reforms that may not be to the liking of several members of Congress.
Perhaps it’s the powerful Iglesia ni Cristo, not Malacanang, that scored a real victory from this impeachment project. Previously ignored by the Aquino administration, the influential religious group flexed some muscles to support the impeached Chief Justice. As a result, Malacanang had to take the Iglesia seriously.
To me, the Iglesia had not really intended to support Corona per se, but merely to use him in order to gain some leverage over the President. It has succeeded.
But, in a sense, the Philippines as a whole may have scored a victory, too.
The impeachment drama tested the Philippines’ democratic institutions. It exposed the extent of the powers of the Judiciary, just as Arroyo’s illegitimate term exposed the extent of the powers of the Executive. It opened a debate on the nature of impeachments as a tool to check the Padre Faura gods, and of the extent of the Supreme Court’s constitutional duty of exercising judicial review. It made the country aware of the awesome powers of the Ombudsman, which, if used properly, can effectively and significantly minimize corruption in government. Finally, it made the country aware of the glaring loopholes in its laws concerning transparency and accountability of public servants.
The fact that the impeachment process had reached its conclusion is in itself a milestone in the evolution of Philippine democracy. But whether or not this evolution would lead to political maturity would depend a lot on how the Philippines would apply the lessons it has learned from this impeachment process.
More on the Corona impeachment drama here.