There were two very newsworthy events in Manila yesterday morning: the historic ascension of the new Archbishop that many observers– this blog among the first of them– believe could be pope someday, and the turn-over ceremonies between the outgoing and incoming chiefs of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Both events were milestones in their own right: the former signifying the generational changing of guards in the local Catholic church and the latter marking, to a lesser degree, a possible new era in the military, one which would perhaps put an end to the revolving door policy that has contributed to the politicization of the AFP leadership.
But by sunset, these two important milestones had been eclipsed by a breathtaking afternoon drama that took many– but not the serious political observers– by surprise. With incredible speed, the House of Representatives, packed with President Benigno S. Aquino III’s minions, has impeached the country’s Chief Justice, Renato Corona. It’s no longer just a cold war between the Executive and the Judiciary; it’s total war. The President’s army of congressmen has launched a blitzkrieg against the Chief Justice.
Indeed, blitzkrieg it was. The impeachment complaint was filed by several congressmen at quarter to four in the afternoon, and by five o’clock more than 180 congressmen have affixed their signatures, taking the complaint directly to plenary and ready to be submitted to the Senate. All the opposition could do was deplore the impeachment for being ‘railroaded.’ An exasperated Edcel Lagman, the minority leader, cried blackmail, saying Malacanang held the lawmakers hostage through the threat of withholding pork barrel. But he had to ultimately concede defeat, calling instead for the senators to be fair in conducting the trial.
The complaint included allegations of corruption, but it is obvious that the primary motivation is betrayal of public trust. The basis? The Chief Justice has voted favorably for Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo nineteen times in a row, which means that he decides not on the basis of law but on the basis of personal loyalty.
It should be recalled that the very appointment of Chief Justice Corona is in itself extremely questionable. Arroyo made him Chief Justice one week after her predecessor’s election, despite the fact that the Constitution and propriety prohibit any presidential appointment, except for temporary executive positions, sixty days before an election. The appointment was justified through a comical, if not tragic, oversimplification of constitutional clause. It was widely perceived then that Arroyo had appointed Corona, her long-term chief of staff, spokesman and one-time Executive Secretary, as a means to shield herself from post-presidential prosecution. Indeed, under Corona, the Supreme Court has protected Arroyo through important decisions ranging from the junking of the Truth Commission that was supposed to do the reckoning of her nine-year lamentable regime to the controversial order that, had she not been issued an arrest warrant, would have allowed her to flee the country.
The Chief Justice’s apologists point out that this is misleading, as he did not cast the deciding vote in many of these decisions; but while to some the basis of the impeachment complaint might look flimsy at face value, it is clear to the general public that the Chief Justice has become an obstruction to the popular government’s goal of putting a proper closure to the corruption and kleptocracy of the Arroyo regime. Besides, the congressmen did not cast their vote based on the substance of the complaint; rather, as in all impeachment cases, they voted on it mainly on the basis of partisan considerations. Fortunately for the President, his power to dispense pork barrel, coupled with his enormous political capital, makes it very easy for him to impeach just about any impeachable official.
The question now is, will the President be able to make the Senate toe the line as much as he can make the House dance to his whim? The answer is no. The Senate is traditionally independent and has been a genuine check against the Executive, especially at many critical instances in the country’s history. It is true that the President’s allies comprise the majority there, but they are relatively independent compared with their peers in the lower house. Further, convicting the Chief Justice requires not just a simple but a two-thirds majority; and it would be unlikely for the likes of Senate veteran Joker Arroyo or independent-minded Miriam Defensor-Santiago, or even the maverick Aquino ally Sergio Osmena III, to simply dance to the President’s tune.
This does not mean, however, that they would not dance to the tune of public opinion. I’m sure the senators, many of them up for re-election in 2013, know that not only is President Aquino popular, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is extremely hated as well. As an American expert on Third World affairs once told me, in his forty years of travelling through and studying the Third World, he has never seen a leader as universally reviled as Arroyo– at least Marcos had his solid north. As Manny Villar had learned at great cost last year, being seen as favoring Arroyo, or indeed even being soft with her, could be a deadly bane in an election. And this is what should worry the Chief Justice.
The truth is that, rightly or wrongly, the Filipino public has already pre-judged him as being an Arroyo loyalist first and a Supreme Court magistrate second. For this reason, the Chief Justice should consider resignation as a very serious option.
For sooner or later the senators of the Republic, politicians as they are, would have to yield to the lynch mob.