The Palace-Faura War and its three fronts

What a spectacle it was. In front of hundreds of court employees who skipped work to cheer him, the embattled Chief Justice Renato Corona, who had earlier been impeached by the House of Representatives, declared war against President Benigno S. Aquino III. And into this war he has dragged the Supreme Court itself, along with practically the entire Judiciary and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines. Rallying behind him are judges and lawyers, loyalists of the previous administration, the Daily Tribune— yes, that paper still exists– and Senator Joker Arroyo.

It is now apparent that the Chief Justice is willing to compromise the Judiciary’s ability to maintain the fiction of its cold neutrality, from which its moral authority as the prime arbiter of law emanates, in order to protect his position. For the President and his allies, this means that they should now prepare for a protracted total war, one that would be fought in three different fronts.

The first front of this war, unfortunately for the President, would be the Supreme Court itself. There still are pending issues involving Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, including questions regarding the constitutionality of the joint DOJ-Comelec panel that indicted her and thus the validity of her arrest. The Chief Justice and his group of perceived pro-Arroyo justices retains the majority in the Court. Of course, with impeachment hanging over their head like the swords of Damocles, it remains to be seen if they could remain intact. But if they do, as they likely would, they would most likely wield decisions that could leave the President incensed but, in terms of gaining judicial remedies, practically powerless. I doubt impeaching all the pro-Arroyo justices, as Justice Secretary Leila de Lima has suggested, would be a good option to address this scenario, since such an exercise would be time-consuming and politically taxing, and could even dissuade the President’s allies.

The second front would obviously be the Senate, which would be conducting Corona’s trial. Securing a conviction there would be very challenging for the President’s political operators, considering that the administration coalition does not have the two-thirds majority required to convict the Chief Justice. Lawyer Harry Roque has a pretty impressive projection of how the senators would likely vote, identifying ten who would surely vote for impeachment and four who would vote against. Nine of the senators are wild cards, and it is them that the President’s handlers would have to convince.

Some of these nine senators, like the maverick Liberal Party stalwart Sergio Osmena III, who is known to be a man of his own as proven by his opposition to Domingo Lee’s appointment to be ambassador to China, and Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who owes her recent election to the International Criminal Court to the President but is nonetheless independent-minded, would probably vote based on the substance of the complaint; therefore, it would be up for the prosecution to convince them. But the others, like Manny Villar and his bloc, or even Loren Legarda and Edgardo Angara, would most likely require concessions in exchange for their votes, in a classic political game of quid pro quo. I speculated in my previous post that it would be easy for the President to win these senators over since he has the overwhelming support from the public, but I failed to realize that, as Manuel Buencamino has pointed out, these senators could actually abstain, which would allow them to save Corona without incurring public ire.

The President could only hope that the political capital needed in the intense horse-trading that would surely ensue in the Senate would only be minimal. But for that to happen, the President must sustain the overwhelming tide of public support for Corona’s ouster; which leads us now to the third arena of this war: the propaganda front.

It is true that the President has the public and the media behind him, but Corona is nonetheless determined to challenge him. This is the reason why Corona is now shedding his aloof, if not imperious, image by speaking in Tagalog instead of English, the language that he seemed to have been more comfortable in. He is trying to appeal directly to the public in an apparent attempt to win public opinion. He is now grabbing every opportunity, including that gathering of public attorneys earlier today that he initially said he won’t attend but did at the last minute, to step up his attacks against President Aquino. His photogenic spokesman Midas Marquez is also doing the same.  Indeed, it seems that Corona has become not just a magistrate but a politician.

Conversely, the President’s handlers are obviously not taking things sitting down. They have even unleashed the most popular and trusted public official today, Secretary de Lima, against Corona and her fellow pro-Arroyo justices; proving that they are taking the propaganda war seriously. As indeed they should, especially since Corona has an ace he can play in order to, at the very least, divide or weaken the President’s support base and, at most, totally debase it. I’m talking about the re-distribution of the Hacienda Luisita, of course.

Arroyo apologists in the media like Bobi Tiglao are already framing the President’s crusade against Corona as a presidential vendetta to avenge his family’s loss of its crown jewel. Their narrative is appealing. Not surprisingly, many well-minded supporters of the President, along with genuine champions of social justice, are already buying it. I personally believe that the President’s crusade against the Chief Justice has nothing to do with the Luisita issue. This is because, firstly, the President’s beef with the Corona predates the Court’s decision to dismantle the Hacienda and that, secondly, even Aquino appointees supported that unanimous decision. But until the President himself presses for a speedy re-distribution of the vast estate, doubts on his intentions would continue to linger.

Finally, it appears to me that a prolonged Palace-Faura war would in fact be beneficial to Arroyo. The intensity of the war could end up draining the administration’s political capital. The Judiciary, on the other hand, could end up utterly politicized. And while the two branches of governments destroy each other, Arroyo, protected by her justices, could just sit things out in her hospital suite until 2016, or until the exhausted public no longer cares.

The best way out of this grim scenario is for the President to be smart enough to effectively wield the vast powers of his office and win this war decisively and promptly. How he could possibly do that is anybody’s guess.

ELSEWHERE: Corona’s Counter-Attack on the Philippine Online Chronicles and Of Circuses and Sanity in the Philippines on the Huffington Post.

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