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House Aquino is straining in different political directions as it attempts to simultaneously confront the realities of the upcoming 2013 elections and the requirements of a reform government. Preserving unity in this situation is impossible and it is a probability that the post-2013 political landscape will be qualitatively different from the present.

Today, the Aquino-led ruling coalition stands virtually unchallenged with the once-mighty Lakas-Kampi  opposition reduced to a pitiful handful in both Congress and local government units. The main reason, of course, is the continued support of the people–still a 2-out-of-3 majority–for the Aquino administration.

However, the unsavory side of this strength is the wholesale turncoatism of almost the entire rank of the incumbents to the Aquino coalition. Most of them, I am sure, did it for pragmatic reasons–to maintain the flow of largesse from the seat of power to their own bailiwicks. However, along with the good ones, the bad politicians have also gone over to the incumbent president’s side.

These newcomers now make up the overwhelming majority of the president’s coalition, swamping both the Liberal Party original liberal-minded members and the reform-minded civil-society support base of the Aquino campaign.

O course, the reason behind this trend–started in the run-up to the May 10, 2010 elections and accelerating in the present preparatory period to the 2013 elections–is the imperatives of the 2016 presidential elections, including the building of a winning vote base for the presidential contenders.

Unfortunately, almost all the possible contenders are in the ruling coalition. A messy situation therefore arises, with two coalition senatorial slates and coalition members fighting each other in almost all local positions throughout the country.

One can argue that it is nothing new, that it has been that way for so long–dynasties fighting it out for local supremacy with nary a look at the absurdity of “friendly” parties fighting each other. Well, this is actually the wrong thing to happen to a reform administration. To get sidetracked from the reform path because of the political ambitions of some of the purported drivers of the reform bandwagon.

Within the LP “ruling” party, the newly-clothe LP turncoats are being groomed for candidacy in many local contests. Within the ruling coalition, the PDP-Laban-PMP UNA electoral coalition steadily draws away from the LP which has initiated its own electoral coalition with NP and NPC. By the day, the adherence to the reform “straight path” weakens.

Despite his popularity, Noynoy Aquino will end up endangering his own reform agenda and democratic legacy if he cannot rein in his own leaders and his new allies and fellow travellers. The prospect of a lameduck Aquino preesidency looms after the 2013 elections.

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It’s the season for State-of-the-Nation-Addresses or SONAs. Everyone worth his or her salt is writing, arguing, venturing one’s own take on the SONA. The important SONA, of course, is the SONA of President Aquino, which is the constitutionally required annual report to Congress on his government’s performance and plans.

All other SONAs are usually critical of the President’s SONA or reflective of specific concerns of the issuers. Rarely does one find an alternative SONA completely in accord with that of the sitting President.

So, what does one expect from next Monday’s official SONA. Certainly, it will contain glowing statistics and accomplishments, probably the top one on the achievements of the macro economy (growth rate, investment climate, credit ratings, etc) and on anti-corruption (filing of cases and arrests of big fishes, Corona impeachment reforms in procurement and other bureaucratic processes, etc.).

There will be claims of progress in anti-poverty work, but this would be muted as there is as yet  no discernible–more so, dramatic–achievement to crow about. Asset reforms are a bit more problematic, with land reform in the doldrums, entire communities still losing their forests, fishing grounds, and prime agricultural lands, and even their very environment (clean water, clear air, and open spaces) to powerful and greedy carpetbaggers, and entire industries continuing to be monopolized by a few billionaires.

The record so far of the Aquino government centers on making the entire economy work, establishing a corruption-resistant government. However, the impression on the ground, except maybe for the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT), the beneficiaries had been the wealthy elite, and not the vast majority that is the poor.

However, since the Aquino government has only completed one-third of its shelf-life, the poor are still giving it the chance to make good on the inaugural promise of “delivering the benefits of democracy to the people.” At this point in our history, “the people” is almost synonymous with “the poor.” Only an agenda for the poor is relevant in the coming SONA.

My apologies to my readers for the long delay in updating this blog. I had to pay more attention to my work which entailed more paper work than I’d like. On the other hand, I’d like to introduce you to my other, new, blog titled Parallaxis with Yahoo! Philippines at http://ph.news.yahoo.com/blogs/parallaxis/. You can also follow me there. I will still be maintaining this blog as is.

Washington nuances

The nuances of the working visit of President Benigno S. Aquino III to Washington DC showed the intents on both sides more clearly than in the public statements on both sides. Some of them can be gleaned from the statements themselves while others are in the hosting itself.

Both President Aquino and President Obama affirmed the historic ties. President Aquino said that “Ours is a shared history, shared values, and that’s why America is just one of two that we have strategic partnerships with. Today’s meeting has really even deepened and strengthened a very long relationship we have, especially as we face the challenges that are before both our countries in the current situation.” 

President Obama, on his part, remarked that “[H]ow important the U.S.-Philippine relationship was, the historic ties, the 60 years of a mutual defense treaty, the extraordinary links between Filipino-Americans that have brought our two countries so closely together. And we pledged to work on a whole host of issues that would continue to strengthen and deepen the relationship for the 21st century.”

However, President Obama kicked off his remarks with economic issues, citing the Millennium Challenge Grant and the Open Government Partnership as their contributions to developing trade and commerce as well as to the anti-corruption campaign in the Philippines. President Aquino, on the other hand, touched only the strategic and historic ties.

In the official government statement later, Secretary Ramon Carandang would later stressed the “U.S. Government’s strong support for Philippine efforts to build a minimum credible defense posture…” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only committed that “the United States will support the construction, outfitting, and training of a new National Coast Watch Center in the Philippines.”

Both are more in tune with regards to regional issues. According to Secretary Clinton, “[W]e do … have a clear interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.”

The visit did not answer the old question of the Mutual Defense Treaty, that is: Will the United States automatically come to our aid if we are attacked by any foreign power? It did not also provide an answer to the newer question, that is: Will the US help us if our vessels and aircraft are attacked in disputed territories of the West Philippine Sea?

The message is clear: The United States will still follow its own national interests in the Southeast Asia region and will only act with or in support of the Philippines if these are consistent with its own interests. Granted, there is a wide latitude of common interests at the moment, particularly in the areas of “the maintenance of peace and stability, freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.”

A working visit is one rank below a formal state visit. It can be construed as one befitting a strategic ally–for the moment. It is definitely not in the same league as the state visits of real strategic allies such as Britain, Japan, Australia or even Israel. The Philippines still does not qualify.

[This opinion-article was published in the GMA News Online on June 3, 2012]

The Senate, acting as an impeachment tribunal, voted 20-3 in favor of the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato C. Corona. It was a comfortable margin over the super-majority vote of 16 required for conviction. Politically, the outcome solidified the standing of President Aquino and his administration, both among the political elite and among the people themselves.

There was the view at the start and the middle of the impeachment process that the voting would be a close race, or even a bit in favor of CJ Corona. This was glaringly evident in the important 13-10 vote in favor of recognizing and following the Supreme Court’s Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on the opening of CJ Corona’s dollar accounts.

The main political reasons given then were 1) the relative independence of the Senate vis-à-vis the President; 2) the presidential contest of 2016 will divide the ruling coalition this early and affect the impeachment vote; and 3) the efforts of the camp of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to influence the impeachment vote.

The latter was most effective in playing up the possible scenario of the ouster of CJ Corona leading to the favorable ruling for Mar Roxas in his protest against Vice-President Jojo Binay.

Insofar as these factors are operative throughout the proceedings, they constituted a continuing pressure for acquittal. However, there were countervailing factors which—in the end—proved stronger and more compelling towards a verdict of conviction.

First, there is the factor of evidence. The evidence for Article 2 showed that CJ Corona admitted owning properties, bank accounts and other assets amounting to hundreds of millions of pesos, and that he admitted he wilfully did not enter these in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).

The prosecutor made the case that there is a substantive betrayal of public trust sufficient to remove him as a Chief Justice and justice of the Supreme Court. In addition, it stressed that CJ Corona lied and acted well below the standards set for members of the judiciary, much more as justice and chief justice of the Supreme Court. The body of evidence made it easier for the senator-judges to support a judgment of conviction and made it harder for those who want to vote for acquittal.

It is also contributory that CJ Corona himself admitted both the facts of his huge dollar and peso deposits and that he reportedly insisted on getting Ombudsman and former associate justice Conchita Carpio-Morales as a “hostile” witness. Without the benefit of advice from his legal team,he also reportedly wrote and delivered his disastrous opening statement, and reportedly staged his own surprise walkout.

He thus dug his own impeachment grave. Even the last-minute concession of an unconditional waiver for a look into his bank accounts and the seeming reconciliation of his wife’s family and clan were not enough to turn the tide.

Second, the strong public opinion against CJ Corona—as manifested in the March SWS survey of 73% who judged him guilty—provided an incentive to senators who have a political stake in the 2013 elections to vote against him.

Third, the impeachment was initiated and publicly supported by a very popular president Aquino and the ruling Liberal Party, with the acquiescence from most of the ruling coalition in the House of Representatives. This provided the necessary political and logistical framework to the impeachment campaign.

At the end, only three senator-judges (Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., Senator Joker Arroyo, and Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago) voted for acquittal. They all based themselves on the legal interpretation of the Constitution and pertinent laws provided by the defense and on their own opinion that the quantum of evidence did not support the verdict of impeachment. They would even accept the defense accusation of a persecution of CJ Corona by the Aquino administration.

As such, their position basically is a political position. While Senators Arroyo and Defensor-Santiago are at the end of their respective political careers, Senator Marcos runs the risk of a backlash in his own young political career.

The vote for impeachment, though a touch-and-go affair for a major part of the process, rapidly solidified into a decisive one after the CJ Corona walkout. He never recovered after.

Guilty!

The Senate of the Philippines, acting as an impeachment tribunal, found Chief Justice Renato Corona guilty, by a vote of 20-3, of committing “culpable violations of the Constitution and/or betrayed the public trust when he failed to disclose to the public his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth as required under Section 17, Article XI of the 1987 Constitution.” It therefore accepted Article 2 of the Articles of Impeachment as valid.

We thus ended a historic full impeachment process and an impeachable official of the Republic was removed from his post. Only the official ceremonies remain.

The Corona impeachment is a big boost to the Aquino administration’s campaign against grand corruption and for transparency and accountability in government.

First, all of us, including particularly the government officials, realized the power of the SALN–they cannot anymore hide their wealth from the people. It also brightens the prospect of passing the Freedom of Information bill.

Second, the prospect is clear for cleaning up the judiciary of decades-old problems of corruption, influence-peddling, and syndicated justice . This, in itself, will be a lasting achievement of the Aquino administration.

Third, the road is now more open to pursuance of the cases against the key officials and cronies of the previous Macapagal-Arroyo administration. The impeachment will have a chilling effect on those who are guilty of various crimes in the past administration.

Fourth, the voters are now given a clear criteria of “truthful declaration of SALN” for voting into office people of integrity and an effective instrument for accountability of all public officials.

The total effect of the Corona impeachment is a solid vote of the people and their representatives for democratic good governance. The wheels for a stronger Philippine democracy is now turning more rapidly.

The closing arguments of both the prosecution and the defense in the case of People of the Philippines vs. Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato C. Corona shows the diverging strategies both pursued. As expected, scant attention was spent on Articles 3 and 7 and the arguments revolved around Article 2. Which of these strategies will the senator-judges base their votes?

The prosecution evidently went for the jugular. Saying that the evidence for Article 2 showed that CJ Corona admitted owning properties, bank accounts and other assets amounting to hundreds of millions of pesos, and that he also admitted that he willfully did not enter these in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN). Therefore, there is a substantive betrayal of public trust sufficient to remove him as a Chief Justice and justice of the Supreme Court.

In addition, it stressed CJ Corona lied and acted well below the standards set for members of the judiciary, much more as justice and chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The defense, in turn, did not dispute the facts but provided legal and presumably “good faith” reasons for CJ Corona to have such huge assets and to fail to include these in his SALN. They invoke their own (and CJ Corona’s) interpretation of the law. First, CJ Corona did not enter his money in dollar accounts in his SALN because the Foreign Currency Deposit Law has an “absolute” ban on disclosure of dollar accounts and that his PhP80 million in peso accounts are “commingled” or mixed with money from his relatives. All these, the defense and CJ Corona say, were decided by the latter “in good faith” as he understands the law (in case of dollar accounts) or did not understand the accounting rules (in case of peso accounts).

The main problem of the defense is the incredibility of the given reasons–they only appeared as excuses, or as Cong. Fariñas pointed out, only “palusot”. The FCDU law only prohibits the banks and third parties, not the depositor himself, from disclosing the content of the dollar account. The commingling of funds is normally reported in any financial statement–as statement of assets and liabilities–and CJ Corona cannot be excused because he once was reportedly the head of the legal team of Sycip, Gorres and Velayo, the number one accounting firm in the country.

At the conclusion of the session, Senate President Enrile intriguingly posited a question on the meaning of “culpa” as in the phrase “culpable violation of the Constitution.” Here, he insinuates that there may exist a basis not only for the charge of betrayal of public trust but also for culpable violation of the Constitution.

CJ Corona, I think, failed to convince the Senate Impeachment Court and the public. Tomorrow’s vote is certainly interesting.