Now what?

Strategic Perspective
René B. Azurin

Posted on May 31, 2012

Very early on in the impeachment "trial" of Chief Justice Corona, I wrote that the actual proceedings hardly mattered, that it was already a foregone conclusion that Mr. Corona would be removed from office, that at least 16 senators would vote for his conviction, many in response to compelling "incentives" from President Aquino. That has come to pass: the President has achieved the desired ouster of an object of his intense personal anger. The question that should now occupy all of us is, now what?

To begin with, the President now gets to appoint a pro-Aquino Chief Justice. This -- combined with the implied threat to other justices of the Supreme Court that they too can be impeached if they oppose the President -- will turn a seemingly adversarial Supreme Court into a compliant one. Is this good for us, the long-suffering Filipino public?

Well, let’s see. If the now-friendly (to the President) high court manages, through some twisted piece of legal reasoning, to change its final and supposedly already executory ruling on the amount of "just compensation" for the Hacienda Luisita lands of the President’s family from the decided P40,000 per hectare to some much higher number, then this will definitely not be good for the Filipino taxpayer who will have to shell out billions of pesos more to make the wealthy Cojuangco family even wealthier. Obviously, it will be devastating for the over 6,000 agricultural workers at the huge sugar estate to be told that the piece of land that they have waited (a virtual eternity of) more than 40 years to get will now cost quite a bit more.

Next, the President will presumably be free to tackle the systemic corruption that plagues this country. Malacañang-emanating propaganda continually claimed that Mr. Aquino’s vituperative, single-minded campaign against Mr. Corona was just part of his so-called crusade against corruption. It cannot be helped that the more trusting of our countrymen believe this drivel. It is useless to argue -- as I’ve done in previous columns -- that a serious campaign to eradicate corruption cannot be directly solely at the removal of a corrupt Chief Justice whose scope for corruption is essentially limited to selling his single vote (one out of 15) to petitioners in cases that happen to reach the Supreme Court.

Since the presidential complaint -- adopted by the President’s minions in the House of Representatives -- charges Mr. Corona with the crime of not disclosing all his assets in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth, why was this same charge not leveled first against the numerous congressmen in the House and the Senate whose scope for corruption is so very much wider and who have become so obviously wealthy while serving as low-salaried public servants? And, if this is all part of an honest campaign against corruption, why has there been no presidential move to immediately remove from the national budget any allocation for the corruption-ridden pork barrel funds? This could have been done with a stroke of the presidential pen.

I’ve responded to readers of my previous pieces by saying that I thought Mr. Corona did not deserve to be Chief Justice and, in a campaign against corruption, ought to be removed. I’ve also posed the question, however, that -- given the scale and scope of corruption in this country -- was he the legitimate first target of a so-called presidential initiative against corruption?

One reader reacted, writing, "Siguro, Noynoy is just doing it one at a time. Hindi pwedeng shotgun approach dito. Let us be patient." I considered it pointless to respond that his comment implied that the President was spending all his time in Malacañang watching every minute of the impeachment trial and thus could not be bothered with any other matters. He (supposedly) wants to eradicate corruption and his main (and only) salvo is against the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? I have problems with that kind of analysis.

Anyway, continuing, now that the President’s ouster of the Chief Justice is a done deal, what happens next? Will the President -- and presumably the AMLC-wielding Ombudsman -- now go hammer and tongs at senators and representatives whose SALNs show bewilderingly large and rapid increases in net worth? At senators whose wives smuggle out large amounts of US dollars and are caught at American ports of entry trying to bring these in? At representatives who’ve acquired spanking new mansions in exclusive enclaves?

Will the President now scrap the pork barrel?

We can all hope, as Senator Alan Peter Cayetano put it in his guilty-pronouncing speech, that the eventual consequence of this impeachment exercise will be "far-reaching and precedent-setting" and that it will actually create "a new paradigm of transparency and accountability in public office." This is something immensely worthwhile to hope for, but -- since we (as a people) have an irritating penchant to forget, forgive, and tolerate -- I am personally not very hopeful.

In any event, even as we hope for outcomes that will benefit the Filipino people and the Filipino nation as a whole, let us bear in mind that at least one outcome of the Corona ouster is imbued with danger. Through the verdict, the President has demonstrated that he is effectively in control of all supposedly separate, supposedly independent branches of government: the Executive certainly, but now also the Congress and the Judiciary as well. No one henceforth will dare challenge him or go against his wishes.

This has to give all of us pause. Senator Joker Arroyo, in his not-guilty-pronouncing speech, issued a warning that the entire impeachment circus produced no more than "a legislative act of convicting an accused… through a vote instead of a trial on the basis of accusations taken as proof." Recalling how he was "privileged" to have taken part in the restoration of the Constitution and the rule of law during the administration of former president Cory Aquino (ironically, the present President’s mother), Senator Arroyo passionately declared, "This is not justice, political or legal. This is certainly not law. For sure, it is not the law of the Constitution; it is only naked power, as it was in 1972… I have not thought that I would see it again so brazenly performed…." Strong words those.

Unfortunately, until they themselves are personally affected or hurt, the "chattering classes" in this country don’t listen, or maybe really just don’t care.