Aquino’s soft coup
In pushing the House of Representative to impeach Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, President Aquino deployed all weapons in the arsenal of the presidency to attack Corona as head of the third independent pillar of the Philippine Constitutional system, except to call in the army to raid the Court and arrest Corona and the offending justices his administration has identified as appointees of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Such a final solution to the conflict between the presidency and the Court, their most serious clash since the founding of the post-war Republic, would have required the proclamation of a national emergency and the imposition of martial law, like Ferdinand Marcos did it in 1972.
Mr. Aquino averted such a drastic solution, apparently because it was uncertain that the army would carry out such a risky political adventure without adequate preparation to ensure success. It took more than a year for Marcos to prepare the ground for martial law after the August 1971 Plaza Miranda bombing.
It appears that Mr. Aquino, who is not famous for doing meticulous homework, decided to take the easier option of staging a soft coup on the Corona Court. It was less messy than a coup involving the army and the police. Besides, there was the risk that the army might turn its guns towards Malacañang and stage a coup on the President instead.
Mr. Aquino didn’t have to be told that the army had given his mother plenty of trouble with their recurrent coups from 1987 to 1989. So he initiated the impeachment project, marshaled his allies in the House of Representatives and backed them with the most powerful non-military weapon at his command: the patronage resources of the pork barrel.
The Corona Court, packed with Arroyo appointees, was an extremely vulnerable target. Its prestige had been undermined by a series of decisions starting with the midnight appointment of the Chief Justice and decisions perceived to be biased for Arroyo and which Corona was accused in the Articles of Impeachment of allegedly masterminding.
Because of the Court’s decisions that are seen as biased for Arroyo, its public approval and trust ratings have fallen sharply.
The aggressive manner by which the Aquino administration has been pursuing the impeachment of Corona to remove an obstacle in its battle against corruption in government has been criticized by bar associations and civil liberties groups as heavy-handed, vindictive and full of shortcuts in violation of due process of law. The attacks on Corona have been criticized as an attempt to remove not only Corona and other Arroyo-appointed justices to enable Mr. Aquino to pack the Court with his own appointees and eventually take control of it. For example, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, warned, “This is not the first time a complaint has been filed against an impeachable official, but this is the first time time that this has been done with despicable haste and arbitrariness.”
The Articles of Impeachment were put together within a few days after the conflict between the Court and the President heightened to a flash point following the Court’s decision to issue a temporary restraining order on a Department of Justice hold order blocking the travel of Arroyo abroad to seek medical treatment. The operation to build up an impeachment case was one of the biggest trawl fishing mounted by the government. It cast a wide dragnet that sucked in fish, big and small, and compressed the catch in the Articles of Impeachment consisting of 57 pages. This was immediately rushed to the Senate for trial.
Certain legal circles have pointed out several issues that could trigger fierce debates during the impeachment trial. One is Article II, which says the respondent committed culpable violation 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 Sec. 17, Art. XI of the Constitution. The President has demanded that Corona show his SALN to the public.
Corona has said he complied with this requirement, but disclosure of his SALN was governed by rules promulgated by the Court during the term of Chief Justice Andres Narvasa.
The purpose of this article is to pin down Corona on allegations of unexplained wealth. The administration is hoping to find evidence to support these allegations by comparing his assets and their sources against his declared income.
On this issue alone, the trial is expected to be a brutal exercise aimed at stripping Corona bare. It is not going to be a surgical exercise marked by gentlemanly legal arguments, but Corona appears determined to fight up to the end.