Impeachment as a tool for authoritarian politics
The removal from office of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno through quo warranto proceedings by a majority vote of associate justices of the high court came under intense scrutiny by the 2018 Philippines Update conference at the Australian National University in Canberra on May 25-26.
Papers presented by scholars at ANU specializing on Philippine political and economic events under the administration of President Duterte focused on the implications of Mr. Duterte’s intervention in the impeachment case against Sereno. The case, lodged by the solicitor general, was seen by many as an attack on the independence of the judiciary.
Two of the presentations in the conference voiced scathing concerns over the seeming resurgence of authoritarian rule under Mr. Duterte after the 14-year dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
The first paper, presented by Maria Lulu Reyes of Saint Louis University and Imelda Deinla of ANU, warned that “The removal from office of the Chief Justice has become a feature of presidential transition to power in the last 15 years. The process of impeachment has been designed primarily as a mechanism against the resurgence of authoritarian rule and as a mechanism of accountability of high officials. Increasingly, impeachment and the recent use of technical legal proceedings such as quo warranto have been employed not only to unseat a sitting president, but as a tool to consolidate and concentrate power in the executive by removing high officials critical of the government, particularly the highest official in the Supreme Court. This presentation looks at the evolution of impeachment from a legal process to a highly political tool against the Chief Justice that involves the three branches of government.
“It also looks at the convergence of personalities and institutional dynamics that aids in or restrains impeachment as a political weapon or as an accountability mechanism. It concludes with insights into how the rule of law is being shaped by the interplay of political, institutional and social factors in and outside of the court system.”
The other paper, titled “Dismantling a Liberal Constitution: The Politics of Impeachment in the Philippines,” by Cristina Regina Bonoan of Angeles University, pointed out “the growing number of impeachment complaints filed against high officials under the current Duterte administration. While impeachment was designed to check on the executive and other officials from abusing the constitutional order under the 1987 Constitution, its current use indicates a deliberate effort to silence critics, demolish institutional veto gates, and ultimately reshape the post-1987 constitutional order.
“To illustrate this point, we start with a brief history of impeachments in the Philippines, before turning our attention to the current dynamics under the Duterte presidency. Our paper raises fundamental questions about the contemporary use (and abuse) of the threat of impeachment and other means of removal as part of a broader illiberal, if not authoritarian, turn, in the Philippines.”
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Amando Doronila was a regular columnist of the Inquirer from 1994 to May 2016.
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