The case for impeaching Duterte
The legal case for impeaching President Duterte is based on substantial grounds. His latest remarks about Philippine helplessness in the face of Chinese predation in our exclusive economic zone proves, yet again, that his administration’s “soft landing” policy vis-a-vis China began a deliberate and continuing effort to bend the Constitution to China’s will.
But the political case for impeaching the President is the one the administration thinks it can readily win. Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo once again spoke the quiet part out loud, when he described impeachment as merely a “numbers game.”
It is in fact a numbers game, in the important sense that impeachment is a political process too, undertaken by one of the two political branches of government. But it is not a political undertaking alone. The Constitution provides specific grounds for impeachment: “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.” All of these grounds require the House of Representatives, in considering impeachment, and especially the Senate, in considering conviction, to exercise a kind of judicial determination.
Indeed, the Constitution itself refers to the principal role of the Senate in an impeachment in judge-like terms: “The Senate shall have the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment.” Not least, when the President is the official facing an impeachment trial in the Senate, the Constitution provides that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court must preside.
Unlike in previous impeachment attempts directed against incumbent Presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose administrations offered elaborate legal arguments, this time around the presidential palace — to the extent that Panelo may be said to represent it — reacted to the rumors of impeachment by offering the argument from number. “We have a supermajority in Congress; maybe that won’t even make it past the committee on justice.”
Like I said, Panelo, who is terrible at lying (Exhibit A: “The President does not lie”), said the quiet part out loud this time. But was he telling the truth?
It looks like it, doesn’t it? The new House has not yet chosen its Speaker, but it is safe to assume that the Duterte administration coalition will again be able to count on a supermajority. And as the 17th Congress proved in May 2017, the Duterte supermajority can quickly move to inoculate the President for a year by initiating and then summarily dismissing an impeachment complaint against him. (This is one provision in the Constitution that the Duterte administration follows unreservedly: “No impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year.”)
But why did the President react so angrily against the latest possibility of impeachment? In 2017, when Rep. Gary Alejano filed an impeachment complaint against him for the deaths of thousands of EJK victims, the President merely said that he was not intimidated by the filing and would continue to prosecute his so-called war on drugs. Last week, the President responded to the possibility of new impeachment cases with a stunning outburst: He threatened to jail all those who would file a case against him.
“I will be impeached?,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino. “I’ll jail them all. Try it. Try to take it, do it, and I will do it.”
I think the President’s outburst was prompted by a very real sense of danger. This is the way he reacts when the possibility of a process to hold him to account, a process which he cannot entirely control, looms large. This is why he threatened to bring the Philippines, one of the first members of the United Nations, out of the UN. This is why he has caused the Philippines to leave the International Criminal Court. And this is why he reacted so viscerally to the newest threat of impeachment.
He senses danger. It is true, he enjoys a supermajority in the House — but it is a House that is slipping out of his control. Contrast the way Pantaleon Alvarez was able to seal the speakership mere days after Mr. Duterte became President, with today’s situation, when he cannot even impose his will on the House to choose his preferred Speaker. He could not get the party he is nominal head of to agree to his term-sharing plan; worse, he has deferred to Arroyo and asked her to choose the Speaker instead. (Naturally, Arroyo has her own preference.)
And the issue that lies at the heart of any new impeachment complaint — his refusal or inability to “preserve and defend” the Constitution, to ensure, as Commander in Chief, “the integrity of the national territory,” in the face of China’s predatory activities — is important to the public. Consistently, over the years, Philippine public opinion on China has been opposite that of the Duterte administration’s policy of defeatism and appeasement. The ramming of the fishing boat Gem-Ver 1 showed the world the weakness of the Duterte China policy; simmering outrage over it reveals the President’s vulnerability.
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, e-mail: [email protected]
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.