Those who observe that the impeachment of the Chief Justice will not put food on the tables of the poor, or give them jobs, or lift them out of poverty are, of course, correct. Mercifully, none of them argue that retaining Renato Corona in the office will achieve these objectives.
The observation that the impeachment case has divided the country is also accurate. Again, no one contends that aborting the impeachment process will heal societal divides; these had existed long before the impeachment court convened.
The televised coverage of the trial has deepened these divisions. For many, the case has become a defining national issue that demands closure. Social media show ordinary citizens questioning the positions taken by political, academic, and religious leaders and by each other. As people form their own views on the case, they begin to challenge the logic and even the motivations of those holding contrary opinions. They are judging and are being judged. After nearly a month of hearings, multiple trials seem underway. In these other trials, we are all, in different degrees, simultaneously spectators and players.
The congressmen prosecuting the case and the senator-judges of the court are themselves under the scrutiny of their constituencies. Because impeachment has a political dimension, the views of the citizens also provide evidence that must weigh on the calculations of the court. In the end, the senators must decide whether their views on Mr. Corona’s fitness to remain as Chief Justice accord with those of the community and how their verdict serves the country’s interests.
Television is giving the politicians engaged in the case a double-edged blade. When they perform well, they get great publicity for free. But the medium is merciless in dramatizing missteps and dangerous in preserving a documentation of the proceedings. Politicians running for reelection are especially exposed. Voters following the case will remember what they said and did during the trial and will use the ballots to rate their performance.
The impeachment trial also concerns parties outside the Philippines. Democracy advocates around the world are waiting to see if the impeachment case will strengthen or undermine the rule of law and democratic governance. Foreign governments want to know whether the Philippines will remain a stable and reliable partner that can be trusted to honor its commitments. Investors worry about the emerging business environment.
The international community is watching the issues the trial has raised, the conduct of the process, and the clarity and persuasiveness of the rulings and the ultimate decision. In a sense, the country is also on trial, as well as the people. External observers will assess the degree of the public acceptance or rejection of the verdict as a measure of its credibility.
The debate on the handling of bank accounts in foreign currency, for instance, has touched on issues important to the business community and foreign governments. We want to attract foreign investors. We have laws to protect the legitimate need for the confidentiality of banking and business transactions. We also have laws to ensure that criminals do not use the banking system to conceal the evidence and the profits of their crimes.
Can the impeachment court execute the balancing act required to preserve bank secrecy without compromising our ability to enforce our own laws and our international covenants against money laundering? Foreign and Filipino investors worry about the consequences of a protracted trial and a contested outcome on their current operations and future plans.
For foreign business, in particular, the worst result of the impeachment case would be continuing contestation between the Supreme Court and the executive branch of government. Business needs a stable environment where it can be confident that the rules promulgated by the executive branch will prevail and will not be rejected or delayed by the courts.
However much we mess up the impeachment trial, foreign governments cannot simply abandon diplomatic relations with the Philippines. Business will vote with its feet. This is true of Filipino businesses as well, but foreign firms who have not yet made major financial commitments can more easily walk away and invest their resources in other countries.
Those who have had to undergo litigation in our courts have experienced the technicalities lawyers invoke to delay proceedings going against the interests of their clients. Televised impeachment hearings are educating the rest on the tortuous, costly path that must be negotiated to achieve the ends of justice.
The impeachment hearings should prompt a rigorous reform of existing laws and court procedures and our legal education system to ensure their responsiveness to the challenges of a global market and the heightened public demand for accountability and for a more accessible and effective judicial system. Beyond addressing the problems of past offenses, the impeachment process can begin to build foundations for the future.
Edilberto C. de Jesus is president of the Asian Institute of Management.
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