The day after the Senate impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona, I was at a bank where the person next to me began to talk with the teller about the Corona trial. The teller was clearly reluctant to get distracted from her work but the man just went on and on, at first sounding quite optimistic, pointing out “Tatlo na sila” (There are three of them now) and naming Erap, Gloria Arroyo and Corona. His point was that the government seemed to be able to prosecute the most powerful.
But after that burst of enthusiasm he became quite cynical, describing the whole trial as “palabas,” a term that means more than theater or spectacle and carries connotations of performance, sometimes with intent of deception.
“Let’s see what happens after a year or two,” the man said in Filipino. If Erap can come back to politics, then Corona can do so as well, he argued.
I wasn’t intending to write about the Corona impeachment, knowing that every other columnist will be doing the same thing, but hearing this man and his use of “palabas” convinced me I had to do one, at least from an anthropological viewpoint. Among the social scientists, anthropologists tend to be the most qualitative in the way we study societies, and people. We’re interested in what an American anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, called “thick description,” never content with superficial appearances, or what people say, and probing instead for deeper meanings and intentions through sharp observation and intent listening, over time. The process has been compared to peeling an onion, layer after layer (and sometimes weeping along with it).
I’ve watched how public sentiment swelled against Corona after he tried to block the government with its charges against Arroyo. After formal impeachment proceedings were initiated, there was some opposition among academics, mainly reservations that the impeachment was a violation of the Constitution. Generally, though, there was strong public interest, to the point where one of my assistants at the University of the Philippines asked if we could put a TV set in one of our buildings’ lobbies, so students and faculty could follow the trial. I said I wasn’t in favor of that, feeling it would distract people from studies and work, and predicted that public interest would decline. And indeed, as the trial dragged on, people began to get lost in the maze of legal proceedings and jargon.
Not that people stopped talking about Corona and the trial. Revelations of condos and other properties, large bank accounts, would spike public interest, but only for a day or two. The spikes were important, though, as people became more and more convinced of wrongdoing, of “enrichment,” as some of the senators delicately put it. The finale was the day Corona testified. I described it in an earlier column as a soliloquy, which was being kind to him. It was really a rambling and damaging monologue.
What was so interesting was how people have shifted away not just from the TV coverage but also from the parliament of the streets. It was mainly supporters of Corona who tried to launch rallies and expressions of support, usually through a Mass or some kind of prayer activity. The real battles for public opinion were fought in the Internet, in chat rooms, blogs, and counterblogs. I was getting at least five e-mails each day from the anti-Corona groups, mainly reprints of columns critical of him. As the trial came to a close, I began getting text messages as well, calls to unite and make sure that Corona would be convicted.
The pro-Corona e-mails were fewer and far between but reflected a strange hodgepodge of stakeholders, even strange bedfellows. Most striking were e-mails from anti-family planning Catholic groups, who focused their attacks on President Aquino and tried to paint a picture of a feudal haciendero President getting back at a pro-land reform Corona. Also jumping into the fray were people claiming they were from the Binay-for-president camp, trying to paint a picture of the Vice President being the last sober politician able to mediate the fray and other national problems.
Peeling away at the layers of discussions, I realized that the 2013 elections were always on the horizon. If there was palabas, it was in the area of politicians trying to score points among voters by pandering to public opinion.
The day the verdict was handed down, I got text messages from friends asking if I was watching TV, and I’d answer with a curt “no.” Other friends who did watch would text comments on the senators: Miriam was definitely not appreciated. In my own office at UP I could sense the staff was interested but knew what I felt about concentrating on work. But when someone from another office burst in saying 12 senators had voted for “guilty,” and the staff became quite excited, I knew I’d have to make some concessions. I told them to check the computers for coverage and they did find the Inquirer site, which was being updated after each vote was cast. By the time the magic 16 was reached, there was a slight stir, but no cheering.
Corona was convicted only on one count: not disclosing all his assets in his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth. Government employees are aware of this “crime” and are ambivalent. I’m sure they have noticed how many more fellow government employees filed their SALNs this year than in previous years but also complained about how complicated the new forms were.
Three senators pointed out, as they gave their guilty verdict, that a court clerk in Davao del Norte was once convicted for failing to declare in her SALN that she had a sari-sari store. “We should not penalize the poor man for stealing a bicycle, but rule that a rich man must steal a Mercedes before he is subjected to a penalty,” Sen. Sergio Osmeña III said.
Well said. But I sense people are worried that the government still does not have the resources, or guts, or both, to get to the big fish and, even more ominously, seems to pick on the small fry, like the poor court clerk. More recently, graft charges were filed against former Isabela Gov. Grace Padaca, one of the few high officials with a record of clean governance, in a complicated case that reeks of political vendetta.
If the government is serious about cracking down on corruption, it should show that it can indeed get to the big crooks, even as it finds ways to protect people, like the court clerk from Davao and Padaca, from those who would use graft and corruption for bureaucratic harassment and political intrigues.
Many politicians did score points in this Corona debacle. But I doubt that, if they will run in the next elections, the three senators—Joker Arroyo, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Miriam Santiago—will lose votes for their “not guilty” verdict on Corona. Life goes on, and the public knows we will have more political spectacles, more palabas.
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