Aquino: Even more unchecked and unbalanced

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After the House of Representatives was pork-barreled into signing without studying the Articles of Impeachment against then Chief Justice Renato Corona in December 2011, this writer warned: “A President unchecked and unbalanced by co-equal powers and independent constitutional bodies run by his handpicked appointees and under threat of Palace-orchestrated impeachment or, in the case of Congress, pork barrel drought? That’s where we are now, but for a Senate conviction of Chief Justice Renato Corona.”

One and a half years later, the nation is even further along the road, not necessarily straight, toward strongman rule. Indeed, not only was Corona convicted and replaced by a loyal Aquino appointee, the last remaining check on Palace domination — an independent Senate — looks set to pass into history.

Last week, Juan Ponce Enrile resigned the Senate presidency, which might now return to Franklin Drilon, a staunch Aquino loyalist who got his break in government as labor secretary and justice secretary under then President Corazon Aquino. In the Arroyo administration, Drilon was Senate President from 2001 to 2006.

In mid-2005, amid Metro Manila protests over election fraud allegations, Drilon famously offered then President Gloria Arroyo to hold office in his hometown of Iloilo City. Soon after, however, he made an about-face and joined Cory Aquino’s unsuccessful campaign to oust the embattled Arroyo.

Today, Drilon is among the second President Aquino’s most loyal and effective political drivers, most memorably as an openly partisan senator-judge in the Corona impeachment, then as Liberal Party campaign manager in last month’s polls. If he becomes Senate president, he will bend the chamber to Aquino’s agenda.

With this impending capitulation of the Senate to the Palace, there is great relevance at this time to run excerpts of the December 14, 2011, article on the disappearing checks and balances on the Aquino presidency:

“So for a moment, tune out the chorus of approval and trust supposedly brimming for Aquino across the archipelago from nearly four out of every five Filipinos. Then open your eyes and think truthfully about what has happened in the past year-and-a half.

“With the pork prod the House of Representatives has been thoroughly herded into line. It rubber-stamped the two Aquino budgets, giving up its most jealously guarded prerogative: the power of the purse.

“Having yielded that prized budgetary clout, there is nothing else the House won’t surrender, including the power to impeach. So it is: when the Palace wants impeachable officials removed, congressmen docilely turn out to vote them out, flicked by text messages threatening to impound pork.

“The first to go was Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, accused of favoring former president Gloria Arroyo. This week it is Chief Justice Renato Corona’s turn: dispatched to the Senate with 188 votes on an impeachment complaint unstudied by most of those who approved it.

“With the resignations and replacement of Commission on Elections Chairman Jose Melo and his Commission on Audit counterpart Renato Villar months ago, PNoy already has his appointees in charge of every constitutionally independent body, except the Civil Service Commission. [Since then, two CSC commissioners have retired and been replaced by Aquino appointees, who can now outvote Chairman Francisco Duque Jr.]

“Now under PNoy’s chosen chairpersons are the powerful entities conducting elections, auditing state finances, and probing and prosecuting graft — all crucial for checking excesses and ensuring impartial, fair and democratic elections.

“And we have seen recently how cooperative the Comelec can be under Aquino’s former election lawyer, Chairman Sixto Brillantes, dutifully filing charges against Arroyo a few days after getting voluminous papers of a joint Department of Justice-Comelec probe. [Even more telling perhaps was the conduct of the May elections, given reports of widespread problems, including long delays in a quarter of results.]

“If the Senate obliges in the next few months and removes Corona, even the Supreme Court and the Judicial and Bar Council, which recommends appointments to the Judiciary, would be under an Aquino man or woman. Every judge or judge-to-be in the country would be under the sway of PNoy’s chosen Chief Justice.”

“What then happens to the system of checks and balances needed to prevent abuse of power? Who will keep the Executive branch on the straight path if Congress, the courts, Comelec, COA and the Ombudsman are all under the presidential thumb? [And now, even the usually outspoken Senate, which had fiercely stood up to presidential pressure in the past, may fall in line with the pro-Aquino ranks.]

“Add to the mix massive presidential popularity, thanks to a largely pro-Aquino media, including the three leading broadsheet newspapers and a top broadcasting network whose former newsmen now work for PNoy. So even the restraints from the fourth estate and negative public opinion are minimal.

“The last time such unrestrained power was enjoyed by anyone for more than a year was Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law regime. In its early years the nation supported unbridled clout in the hope that they would be used for unprecedented change. But the trust proved undeserved, and the dream of sweeping reform turned into a 13-year nightmare of dictatorship, abuse and corruption.

“Today the nation is again being seduced to grant presidential power without constitutional restraint, with the promise of honest, progressive government.

“Let’s not fall for it again.”

Next month, maybe we will.

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