A MARGINAL political party has taken the bold step of asking Congress to impeach and remove President Rodrigo Duterte, after only a little over eight months in office. The move has little prospect of success and could only end up shoring up DU30’s position instead. Alleging culpable violation of the Constitution, bribery, betrayal of public trust, graft and corruption and other high crimes, Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary C. Alejano wants DU30 removed for a drug war that has already killed over 8,000 suspects, and for other deaths, which, even if true, unfortunately have no legitimate place in the complaint.
Alejano is a political ally of Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, who has accused DU30 of unexplained hidden wealth, and ordering alleged killings by the Davao Death Squad as Davao city mayor for many years. DU30 has called the impeachment complaint part of a larger destabilization plan whose players he did not identify. But he has attacked Catholic bishops and priests and international human rights workers for speaking against the killings and the proposed re-imposition of the death sentence. Vice President Leni Robredo has drawn heavy flak for contributing a short video on the drug war to the 60th annual meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Europe. Some of DU30’s lackeys in Congress now threaten her with impeachment. It’s only a question of inventing the causes.
Who’s destabilizing whom?
To many analysts, the Magdalo complaint cannot be any more destabilizing than the state-sponsored killing of drug suspects and the decision to railroad the re-imposition of the death sentence, in violation of the Philippines’ treaty commitment to abolish the death penalty under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Second Optional Protocol, which are now parts of the laws of the land. The destabilization label appears to be a convenient justification for any unorthodox response to Magdalo’s initiative. But it is hardly the word to use to describe an impeachment complaint.
Impeachment is a constitutional process which one may bring against the President, the Vice President, the members of the Supreme Court, the members of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman for culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes or betrayal of public trust. The House of Representatives shall initiate all cases of impeachment, and the Senate shall try and decide all such cases. A vote of one-third of all the members of the House is sufficient to impeach an impeachable official, and have him tried by the Senate.
If the complaint is without merit, its filing will have no adverse effect on the subject. If, on the other hand, the complaint is well-grounded, its non-filing could only exacerbate the unpunished offense. President Joseph Ejercito Estrada was impeached in 2000, but his Senate impeachment trial was aborted in January 2001, after the prosecution walked out and the military and the Cabinet, supported by the Supreme Court justices, withdrew their allegiance and support. In 2011-2012, President B. S. Aquino III bribed the members of Congress to impeach and remove the late former Chief Justice Renato Corona on a less than impeachable offense. The Magdalo impeachment complaint has none of the bizarre features of the two cases.
In Estrada, an openly partisan public, led by the powerful Makati business elite and the forces of the incumbent Vice President, who eventually assumed the presidency, demanded Erap’s head. In Corona, the entire machinery and resources of government were mobilized to achieve the results demanded by the President. The Magdalo complaint, on the other hand, was simply intended, according to reputable sources, to preempt, if not forestall, Malacanang’s move against Trillanes, who had become DU30’s nemesis in the Senate after Senator Leila de Lima was arrested and jailed. Despite Trillanes’s proven ability to annoy DU30, Magdalo appears to be in no position to truly destabilize the government.
A constitutional process
Whatever its motive, the Magdalo complaint is a legitimate political initiative. One may not support its objective, but it is no different from the impeachment complaint, reportedly being prepared by the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption against Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, ostensibly “in defense of the President.” The allegation of recent drug killings is organic to this complaint, but the allegation of DDS killings when DU30 was still Davao city mayor has no place in the complaint. Its inclusion is clearly a technical defect. But even without this defect, I cannot see the House supporting the complaint.
DU30 controls the House, so there’s no chance for the document to survive. It will be thrown out. Thereafter no one may file another impeachment complaint against him for a period of one year. This is pursuant to the 2003 Supreme Court ruling penned by Justice Carpio-Morales in Francisco vs. the House of Representatives. Thus the filing of the Magdalo complaint could only help rather than hurt DU30, even though it would also project Magdalo as the party that has found the courage to challenge DU30’s fitness to remain in office. This allows DU30 to consolidate his own political base; it is also what the opposition can do after the impeachment complaint is thrown out.
Unless the drug killings stop and the quality of DU30’s governance improves, the growing clamor against his rule at home, and within the international community, can only grow more intense. We have already heard from almost every major organ of public opinion around the world. The New York Times, The Guardian, the Economist, Bloomberg, etc. are but among the more prominent. Recently, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to show some sense of responsibility by calling off a proposed visit to Israel by PDU30. In Australia, Elaine Pearson, Director of Human Watch, has called on Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to cancel her proposed visit to Davao, which she describes as “the birthplace of the death squads.”
The ICC temptation
At home and abroad, there is a rising call to bring DU30 to the International Criminal Court at The Hague on the killings. This will persist. In one town next to Manila, the mayor, a reputed DU30 ally, has flooded the streets with banners denouncing the killings after 60 of his constituents had been murdered because of the drug war. Many other local government units are inclined to follow suit. Abroad, the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings has pronounced the Philippines one of the worst places for human rights.
From Strasbourg, the European Parliament has called on the DU30 government to release Senator Leila de Lima from detention, virtually questioning the legality of her drug-related arrest. At the same time, several European governments have warned DU30 of the adverse consequences of reviving the capital sentence. The situation is likely to deteriorate if the House leadership makes good its threat to penalize members who had voted against the death penalty bill, which is now before the Senate. These include former President and now Deputy Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo many of whose supporters are now part of the DU30 government.
Arroyo is fiercely loyal to DU30, but driven against the wall, she could cause his support in Congress to fragment. A growing number of congressmen seem prepared to install her as Speaker, if she is interested, in lieu of the power-drunk Pantaleon Alvarez, who used to be a controversial member of the Arroyo Cabinet. Of course, DU30 could decide to retain Arroyo’s support and friendship while giving Alvarez an innocuous position out of Congress. This could be one of the things DU30 might want to do in the face of the Magdalo challenge. Many of his more controversial acts are likely to be challenged in Congress, the media, in court and on the streets. And it would be good for him to be at least one step ahead of his adversaries.
A chance to regain trust
After the Magdalo complaint is thrown out, the legal battle could shift immediately to the constitutionality of the PNP Command Memorandum Circular authorizing Operation Tokhang and Operation HVT (High Value Target) under Project Double Barrel, and making the “neutralization” of illegal drug personalities its main objective. A number of lawyers are convinced the PNP order is patently unconstitutional, and that the Supreme Court should rule expeditiously on it.
The resumption of the war on drugs, following its brief suspension after the police kidnapping and murder of the Korean national Jee Ick-joo inside the compound of the PNP central headquarters, is more than enough compelling reason for an immediate ruling on it. Such a ruling should allow DU30 to develop a new approach to keep the baby while throwing out the bath water. Instead of going after the small-time pushers and users, DU30 could now go after the big producers/manufacturers, financiers and mega distributors who have remained untouched until now.
He could then reasonably expect full support from the population, especially if the drug cartel fights him in an open war, as they have done in Colombia, Mexico and other jurisdictions. DU30 could then still hope to win the hearts and minds of those who abhor the killings as much as they abhor the illegal destructive substance. But he should also be prepared to undo many wrong things that have marked his first eight and a half months in office. These refer not only to his drug war, but above all to his entire concept of governance. Some of his acts have not only been wrong but illegal.
Executive Secretary’s powers
The most egregious of these is DU30’s decision to put his Cabinet Secretary and NDF vice chairman Leoncio Evasco Jr. in charge of virtually the entire government, by allowing him to usurp powers that belong to the Executive Secretary. The position itself has no firm legal foundation, but DU30 has invested it with enormous powers not authorized by law, making the former priest, former NPA rebel, and former mayor of Maribojoc, Bohol, the most powerful Cabinet official bar none, next only to the President, without having been vetted and confirmed by the Commission on Appointments and without being accountable to anyone.
He runs the operational side of the Office of the President; directly supervises 18 critical agencies charged with the government’s anti-poverty program, with billions of pesos in operational funds and millions of constituencies on the ground; and heads the quasi-government political party called “Kilusang Pagbabago” and its grassroots arm, Masa Masid, with members of the central committee of the Communist Party of the Philippines as key officers.
Evasco’s designation is in gross violation of the Administration Code of 1987, which says the Executive Secretary “shall, subject to the control and supervision of the President, carry out the functions assigned by law to the Executive Office and shall perform such other duties as may be delegated to him.” The Code cannot be amended by a mere executive order as any half-literate non-lawyer knows. So any order naming Evasco, in lieu of Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, to supervise offices and agencies under the Office of the President is illegal and non-enforceable. But this has not prevented Evasco from exercising “his” awesome powers, and this has not provoked Medialdea to raise the necessary objection.
That Evasco’s powers far exceed those belonging to the heads of executive departments is one issue. That the President’s communist mentor now runs nearly the entire government the way he wants to is another. But both issues, taken together, constitute a serious problem, which DU30 must now resolve in favor of the rule of law, the correct order of things and the popular will, before it blows up and destroys every value we hold dear.