Monday, December 19, 2011

Still the sick man of Asia

The Wall Street Journal once referred to the Philippines as the “perpetual sick man of Asia,” a moniker the country earned because of the pervasiveness of graft and corruption in its political institutions, and in society in general.

Observers point out that without exception, the whole Philippine government, from the Executive to the Legislative to the Judiciary, has been immersed in the culture of open and pervasive graft and plunder. The cancer of corruption has also shamefully earned us the stigma of being “the most corrupt country in Asia.”

While there is good news of the country’s recent economic performance, suggesting an unexpected recovery from its usual frail status, like a four-year low 6.4 per cent in unemployment rate and an upgrade in its credit rating from the New York-based Standard & Poor (S&P) Ratings Services, the political climate in the Philippines remains unclear, if not surreal.
President Noynoy Aquino greets Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona
during National Criminal Justice Summit in Manila. AP Photo/Malacanang Photo.
Click link to
view "Chief Justice Corona: "I am your defender!"
The imprisonment of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on charges of election sabotage and corruption, and the impeachment of her appointee, Renato Corona, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, for his bias in the court’s rulings in favour of Mrs. Arroyo, are distracting the reform agenda of the incumbent government of President Noynoy Aquino. President Aquino considers these two personalities as the main obstacles in his objective of cleaning the government of corruption that will enable him to deliver on his election campaign promise.

But in singling out his predecessor and the current Chief Justice, President Aquino’s strategy may miscarry and thrust his administration into a deeper hole where there is no possible escape.

Aquino’s zeal in eliminating corruption is already seen by many as risky and may plunge the country into instability. A Corona acquittal will inevitably erode President’s Aquino’s popularity and could engender more hostility from the judiciary.

The uncertainties of the impeachment process and the politicalization of the judiciary that it brings upon the courts could dampen economic growth and drive away foreign investment. Sluggish exports this year are already predicted to slow down the economy. Impeachment is also diverting political leaders from the more serious problems of unemployment, slow growth and inflation.

Impeachment of any sitting president or the highest magistrate could bring paralysis to the state.

With the Senate about to indict former President Joseph Estrada in 2001, a people power uprising saved the senators from convicting the first Filipino president impeached by Congress. But this kind of uprising is not possible this time. It’s like “cache-22.” If Corona is successfully impeached, Aquino will be accused of coercing the judiciary into submission. If Corona is acquitted, Aquino's public support will take a big hit. And should former President Arroyo escape conviction, President Aquino might be seen as damaged goods forever. This will further wear down his presidential cape, which the military might exploit if the situation becomes uncontrollable by civilian authority.

Or, a reversal of fortune.

With President Aquino’s triumphal disposal of his predecessor and the Chief Justice, he might be emboldened to install constitutional authoritarianism, a “creeping dictatorship” feared by some as already happening.

Corona, for the record, is the first Chief Justice and Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court to be impeached by the House of Representatives. At least 95 signatures (one-third of all members of the House) are required to impeach, and 188 of the 284 members of the House voted to impeach Corona.
Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, 15th President of the Philippines and 5th President
of the Republic. Click link to view "Viral Video 'Attacks' Aquino-Cojuangco Family
There are rumours circulating that President Aquino was personally involved in hatching the impeachment proposal, some alleging that the President was castigated by elders of his family, the Cojuangco clan, for being responsible for the loss of Hacienda Luisita. The court presided by Corona made the decision to transfer ownership of Hacienda Luisita to the hands of the farmers, which obviously disgusted the Cojuangco clan who has been in possession and control of the disputed lands for more than sixty years.

But the Senate would be a totally different scenario, however. The number of senators is smaller compared to the House of Representatives, and they are elected at large by the entire electorate. Senators have a national rather than a district constituency, thus are expected to have a broader outlook of the problems of the country, instead of being restricted by narrow viewpoints and interests. They are likely to be considered as more circumspect, or at least less impulsive than members of the House.

To indict the Chief Justice, two-thirds of the total 24 senators are required to vote in favour. This would be a tall order, and with members mostly from the legal profession, it is unlikely that the Senate would vote against a fellow member of the bar.

Corona’s impeachment will probably draw references from the experience of the United States, whose constitutional practices and provisions were written into the Philippine Constitution almost verbatim. American case law is also usually cited in the Philippine judicial system.

Only one member of the United States Supreme Court, Justice Samuel Chase, had ever been subjected to the impeachment process. Chase was accused of showing his extreme Federalist bias that led to his treating defendants and their counsel in a deliberately unfair manner. The Senate acquitted Chase, holding the view that grounds for impeachment should be either based on criminality or abuse of office, rather than partisanship, thus preventing the overt politicalization of the process.

It is therefore up to the Philippine Senate to rise to the challenge. Whether it can rise beyond political partisanship remains to be seen. Corona was a “midnight appointment” to the position of Chief Justice, and a former chief of staff to President Arroyo and Presidential Legal Counsel to former President Fidel Ramos. But the legality of Corona’s “midnight appointment” has already been addressed by Congress and the Office of the President, including the other issues which are being challenged for Corona’s impartiality toward his former boss, Mrs. Arroyo.

In one of his public speeches, President Aquino has admitted that the Chief Justice remains to be the last stumbling block to his reform agenda. It will be interesting to find how the Senate will ignore political alliances and decide on the merits of the case. Otherwise, this important trial will peter out in another political scandal that will further drive the country down into an abysmal chaos. If there is any conviction, it must be clear cut, not just on the grounds of mere suspicions of wrongdoing.

But the handwriting on the wall appears unmistakably clear. In the end, partisan politics, entrenched interests, and personal greed will win over common sense and doing the right thing. It would be another sad day for Filipinos, but what could we expect from our irresponsible and oligarchic elite?
Philippine Congress in joint session. Photo courtesy of Bikoy. Click link to view "Pinoy Politicians:
Wealthy Liars, Rich Traitors & Media Darlings!" 
Paul Hutchcroft, an American political scientist, wrote in “Oligarchs and Cronies in the Philippine State: the Politics of Patrimonial Plunder,” that the Philippine oligarchic elite, where most if not all members of the Senate come from, are “booty capitalists” who prey on the weak state for its rent-extraction. They have very little incentive to demand a more predictable order, according to Hutchcroft. The principal preoccupation of these oligarchs is to gain favourable proximity to the political machinery.

With former President Arroyo out of the picture, these oligarchs and even those not closely affiliated with the present Aquino regime would be more interested in currying favours to the current occupant of Malacañang rather than demanding profound structural changes, such as strengthening an independent judiciary or keeping a transparent and responsible bureaucracy.

The Philippines is the “sick man of Asia”—and for this stigma, to paraphrase one political commentator, we should be grateful to our irresponsible elite.

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