Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Speculations on the 8 senators who could vote to acquit Merci

President Aquino’s marching order to the 82-strong Liberal Party in the House of Representatives to ensure the impeachment of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez may have given him that feel- good and powerful feeling, as it made him sound truly like a general wowing his troops on the eve of a crucial battle. But that publicly articulated order, given out during a luncheon at the Palace yesterday, Monday, was a disservice to Congress as it confirmed anew, this time loud and clear, what citizens have always known: that the House is a rubber-stamp of the President. P-Noy's order undermined the independence and separation of powers of the House, and merely affirmed that impeachment is really and truly nothing but a political exercise.

P-Noy's anti-corruption stance unreal

The President’s spokespersons opine that his call to battle was motivated by his desire to flesh out his campaign promise to stamp out corruption in government. If the House succeeds in removing a do-nothing Ombudsman, they argue, it would go a long way. But this doesn’t sit well with certain realities this early in the Noynoy administration. For instance, while Deputy Secretary of Local Governments Rico Puno was accused by no less than Archbishop Oscar Cruz of implication with jueteng, he was merely sent to the US on a study grant; moreover, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima has endorsed a complaint against LTO Chief Virginia Torres in the StradCom case, but P-Noy has stood by his shooting buddy and refuses to have it looked into. Now there’s the P40 million “glass house” of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa in White Plains, which has drawn denials from the official but no comment from P-Noy.

Only P-Noy has ordered impeachment in public

True, every President weighs in on crucial political battles in the legislature; very likely former President Macapagal Arroyo met with her allies on the eve of the two impeachment attempts against her in the past administration. So must President Estrada have gathered his forces before the lightning-fast impeachment tactic of House Speaker Manny Villar in late November, 2000 and the aborted Senate trial in January 2001. But it’s only President Aquino who came out publicly ordering the House to move, where in the past it was done only in whispers. He would have achieved the same results---impeach Gutierrez but preserve the public perception of the integrity of the House--- if he had only kept  tactful and diplomatic distance from the issue.

                                           Senate Trial by early August

The LP came through in this noon's voting at the Justice Committee and will rally again at the plenary vote; House leaders are pressing for an early plenary vote next week, before the Holy Week break on March 24, but it would not be surprising if the resolution of the House vote will still take place sometime in May. 

With the 94 minimum votes needed to send the impeachment case to the Senate already in the bag (over  150 anti-Merci votes are expected, as the 82-strong LP vote will be reinforced by other pro-Aquino political groups and militant party-list members), hotheaded LP senators want the Senate trial to begin as early as possible. But the hard reality is that it may commence in the Senate only in early August, after Congress returns from a long recess to attend the President’s State of the Nation Address on the last Monday of July. One reason is that some House legal luminaries like Justice committee Vice-Chair Rep. Rudy Farinas privately feel that some facets of the consolidated impeachment presented in the House committee are too loose and weak, and may not be able to withstand the withering scrutiny of a Miriam Santiago or a JPE.

Long dagger knives in justice committee deliberations

This morning saw long dagger knives that the representatives threw at one another. For instance, Iloilo Rep. Augusto “Boboy” Syjuco pointedly asked chair Niel Tupas Jr. to inhibit himself and yield the chairmanship, owing to his father’s pending case before the Ombudsman in connection with the construction of the modern airport in Sta. Barbara, Iloilo. But Tupas just ignored it.

Minority leader Edcel Lagman and opposition stalwart Simeon Datumanong stacked in front of their seats what Lagman described as the “two-feet high” documents submitted by the embattled Ombudsman in response to her accusers, drawing a facetious complaint from Rep. Farinas that the two-feet pile of documents constituted "obstruction of justice" for everyone else. The opposition stalwarts complained that they only saw those documents the afternoon before and asked for time to be able to read them with some decency;  but this was also ignored by the impeachment express, with one adherent even arguing that many  Supreme Court justices did not even read the case of Gutierrez before issuing their status quo ante order on her impeachment by the House.

                                      'Numerical superiority unmatched by reason'

A frustrated Minority Leader Lagman put the predicament eloquently, “It would be much better if superiority of numbers is matched by an ascendancy of reason,” but reason was the last thing the administration-dominated House committee was looking for this morning, as they rushed to seal Merci’s doomed fate. On the other hand, the peanut gallery was dominated by oppositors to Gutierrez, who were clearly out for blood and they booed attempts by anti-impeachment solons like Isabela’s Giorgiddi Aggabao and Boboy Syjuco to arrive at a reasonable meaning of “probable cause.” Tupas merely retorted that “we use the classical definition of probable cause as applying to criminal procedure.”

It was clear that nothing much mattered but the will to hang Gutierrez and so the vote was rushed on two issues of dereliction of duty and betrayal of public trust. The opposition's 15 negative votes against impeachment, led by Lagman and Amelita Villarosa, couldn’t hold up against the impeachment express.

Eleven members of prosecution panel

Even before the voting begins in the plenary, talk has already shifted to the composition of the eleven members of the panel of prosecutors from the House who will seek to push Gutierrez’s conviction by the Senate trial court. With the prosecution expected to be led by justice chair Niel Tupas Jr., another name being thrown about as member is Deputy Speaker Raul Daza, one of the most seasoned parliamentarians in the House and a veteran of the Senate impeachment trial of President Estrada in 2000. In that trial  Daza, a UP Law graduate, was a private lawyer defending Estrada together with Estelito Mendoza and Andres Narvasa, but this time he will be on the prosecution side.

Also expected in the panel are Rep. Rudy Farinas, a first-placer in the bar and an Ateneo honors graduate; the two Justice committee vice-chairs, Rey Umali (the younger brother of Agriculture Secretary Umali) and Miro Quimbo; and very likely Mandaluyong Rep. Neptali Gonzalez Jr.

Merci leaves her fate to the Senate

Judging from today's proceedings in the House justice committee, Merci Gutierrez made the right decision not to participate there, and instead leave her fate to the senators who, as Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago pointed out, are far more independent-minded, being “kingdoms” in their own individual right, unlike the stooges in the House. To convict an impeached constitutional official in the Senate, a vote of 2/3 of the 23 members, or 16 votes, is needed; for Gutierrez to be acquitted, therefore, she has to muster only eight votes.

This early even House impeachment advocates concede that Merci has a better chance of survival in the Senate, with the likes of independent senators who don’t owe anything to President Aquino, or have been openly critical of him. These include Santiago, Joker Arroyo, Ed Angara, Manny Villar, Loren Legarda, Lito Lapid, newly elected Lakas president Bong Revilla and Miguel Zubiri. A lot would depend on Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, who'll preside at the trial. Enrile’s perceived as fair-minded and cannot be stampeded by the Palace. His actuations could very well influence Sen. Gregorio Honasan.

It's going to be a most engrossing political battle-cum-circus, but alas, its timing is also truly deplorable, as the country has to face rising oil prices, the lack of jobs for returning OFWs, food security aggravation, rising criminality, etc.

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  1. so, what was a "kailangan pa ba i-memorize yan" rigmarole of proceedings in congress, could now turn into a cliff-hanger in the Senate. may truth and justice reign in the hearts and minds of the Senate so that we might even start to change our view: that the Senate is better Abolished.

  2. We all want the Truth but all must be within the boundaries of the Law. Let Justice be served accordingly.

  3. Very well said, Ms Cunanan. I've been reading your Political Tidbits column in the Inquirer.

    I agree that the decision to ram through the impeachment case in the Congress is just a way for Noynoy and his cohorts to flex their political muscles and seek political vendetta.