Impeaching Arroyo
Volume 20 Number 2
Thursday, 29 June 2006 00:00

Carlo V. Cleofe[1]

It started with the tape, not the kind that spurs sex scandals but the kind that could topple a presidency. The “tape” refers to the recorded conversation of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano or the “hello Garci” tape.
When the tape was made public it inevitably sparked nationwide protests demanding Arroyo’s accountability and resignation from the presidency. Many saw the “Garci” tape along with charges that the first family were involved with jueteng and graft as a basis to impeach Arroyo. The opposition led by House Minority Leader Francis Escudero were then planning to ready an impeachment complaint against Arroyo, but before the opposition could push through with their plans, Atty. Oliver Lozano filed an impeachment complaint at the House of Representatives accusing Arroyo of betrayal of public trust for allegedly rigging the results of the last presidential elections.

Many in the political opposition saw Lozano’s move as a ploy of Malacañang to preempt the possibility of impeaching Arroyo by filing a weak case that lacks concrete evidence, thus preventing another from being filed for a year under the terms spelled out in the Constitution.
1.    An impeachment complaint is filed by a member of the House or by a citizen as long as it is endorsed by a member of the House).
2.    It is then referred to the justice committee, which has 60 days to submit its report to the House.
3.    If the complaint passes muster in the committee, the entire House votes on it. One-third of all House members must vote for the to send it to Senate for trial.
4.    Trial by the Senate begins, with 23 senators sitting as judges, and congressmen acting as prosecutors. The Chief justice of the Supreme Court presides but does not vote. The President is impeached if two-thirds of the senators vote for the complaint.
Source: Manila Standard Today, July 27, 2005
Confirming the worst fears of the opposition, Alagad party-list Rep. Rodante Marcoleta, an administration lawmaker and member of the influential Iglesia ni Cristo, a Christian sect which reportedly gave Arroyo 2.5 million votes during the last elections, endorsed the impeachment complaint of Lozano. House Speaker Jose de Venecia also endorsed the impeachment complaint of Lozano thereby starting the process of impeachment. A few days later a second complaint was filed by another lawyer, Jose Lopez and was endorsed by the President’s party mate, Palawan Rep. Antonio Alvarez.
This move prompted Escudero to say that Marcoleta is pushing the opposition “out of the legal process.” Escudero also vowed that the opposition would boycott impeachment proceedings stemming from Lozano’s complaint. He also said that “… (the opposition) will not participate in any way in the impeachment complaint that was endorsed by a party mate and ally of the President.
But by mid-July, Escudero and the opposition filed another impeachment complaint that was an amendment to the earlier one filed by Lozano.
Impeachment Issues: Cheating, lying, stealing, and gross human rights violations
The issues included in the complaint filed by the opposition revolved around four general offenses – cheating in the elections, lying to the public (about the “Garci” tapes), stealing the vote and the public coffers of the government, and sanctioning widespread gross human rights violations. In legalese, this means that Arroyo is being accused of betraying the public trust, culpable violations of the constitution, and graft and corrupt practices.
Before filing the complaint the opposition was confident that it could muster the required 79 representatives or one-third of the House membership of 236. By the time the impeachment complaint was formally filed at the House, there were only 42 signatories, 37 short of the required one-third needed to impeach Arroyo.
Following the process outlined by the Constitution, the impeachment complaint was referred to the Justice Committee, whose responsibility is to evaluate if the complaint has sufficient basis, draft the rules of impeachment, and report its findings to the House within 60 days after receiving the complaint.
If the complaint passes muster in the justice committee, the entire House must vote on it. One-third of all House members must vote for the complaint to send it to the Senate for trial. But since the opposition did not have the required number of votes there is a possibility that the impeachment complaint will be dismissed in the House wherein majority of its members are allies of Arroyo.
To find a way out of the impasse, the opposition wanted the justice committee to allow the inclusion of creeping impeachment in the rules of impeachment. Creeping impeachment is a shortcut process wherein instead of waiting for the vote in the House, the opposition could send the impeachment complaint directly to the senate once it gathered the required 79 signatures. Under creeping impeachment, the minority bloc can also have the justice committee hearings terminated once they gather enough votes, and these are cast by roll call at the plenary session. Creeping impeachment was allowed in the rules used in the Estrada impeachment during the 11th Congress.
Based on the motion filed by House Deputy Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano, the House adopted the rules of the Estrada impeachment paving the way for the start of the impeachment hearings against Arroyo.
Impeachment proceedings a game of numbers
Despite the adoption of the rules of the 11th Congress it was clear right from the start that the impeachment process in the House will not see the light of day.
The first bone of contention during the course of the hearings was whether to hear three impeachment complaints or only one. The argument of the majority bloc was that constitutionally it should only hear the first complaint filed by Lozano. They also argued that resolving the first complaint is necessary to clarify certain prejudicial questions arising from the other complaints. The pro-impeachment legislators on the other hand saw these as a move of Arroyo’s allies in the house to prolong the impeachment process.
When House Committee on Justice Chair Simeon Datumanong ruled out further debate of whether the amended impeachment complaint was separate and distinct from the other two; pro-impeachment lawmakers walked out of the proceedings. They also declared that they would no longer return to the proceedings even if the majority resumes its hearings and votes on the prejudicial questions without them.
With the opposition boycotting the proceedings, the justice committee, with a vote of 50-4 with one abstention, decided that only the Lozano complaint had complied with the constitutional requirement and jurisprudence governing impeachment proceedings. But on the same day, the same committee voted 49-1 with two abstentions to trash the Lozano complaint for being insufficient in substance.
By upholding the Lozano complaint and then trashing it, pro-Arroyo lawmakers have effectively killed all of the impeachment complaint filed at the House. The only chance that remains for the opposition was to gather 79 signatures before the members of the house votes if it is in favor of impeachment or not. In this sense the impeachment complaint was reduced to nothing but a game of numbers; a game that the opposition predictably lost.
On September 9, 2005, the members of the House voted 158 in favor to the justice committee report dismissing all of the three impeachment complaints, while the opposition was only able to muster 52 votes, 27 votes short of one-third. Of the 12 lawmakers who had earlier called on Arroyo to resign but did not sign the complaint, seven (7) voted yes, four (4) abstained, and only one voted no.
The Impeachment Process and Human Rights
Impeachment is a process used to charge, try, and remove public officials for misconduct while in office. It remains the ultimate check on the abuse of power. By providing this power to Congress, it calls on the concept of representative democracy, which presupposes that elected leaders will serve the people only so long as they respect the law and their office.
In this sense, the power of impeachment also stands ready to thwart tyranny and is an exercise of the people’s sovereign will acted out through its duly elected representatives in Congress.
The first act of impeachment – the filing of an impeachment complaint that the House of Representatives have the obligation to hear – is but a legal statement of charges, paralleling an indictment in criminal law. The Senate acting as a quasi-judicial body with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as its presiding officer ascertains conviction of the case.
The penalty to be imposed in an impeachment case is limited to removal from office and disqualification to hold any office under the Republic of the Philippines. Criminal liability of the convicted party is still liable and subject to prosecution, trial, and punishment, before the courts.
In essence impeachment is but a means to divest the immunity of public officials from criminal liability by removing them from office through the act of impeachment. Therefore in terms of human rights principles impeachment is but another expression of the right to effective remedy especially if the perpetrator of human rights violations is the State or the high official of the state.
The impeachment trial also stems from the principle that public office is a public trust and that the people has the right to participate in government, to seek and receive information, and to assert their sovereignty as the basis for the existence of the State.
Viewing the result of the impeachment case against Arroyo, and the subsequent reaction of the State against any form of dissent questioning Arroyo’s legitimacy it is clear that far from upholding the will of the people, the Arroyo government has succeeded in setting limitations and outright restrictions to the free exercise of the people’s will.
Curtailing Civil and Political Rights Through Deception and Force
Throughout the whole Garci scandal and during the impeachment proceedings, it was clear that Malacañang and Arroyo’s allies in Congress did everything to prevent any discussion that would prove Arroyo’s culpability. And they did this by mastering the art of “preemptive action” through deception and force.
When a radio station aired a copy of the “Garci tapes”, Press secretary Ignacio Bunye immediately held a press conference the very next day announcing that they have a copy of the tapes and that they will investigate it. A few days later Bunye and then Environment Secretary Mike Defensor were saying that the conversations were wiretapped and that foreign audio experts were of the opinion that the tapes were fabricated.
The swift action of Malacañang’s crisis management team effectively did two things: one, it put to question the credibility of the tapes; and second, by saying it was wiretapped the tapes content could not be used as evidence in any court proceedings against Arroyo.
When the people took to the streets calling for Arroyo’s ouster even after the “I Am Sorry” speech of Arroyo, Malacañang prevented it from snowballing into another people power uprising by consolidating its allies in government. They did this by offering charter change as an alternative to solve the political crisis; which astutely includes the proposal of a transitional government which will give elected officials the chance to continue in power up to 2010 or beyond. Arroyo’s allies also dared the opposition to file impeachment charges in Congress so as to avert the possibility of resolving the “Gloriagate” scandal by an extra-constitutional action of people power to the more safe arena of Congress where Arroyo have the security of “numbers”.
To preempt an impeachment complaint in the House from prospering, Malacañang again cunningly did two things – it filed a weak impeachment complaint through Oliver Lozano and ordered a ban on public officials from testifying in any Congressional hearings by virtue of Executive Order (EO) 464, a presidential order supposedly based on the principle of protecting national security and the office of the presidency.
After legally maneuvering and twisting the provisions of the Constitution, Arroyo turned to using force against dissent by ordering the implementation of a Calibrated Preemptive Response (CPR) Policy and then last February declaring a state of national emergency by virtue of Presidential Proclamation (PP) 1017. The CPR did not just subject freedom of assembly to regulations but more so it was a curtailment of it. A fact that the Supreme Court upheld in its decision declaring not only the CPR, but also EO 464 and PP 1017 as unconstitutional.
After the smoke cleared from the “Hello Garci GloriaGate” scandal, Arroyo have already consolidated her hold to power, and Malacañang has effectively diffused and weakened the movement calling for her to step down from power. Yet in spite of this, the people’s search for the truth continues as can be seen in the recent filing of another impeachment complaint.
Another round of impeachment: A rehash of the same case?
Last month, with the end of the one-year ban prescribed by the Constitution, the opposition and other progressive organizations filed another impeachment complaint against Arroyo. The impeachment complaint is similar in both form and substance to the amended impeachment complaint of last year. It accuses Arroyo of culpable violation of the Constitution, bribery, graft and corruption, and grave abuse of authority.
The only difference now is that according to the opposition instead of focusing on obtaining the 79 votes they are more interested in using the impeachment process to force Arroyo to answer the charges, and thus put a closure to the crisis of legitimacy hounding the presidency.
But the question is what are the chances of another round of impeachment passing muster in the committee on justice when like before the majority of its members are staunch allies of Arroyo. Other factors that must be considered are the political realities that upon resuming session in July, the members of the House will be more intent on deciding the issue of charter change and preparing for the upcoming elections of 2007 than spend time on another impeachment proceeding.
Although it is true that no substantial debate occurred during last year’s impeachment case, due to the fact that the committee on justice dismissed the amended complaint when it ruled in favor of the Lozano complaint. Still the question arises, will the evidence of the cases filed under the “new” impeachment complaint be sufficient enough to merit an impeachment case or will it be dismissed again for lack of merit?
As of now, Malacañang seems to be downplaying the impeachment complaint saying that they will just leave it to the lawyers and the members of the house. While on the other hand the opposition seems to be relying on the support of people’s organizations and private individuals who are taking the initiative in filing the complaint.
Whatever the outcome of another impeachment will be the fact remains that in terms of support in the House Arroyo still has the upper hand, and she also has a strong control of the whole state machinery that could be use to crush dissent that might stem from another failed impeachment bid.
At the most, what the opposition could hope for in another impeachment bid is to score in terms of political propaganda - expose Arroyo’s culpability and by so doing hope to create a public uproar against Arroyo. In any case, an impeachment complaint in the House will fail without a strong participation from the people. Only a people’s movement could help avert the chances of the impeachment case becoming a mere political exercise in futility.
In the final analysis, the need to prove Arroyo’s guilt is not just a question of wanting to remove her from power, more so it is a question of protecting our rights as citizens’ against tyranny and abuses of power.
We must overcome the fear that stems from the propaganda that removing Arroyo will just create chaos, and the apathy that is a result of our ignorance regarding our obligation to demand from the State – being claim holders of entitlements provided by the Constitution and International Human Rights Conventions – that in every way and at all times human rights should be respected, protected, and fulfilled by those whom we gave power to as our representatives in government.

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