By Francisco S. Tatad
More than a thousand people died in the Philippine floods before Christmas. But as Filipinos tried to cope with their latest tragedy, they also saw their country plunge into its worst political crisis in years. President Benigno Simeon Aquino III has virtually taken over Congress, and is now trying to remove the Chief Justice in his effort to subjugate the Supreme Court.
The President has openly attacked the 15-member High Court, defied its orders, and bulldozed 188 of the 285 members of the House of Representatives into impeaching Chief Justice Renato Corona, even without a verified complaint. He also threatens to impeach the other justices. He is now trying to pull in the normally independent Senate, which will try the impeachment case.
What is happening is the exact opposite of the Arab spring, which has replaced dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and is now about to do the same in Syria. Aquino has put himself at odds with the Constitution, which his late mother Cory Aquino promulgated in 1987, and turned against his parents’ legacy, which was the sole basis of his running in the 2010 presidential elections.
Aquino’s father, former Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., was assassinated at the Manila international airport in 1983 as he returned from the US to resume his fight against the Marcos regime. Cory presided over the democratic transition that followed Marcos’ ouster during the “people power” uprising of February 1986.
The only institutions that now stand in Aquino’s way are the 24-strong Senate, and possibly the Catholic Church, which has condemned Aquino’s proposed population control legislation but has not weighed in on the current conflict. Virtually the entire legal profession is aghast at the turn of events. But part of the mainstream media and the propaganda pollsters appear to have been coopted by Aquino’s apologists. The United States and the country’s other democratic allies, all supporters of the Arab spring, have not said one word about Aquino’s shift to one-man rule.
The impeachment trial is scheduled to commence soon, but there may be no trial at all. A former president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines has asked the Supreme Court to restrain the Senate from hearing the complaint, for being null and void. In their rush to please Aquino, the congressmen failed to come up with a verified complaint, and produced an unverified one instead. The complaint is void, on its face. Corona himself has asked the Senate to dismiss the complaint on the same and other substantive grounds.
What happens now if and when the Court or the Senate declares the complaint null and void? Would Aquino respect it? He should, but then he may not. Should that happen, he could plunge the country into so grave a crisis that the only possible outcome would be to either abolish the Constitution or remove the President. Passive or active resistance could then ensue, but Aquino could use the military and the police to crush any protest.
A lot depends on what the US says or does. Marcos stayed in power for 20 years with US support; he was taken out of power with US support. Aquino undoubtedly enjoys the same support. If the Dec. 23, 2011 issue of the US-based Executive Intelligence Review is to be believed, US President Obama’s search for Asian allies to support his “Ring around China” policy has yielded only two enthusiastic supporters: President Aquino and Nobuteru Ishihara, secretary general of LDP of Japan.
This could explain why Aquino seems so confident and secure in his drift toward dictatorship. Still the US must decide whether in trying to maintain its position as the first power in the Asia Pacific, its best interests lie in protecting the genuine democratic aspirations of peoples or in propping up the personality or ambition of their authoritarian leaders.
 The writer served as a Cabinet member for ten years and a senator for nine years. He was Senate Majority Leader of the Philippine Senate during the Estrada impeachment trial in 2000-2001. His book, A Nation on Fire: The Unmaking of Joseph Ejercito Estrada and the Remaking of Democracy in the Philippines, is a full documentation of Estrada’s trial and ouster in 2001.