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Merci mercilessly impeached!

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In a stunningly swift action, the House of Representatives impeached Ombudsman Merceditas “Merci” Gutierrez at 12:13 a.m. on March 22, 2011. With only 95 votes needed to approve the Articles of Impeachment (House Resolution 1089), it was passed by an overwhelming vote of 212 for impeachment, 46 against, and four abstentions.

Amidst efforts by supporters of Gutierrez -- including an allegation that a high-ranking official of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) lobbied House members to vote against H.R. 1089 – to rally last-minute support for her, the House allies of President Benigno Aquino delivered a blockbusting vote that demolished attempts to rescue Gutierrez from impeachment.  Indeed, the speed for which the Articles of Impeachment were approved could be a harbinger of Aquino’s expanding – and solidifying -- political power, which he testily flexed when he openly called on his Liberal party mates and non-Liberal allies to affirm their vote for impeachment.  

But the Senate would be a different scenario.  Senators are known for their independence that view themselves as fief lords whose loyalty is measured on how their personal interests are enriched and their political power enhanced.  They are a different breed of political animals.

Indeed, the senators are like flowing lava – fluid but extremely hot.  Their direction is unpredictable and they could abruptly – and sharply -- make a turn without notice.  And if Aquino tries to change the flow, it could burn him badly.  It’s an extremely dangerous “game” and it could ruin the prosecution of Gutierrez.  Aquino would be better off if he kept his hands out of the Senate trial.  He should leave it to the House prosecutors – which the House seems to have aplenty – to prove their case with solid evidence and not allow the Senator-judges any laxity in weighing the evidence.  The evidence alone should be enough to make a judicious decision if Gutierrez had indeed betrayed public trust.

*“Craven Eleven”

There’s many to learn from the Senate impeachment trial of then-president Joseph “Erap” Estrada. On January 16, 2001, the Senate, on an 11-10 vote, ruled not to open an envelope -- which allegedly contained “incriminating evidence” against Estrada -- based on the premise that the envelope was not part of the impeachment complaint; thus, inadmissible in the Senate trial.  The 11 pro-Estrada senator-judges who prevailed in keeping the controversial envelope sealed were known as the “Craven Eleven,” which consisted of Juan Ponce Enrile, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Gregorio Honasan, Ramon Revilla, Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, Robert Jaworski, Tessie Aquino Oreta, Nikki Coseteng, Blas Ople, John Osmena, and Francisco Tatad.

Consequently, then-congressman Joker Arroyo, the head of the House prosecution team, and his team members walked out of the Senate trial in protest of the seemingly politically-motivated adverse action of the “Craven Eleven.”  That put the Senate trial in chaos; thus, ending the impeachment trial of Estrada.  It then forced the anti-Estrada plotters to execute “Plan B.”  Four days later, Estrada was overthrown in a sham “people power revolution” – EDSA 2 -- and catapulted then-vice president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to the presidency.

*Senate impeachment trial

The question is:  What is the likelihood that the Senate impeachment trial of Gutierrez would end up in disarray and chaos similar to the Estrada impeachment trial in 2001? 

It’s important to note that four of the “Craven Eleven” (Enrile, Defensor-Santiago, Sotto, and Honasan) are still in the Senate with Enrile as senate president and Sotto as senate majority leader. And Joker Arroyo, now a senator, would also be a senator-judge in the Gutierrez trial.

With 22 senators (without Ping Lacson who is still out of the country) in the Senate, it would be hard to get 16 senator-judges to vote for conviction, the requisite 2/3 votes required by the constitution.  The buzz going around in political circles is that senators Defensor-Santiago, Arroyo, Honasan, and Jinggoy Estrada have indicated that they were not supportive of impeaching Gutierrez.  Since they haven’t heard the impeachment case yet, it would be fair to surmise that their stand was based purely on personal and political reasons. 

The four opposition Nacionalista senators, Manny Villar, Alan Cayetano, Pia Cayetano, and Bongbong Marcos are most likely to vote against impeaching Gutierrez. 

And how about the bloc of Edgardo Angara, which includes Juan Miguel Zubiri, Ramon Revilla Jr., Lito Lapid, and Loren Legarda?  Would they vote as a bloc regardless of what their conscience would dictate or would they vote their conscience based on the preponderance of evidence?  Interestingly, Lapid and Revilla are close allies of Gloria and would most likely vote against a Gutierrez impeachment. 

The only predictable proponents of impeaching Gutierrez are the five Liberal Party senators: Franklin Drilon, Francis Pangilinan, Ralph Recto, Serge Osmena, and Teofisto Guingona III.  Chiz Escudero and Antonio Trillanes IV would most likely vote with their Liberal allies. 

In the case Enrile and Sotto, their decision could be purely political like what they did 11 years ago during the Estrada impeachment trial when they were part of the “Craven Eleven.” But all things considered, they could swing either way, evidence notwithstanding.

*End game

To convict Gutierrez, 16 votes are needed while only eight are required for acquittal.  If all four Nacionalistas would cast their votes with the four senators who have indicated they’d vote for acquittal, then Gutierrez has already the “magic eight” needed to beat impeachment.  And if the Angara bloc together with Enrile and Sotto would swing for acquittal, then tapos na ang boksing (the boxing is over) – a knockout for the House prosecution team and a political defeat for president Aquino.

With Congress going into the Holy Week month-long recess starting March 26, Aquino has to work hard to convince the senators to keep an open mind and weigh the hard evidence that the House prosecution team would present at the Senate trial. 

However, when all things seem to fail, then Aquino needs to bring his plea to the senators in a language they fully and unequivocally understand.  Simply put, the senators cannot turn a blind eye to the overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives.  They shouldn’t repeat the blatant political act that the “Craven Eleven” did 11 years ago. 

The terms of 12 senators end in 2013 and most of them would most likely want to run for re-election.  And at a time when the voters are anxious to see reforms in government, the repercussions could be severe for those who are out of touch with the people’s sentiments. 

At the end of the day, it can be said that while Gutierrez is fighting for her job, Aquino is fighting for his political life.  And if the Senate fails to impeach Gutierrez, then Aquino might just well kiss his crusade against corruption goodbye.

(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)


By Perry Diaz




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