For the first time, the Philippines’ two highest officials face the threat of impeachment in the House of Representatives. President Rodrigo Duterte faces an impeachment complaint filed on March 16 by a bemedaled former putschist-turned-congressman, Gary Lejano, while Vice-President Leni Robredo faces one filed on March 20 by a perennial candidate, Marcos loyalist and political gadfly, Oliver Lozano.
Both appear to be impeachment-proof, although Duterte, whose murderous anti-drug campaign continues to resonate positively with a population weary of street crime, is probably more secure than Robredo. The president presides over a political coalition that protects him. The vice president for her part, has little by way of House support. She is ambivalent about her party affiliation which is part of the ruling coalition in the House although it is oppositionist in the Senate.
The thunder and bluster greeting the impeachment effort betray apprehension not about impeachment itself, but what is widely bruited about as the reason for the impeachment: as a prelude to an International Criminal Court proceeding against the president.
What the two complaints have in common is President Duterte’s controversial anti-drug campaign, which was condemned by the Parliament of the European Union on March 16 (along with the looming restoration of the death penalty and the detention of Senator Leila de Lima). The impeachment against the president aims to put on record the alleged Davao Death Squad, while the one against Robredo zeroes in on her recent video message to a civil society gathering at the sidelines of a United Nations conference, arguing the drug war is an act of treason based on invented statistics.
The two efforts are similar to past ones in that they are as much about political theater as they are about exacting accountability. Opposition to the president’s methods –and stubborn insistence on those methods—in his anti-drug campaign has faced stubborn resistance both in the Philippines and abroad, which has led not only to an escalation of ferocious language on the part of the president, but by his officials, as well, most recently against the European Union Parliament and the New York Times.
Beyond the dizzying headlines, a more fundamental question needs to be asked. What accounts for impeachment mania in Manila?
Philippine presidents have continued to enjoy vast formal and informal power which persists so long as the incumbent is not seen to be unduly abusive of those powers, too heedless of the needs of the coalition over which they preside, or too contemptuous of public opinion and the expectation that presidents are primarily tasked with keeping order.
These three expectations are matched by three practical limits to presidential power: the nature of the mandate of a president; his or her ability to marshal and maintain the mercenary majority that immediately coalesces around the winning presidential candidate; and public opinion during the slow, but inexorable, downward slide of every president’s popularity during their term.
Since democracy was restored in 1986, all presidents have been plurality presidents, which results in a vastly powerful office bereft of a firm mandate. This saddles new presidents with an inherited majority in Congress because instantaneous shifting of loyalties causes sudden stampedes into the often miniscule party vehicle the candidate ran under. That causes tensions between the original coalition of the new president and their newly-formed but mercenary congressional majority.
Patronage thus becomes the currency of the realm, and a president’s fate is determined by how expertly, or injudiciously, he or she handles dishing it out.
The law of unintended consequences now confronts the ruling coalition in both impeachment cases. It can kill the political prospects of presidential allies, it can make the careers of his critics; it can spin out of control if improperly handled, all because it is a blunt weapon when used by a sitting administration.
Furthermore, as far as the case against President Duterte is specifically concerned, the administration is now in a bind. Like any administration before it, it possesses an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives, which has the sole power to impeach. It also has an obedient majority in the Senate, where impeachments are decided. It can easily dismiss the impeachment complaint on merely procedural grounds; but that risks aiding the larger purpose of the complaint: to prove accountability is impossible under Philippine law and institutions.
The Senate can almost as easily reject the impeachment after going through the motions of hearing the evidence, such as it is, but that entails giving additional exposure to the allegations, and the documents and witnesses that support the case.
That opens up, in turn, the risk –remote, to be sure—of impeachment succeeding and the Senate having to hear the case. A potential impeachment complaint against the Ombudsman, while merely grandstanding at present, could snowball, if only because it would remove her from office early and allow the president to appoint a successor (Solicitor-General Calida, for example, had been endorsed by then-mayor Duterte for the position of Ombudsman in 2011).
The case against the Vice-President is similarly fraught with the possibility of unintended consequences. Solicitor-General Calida and Secretary of Justice Aguirre have both announced their eagerness to help the prosecution –which, if combined with an obliging House vote, would paint a picture of an administration coalition out to get the President’s designated successor with unseemly haste (she faces an electoral protest by Ferdinand Marcos Jr.) and would upset the coalition’s balance of forces.
Duterte’s coalition, composed of his own Mindanao-based supporters, leftists, and former officials of his predecessors Fidel V. Ramos, Joseph Ejercito Estrada, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, together the Marcos family and political machine, has different motives in supporting Duterte beyond the obvious one of getting even with the past administration. Each wants to accomplish the previously impossible –succeed the incumbent.
Removing Robredo would sideline Marcos Jr., who is out of office. It would be preferable for him to be able to maneuver a Supreme Court decision ousting the Vice-President. Other supporters of the president would join the scramble that would ensue from impeachment, as personalities in both houses of Congress lobbied for appointment as the Vice-President’s replacement (when there is a vacancy in the vice-presidency, the president nominates a member of either chamber, for election by Congress as the new veep).
Former president Gloria Macagapal Arroyo for her part, patiently biding her time for constitutional amendments to be passed to shift to a parliamentary system, would find her dreams of becoming premier dashed by jockeying for the vice-presidency in anticipation of a presidential election to come, dimming enthusiasm for a shift in government, and making her assiduous efforts to place allies in economically-vital government positions in expectation of what a shift to a parliament and then election as prime minster would require, all for nought.
It is President Duterte, however, who is in the position of a poker player having his bluff called, and the ante raised. The charges zero in on two issues that cut to the core of his political personality. There are allegations about his personal honesty; and of his presiding over a policy of the mass liquidation of an entire segment of the Philippine population. Impeachment may be a manageable political exercise, but a subsequent proceeding in the International Criminal Court is not. Here, a resolution by the European Parliament (following an earlier on adopted on September 15, 2016) is pregnant with meaning.