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Impeaching the Chief Justice


The assault on independent agencies of the government continues as President Rodrigo Duterte’s allies attempt to bully those who have not gone over to their side.

Case in point is the current effort to remove Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno from office.

The impeachment charges presented at the Congress against Sereno appear weak and have the marks of a fishing expedition. And yet those who want to please Mr. Duterte try hard to get the impeachment proceedings going.

The Ombuds(wo)man Conchita Carpio-Morales is also under siege, a candidate for impeachment as well. Sen. Leila de Lima is in jail on what appear to be trumped-up charges. Duterte’s fiercest critic, Sen. Sonny Trillanes, is being harassed left and right.

Why are Duterte’s allies doing all these?

The President has expressed impatience over the inconveniences of a working democracy. He finds the Office of the President too weak to be able to do what he wants without resistance from any sector.

Mr. Duterte wants, therefore, to get rid of the other Constitutional bodies that ensure the checks and balance needed in a true democracy. He wants the co-equal branches of government deprived of power and rendered toothless. Or pack them them with yes-men as he’s done in the Congress with his supermajority there.

Duterte has said so himself. He wants the President to have unbridled power to do as he pleases. Proof of this is his penchant for shortcuts in the legal system, of which the extrajudicial killings are a prime example. That’s also why he keeps floating the idea of a revolutionary government in which, as president, he can have unchallenged power. The threat of Duterte succeeding in imposing a revolutionary government has to be viewed with keen vigilance by the people.

A functioning democracy requires checks and balance among those that hold the powers of government. Without checks and balance provided by the co-equal branches of government — the executive, legislature and the judiciary — power-sharing will be skewed in favor of one or two branches, which is dangerous.

Indeed the 1987 Constitutional Convention intentionally limited the powers of the president in order to prevent another dictator, like Ferdinand Marcos, from taking over most powers of government. Mr. Duterte feels constrained by this arrangement and wants to circumvent it through a revolutionary government.

Even giving Duterte the benefit of the doubt and grant that he means to do what he thinks is good for the country, loading the presidency with unequal powers over the other two branches of the government is very dangerous and a grave threat to democracy. Indeed that would no longer be a democracy but an autocracy or, shall we say the word: a dictatorship.

But Duterte thinks that’s the only way he can put in place his pet political ideas. That’s why he complains a lot about how difficult it is for him to institute reforms that he thinks the country needs.

So far he has taken turns pushing for a revolutionary government and later back-tracking, in the process trying to gauge the people’s response to his trial balloons. The military has come out in the open disapproving of a revolutionary government, and that has been a factor in Duterte’s decision-making process on the issue.

One day Duterte is for a revolutionary government, the next day he’s not. He likes to play games like that, in part to confuse the people and in part to gauge how people react.

But he’s playing a dangerous game. He knows that, which explains his backtracking. How far he’ll push for a revolutionary government and his other pet ideas will depend on how much opposition there is from the other co-equal branches of government (and the people). The Congress is already in his pocket and the judiciary is the current target.

That’s why his allies are working hard at getting rid of the Chief Justice.


Happy Christmas to all readers of Manila Mail, all my personal friends in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, and all my colleagues on the newspaper!


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