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Date: Thu, 19 Oct 2000 18:17:02 GMT
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Subject: Kilosbayan: Where do we stand?
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To: SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU
Subject: Kilosbayan: Where do we stand?

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Where do we stand? What must we do?

A Position Paper by Jovito R. Salonga, 18 October 2000

A Position Paper for the October 17, 2000 meeting and for other subsequent meetings of Kilosbayan, Bantay Katarungan and Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundations, as edited on October 18, 2000.

The facts

The presidency is the key office in the land. The highest office within the gift of our people, the presidency is occupied by a leader chosen to be the principal steward of the national interest. The president is not just a political leader; he (she) is expected to be the role model for all of us and our children—in terms of moral integrity, competence, industry and dedication to the national welfare. This is why in the Philippines, the president is described as the father of the nation, “ang ama ng bansa.” He (she) sets the standards for all, particularly the youth of the land, the hope of the nation. On assuming the presidency, President Estrada swore that—

“He (I) will faithfully and conscientiously fulfill his (my) duties as President of the Philippines, preserve and defend its Constitution, execute its laws, do justice to every man, and consecrate himself (myself) to the service of the Nation.”

The events of the last twenty seven months since he was sworn into office on June 30, 1998, show that President Joseph Estrada does not seem to appreciate the import of his oath of office and his responsibilities as the leader of the nation. Nor does he seem to realize the magnitude of his wrongs. He has used the powers of his high office to bestow incredible benefits and unexplained gains to his family and to his many mistresses. He has extended undue favors to his cronies who flaunt their connections with him as if to let the whole world know that the presidency had been bought by them for their benefit. But nothing places the scandal-plagued president in greater danger of being driven out of office than the allegations of Governor Luis “Chavit” Singson, his former drinking buddy and gambling partner, who has described Estrada as “the lord of all jueteng lords,” for receiving P400 million in illegal gambling payoffs over a 21-month period and P130- million cut from the tax returns on tobacco for his province (Ilocos Sur). In short, Estrada stands accused of being a big-time crook and plunderer, a racket boss receiving huge bribes out of collections from jueteng—the poor man's game of chance in our impoverished country.

President Estrada is reputed to be the champion of the many poor but he and his partners in the illegal numbers game of jueteng have exploited and betrayed them with such vulgarity as to shock the whole nation. A town mayor with the usual take from jueteng should have been ennobled by the awe-inspiring leap to the presidency. But President Estrada, who was a mayor of San Juan, Metro Manila, for many years, before he was elected to the Senate in 1987 and became Vice President in 1992, has established a new record—no president in our history, with the possible exception of Marcos, has gone down so low in terms of crudity and shameless exploitation of the many poor, who patronize jueteng, their favorite game, hoping— against all odds—for a lucky windfall out of their meager, hard-earned savings. The supreme irony is that it is these people who had voted for Estrada. Gov. Chavit Singson, a self-confessed participant in the gambling racket that victimizes our poverty-stricken people, has come out with the shocking truth—the president, for almost two years, has been receiving monthly payoffs from jueteng collections nationwide, i.e., kickbacks amounting to 400 million pesos and P130 million from excise tax on tobacco for his province (Ilocos Sur). Despite some lapses in his testimony in the Joint Senate (Blue Ribbon and Justice) Committee hearings and his candid admission of his sinful past, we have no reason to doubt the truth of Singson's extremely risky, self-incriminating disclosure of the truth, corroborated in part by two senators and some executive officials who admitted having received money from him as “balato” (a share in winnings from gambling), and strengthened by the disappearance of several key witnesses Singson had implicated. The seemingly endless record of scams and scandals plaguing the Estrada Administration since its inception, particularly the BW stock scandal where the President intervened for Dante Tan, another gambling crony, by asking SEC Chairman Perfecto Yasay, Jr. to clear the former in an “insider trading” investigation, may well support Chavit Singson's revelations.

Last October 11, Cardinal Jaime Sin called on the President to resign by relinquishing his office and turning it over to his constitutional successor, since “he (Estrada) has lost the moral ascendancy to govern.” As if on cue, Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo resigned last October 12 as Cabinet member but said she would remain as Vice President. Upon her arrival on October 17, she declared she would lead a “united opposition” and “reach out to different sectors to map out an alternative national agenda to restore propriety, stability and progress.” Earlier, House representatives, supposedly numbering seventy six (76) corresponding to around 1/3 of all the members of the House, would reportedly file an impeachment case against President Estrada, backed up by various groups of concerned citizens, obviously in the desire to short-circuit the proceedings in the House of Representatives and get the Senate to act directly on the case. Pro-Administration solons claim that 160 congressmen have manifested or signed the “Manifesto of Support” for President Estrada. Only a few are still undecided, some of them probably waiting for tangible promises of reward.

Senator Raul Roco says that snap election is his preferred solution. On the other hand, President Estrada announced his belated stand on Thursday, October 12. He denied having received a single centavo from jueteng and will stay on as president despite the call for his impeachment by his political enemies and critics and Cardinal Sin's call for him to step down. On October 15, the president declared that the Government will get out of gambling and that PAGCOR will be privatized—a peripheral remedy that is “too little and too late” and, more importantly, misses the central point: his further stay in office. In the afternoon of October 17, former President Cory Aquino urged a besieged Estrada to consider making “the supreme self-sacrifice, even if it means resignation.” Alternatively, said ex-President Cory, Estrada could take a leave of absence while the charges are being investigated, the Vice-President could take over in an acting capacity and should Estrada be fully exonerated in an investigation over which he had no control, “he can take back the presidency” (a course of action which the embattled president has just rejected). Otherwise, said the former president, Estrada will face impeachment—a “process from which we expect the worst. It will be long drawn-out” (probably not, if Estrada's partisans in the House Committee on Justice consign the impeachment charges to the nearest waste basket); “it will put truth at the mercy of numbers; and it will leave justice in the hands of those whose single overriding concern is their own reelection.” The next day, October 18, forty one (41) members of Congress finally filed the impeachment complaint with the Lower House, backed up by groups of concerned citizens. Hence, the prompt elevation of the impeachment case to the Senate for trial on the charges, if there had been around 67 signatories, did not materialize.

What should we do?

We cannot pretend to be blind and dumb in the face of this issue that now rocks the whole nation. If we choose to be silent, we become party to the very wrongs and injustices we fail to speak and do something about. Of the two constitutional remedies, impeachment or resignation, which should we choose, knowing that the whole nation is suffering , more than our poor people can afford to bear? We in Kilosbayan and sister organizations (Bantay Katarungan and Bantayog ng mga Bayani) must act. What should we do?

There are several obstacles in upholding the impeachment procedure. President Estrada's advisers tell us he will respect the constitutional process of impeachment.

(1) Under section 3, Article XI of the Constitution, an impeachment complaint cannot be frozen; it must be referred to the proper Committee, the Committee on Justice, which will prepare a Report for the House. If the Committee is dominated by the pro-Estrada people, the impeachment of the president will not be given due course. But there is good authority for the common- sense view that if the complaint is filed by at least one-third of all the members of the House, referral to the Committee and decision by the House need not be resorted to—the impeachment case will go to the Senate for trial. This did not happen.

In any case, the Committee on Justice, to which the impeachment Complaint will be referred, can examine and decide whether on its face, the said Complaint should be given due course. If the majority of the Committee members are not independent-minded but are partisan in favor of President Estrada, it can decide to immediately dismiss the case, on any ground whatever, usually for “insufficiency in form and substance.” In short, the Committee may just throw out the complaint. A dominant pro-Estrada Committee on Justice may not even allow the impeachment complaint to reach first base.

(2) If the House Committee, however, is fair and independent-minded, due to the critical media and the mounting public indignation, it can decide to give due course to the complaint, hear various witnesses, discuss and deliberate on whether the evidence presented is sufficient to warrant the filing of Articles of Impeachment. The Committee Report shall be filed within but not more than 60 session days from the date of referral to the Committee. The problem in the House is that its members are exposed to all sorts of enticements— that is to say, all the things that money and government resources can buy. Those who have been enticed need not wait for 60 session days. They can finish the work, if they are minded to do so, by listening to Gov. Chavit Singson, his two or three witnesses, listen to three or more to contradict Singson, close the hearing and declare that after “carefully considering the evidence,” there is not enough proof to convict the President. They can submit their Report to the House many of whose members, despite adverse public opinion, may have also yielded to all sorts of irresistible temptations. Assuming that the 1/3 vote of all members cannot be obtained during the time of voting, President Estrada will be safe from any new case of impeachment for at least one year. Under the Constitution, no impeachment proceeding shall be initiated against the same official—in this case, the President—within a period of one year.

(3) But assuming that a vote of at least 1/3 of all the members of all the House decide in favor impeachment—which means that despite all the resources of the presidency, a substantial number decide, before the scheduled adjournment of Congress on February 9, 2001, that a trial be held in the Senate, based on the Articles of Impeachment, invoking such constitutional grounds as bribery, graft and corruption and betrayal of public trust— what happens?

(4) Again, under Section 3 of Article XI of the Constitution, the Senate shall have the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment. When sitting for that purpose, the Senators shall be on oath or affirmation. When the President of the Philippines is on trial, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shall preside, but shall not vote. No person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of all the Members of the Senate. This provision will make it very difficult to convict President Estrada due to the near-impossibility of finishing the whole impeachment process before the adjournment of Congress on February 9, 2001, to give way to the election campaign for the May 2001 elections for Congress and for local positions. There are many important bills that must be passed before Congress can devote its undivided attention to impeachment—among them, the Budget, the Napocor Bill, and other measures that must be passed in relation to the coming elections. The Budget must be passed by both Houses before Congress adjourns for the Christmas break on or around December 22, 2000. Congress will resume its sessions around mid-January 2000, when the Napocor Bill and other economic measures must be passed. The election fever and the schedule of resumption and adjournment will probably make it difficult to finish the whole impeachment process. No wonder, this is the process favored by the legal advisers of President Estrada.

So far, only three presidents had been exposed to the possibility of being impeached—Elpidio Quirino in 1949, Diosdado Macapagal in 1963 and Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. These three attempts failed, for failure to get the required number of votes even in the first stage of the tedious, cumbersome process.

In the case of President Estrada, impeachment will probably fail because there is not enough time for both houses, particularly the Senate, to deal fairly with this time-consuming process. Congress is set to adjourn on February 9, 2001. A new set of legislators will emerge in July 2001, and no second impeachment case can be filed until October 19, 2001. In short, impeachment will probably be overtaken by events beyond the control of both President Estrada and the present Congress.

In the United States, three presidents had been impeached—Andrew Johnson, where the Senate trial failed by only one vote, Richard Nixon who resigned in 1974 instead of being convicted in the Senate, and Bill Clinton who was impeached by the House but absolved by the Senate in a long proceeding that our Congress cannot possibly replicate.

Why the call for resignation may prove more realistic In light of precedents here and in the United States, the call for resignation by Cardinal Sin last October 11, 2000 may prove more realistic, less cumbersome, will probably resolve the people's dilemma in a faster way, and may prove less susceptible to all sorts of manipulations by those who have the resources of government.

The factors that will affect the decision of the President on the question of resignation will depend on a number of events, a good number of which are beyond his control, namely, the rapid decline in the economy, such as the continuing fall of the peso which may go over 50 pesos to the dollar in a few days, the day-to-day plummeting of the stock market; the sudden increase in the prices of oil and other basic commodities; the raging conflict in Mindanao, drawing the bulk of the Armed Forces and constituting a heavy drain on the faltering economy; the erosion of popular support for the Administration as a result of the revelations of Governor Chavit Singson which our people are apparently willing to believe, based on ongoing surveys, and corroborated now by the admission of receipt of P l million each from Governor Singson by two senators (John Osmeřa and Tessie Oreta) and by several executive officials (Jerry Barican and Lenny de Jesus); the two well-documented exposes of the President's unexplained wealth (particularly the first PCIJ Report) and the flaunting of the law by his own family in the construction of houses in Antipolo City (the 2nd PCIJ Report), both of which remain unanswered by Malacařang; the defection of members from the President's political party apart from Senator Ramon Magsaysay, Jr., Congressman Roilo Golez and Governor Jose Lina; the resignation of Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from the Cabinet due to what she describes as “serious accusations” against Estrada, which the latter belatedly denied, thereby moving the vice president toward the center of the national stage as the most logical leader of the Opposition; the probable resignations by other important government officials which could weaken, if not paralyze, the Estrada Administration; and the near-certainty of external pressures from the IMF and the World Bank and from sources of bilateral aid, like the US and Japan. All these and more may result in the inability of the President to continue governing a people that may have already withdrawn their support. Unless the conditions of the country miraculously improve, President Estrada may have no alternative but resign, unless he wants to risk a social upheaval that may lead to extra- constitutional developments. In the event of resignation, Vice President Macapagal Arroyo will succeed to the presidency in a peaceful transfer of power, as contemplated under the Constitution.

But if the President decides to stonewall and play his last card by calling for a snap election, in an effort to prove to his supporters and patrons here and abroad that he still enjoys the support of the masa, then the preferred extra-constitutional solution of Senator Roco may become suddenly viable. In such an event, anything can happen, including a reprise of Edsa or the recent people-power upheaval in Yugoslavia, highlighted by the intervention of Russia, the downfall of Milosevic and the emergence of the real winner—the brand-new president Vojislav Kostunica.

In short, impeachment will probably work in favor of President Estrada's desire to stay in office except in the very unlikely event that the whole process is done in record time by both Houses of Congress, culminating in the conviction of the president by two-thirds vote of all the Senators on or before February 9, 2001. Resignation will be less cumbersome and more realistic, as it will be shaped by events, many of which are beyond the control of President Estrada. If President Estrada clings to his position, despite adverse developments, a call for a snap election— which is extra-constitutional— might be less humiliating for him, but may lead to a social upheaval reminiscent of Edsa and the recent people power revolution in Yugoslavia.

JOVITO R. SALONGA
October 18, 2000
Pasig City, Philippines