POSTSCRIPT / November 14, 2000 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Villar, like Sin and Erap, knows how to use prayer

THERE is hope, after all, for this country — if we are to go by the dramatic action of the House of Representatives yesterday officially sending to the Senate the impeachment charges against President Estrada.

Unless the charge sheet is ambushed on its way across town from the Batasan hills to the Senate by the bay, the impeachment trial should be under way in the Senate before the week is over.

As we rush this piece, the House is still waiting for Speaker Manuel Villar to resume the tumultuous session to elect the 11 congressmen who would be sent to the Senate to act as prosecutors in the trial of President Estrada.

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VILLAR has said that with the impeachment charges having been endorsed to the Senate with more than the required 73 minimum votes (a third of the 218 members of the House), it was now all right if the administration-friendly congressmen who command a majority would replace him.

Some pro-Erap congressmen are threatening to run to the Supreme Court to question what some quarters denounced as the alleged railroading of the impeachment resolution by Villar.

It would be interesting to find out if the Supreme Court would meddle in the internal affairs or procedural matters of an independent branch of government.

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ERAP forces were caught flatfooted when, right after the opening prayers, the Speaker proceeded to read the articles of impeachment signed by more than the number of congressmen required by the Constitution and reported its being endorsed to the Senate.

A member who saw the oncoming train kept shouting “Mr. Speaker!” in a vain bid to be recognized and somehow be able to stop what Villar set out to do, but the Speaker ignored him and kept on reading his controversial report.

At least, now we know that not only Jaime Cardinal Sin and President Estrada know how to exploit prayers. Add Villar to the list.

After the coup, the Speaker suspended the session and left the rostrum. The chamber exploded into lusty cheering and singing, never mind if such conduct was banned by the rules. Flushed with victory, opposition congressmen hugged one another and bunched around for photographers.

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WHILE all that was bursting in the House, a staid Senate was caught in another upheaval, although a minor one.

The smaller chamber was at that time counting the 13 votes that installed Sen. Aquilino Pimentel as the new Senate President after the top post held during the past seven months by Sen. Franklin Drilon was declared vacant.

Drilon was being punished by the administration coalition for bolting the majority camp to cast his lot with those asking for the resignation of Erap Estrada.

Pimentel was erstwhile chairman of the Blue Ribbon committee inquiring into jueteng payola charges against President Estrada.

* * *

BUT whether Senate president or plain senator, each member has just one vote to cast in the impeachment trial expected to open soon with a non-voting Chief Justice Hilario Davide presiding.

Theoretically, the Senate reorganization should not affect the partisan alignment in the 22-member chamber still dominated by friends of President Estrada. A two-thirds vote of all members of the Senate is needed to convict the President.

The reality, however, is that control of the Senate leadership and the key committees is crucial in giving direction not only to the legislative agenda but also to the political drift of the chamber.

An element that could tip the pro-Erap alignment of forces during the impeachment trial is good old conscience. In the same way that some senators had succumbed to pangs of conscience, a few others may be similarly stricken as the trial progresses.

* * *

FOR it to gain meaning and perspective, the turmoil in both chambers of Congress must be viewed against the backdrop of a historic first, the impeachment of a sitting President who came into office with a 10-million-vote majority.

The blitzkrieg in the House and the revamp in the Senate are a direct result of the intense partisan fire ignited by the impeachment charges that even now are threatening to scorch some key institutions.

The House apparently passed the test yesterday, although Villar still has to put out a number of brushfire lapping at his leadership. But the Senate will have to look deeper inward and try harder to survive the political conflagration ahead.

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ONE real problem of the Senate is public perception.

To many observers, Erap Estrada already appears guilty of some of the four serious charges against him. Such perception has been fed partly by the Blue Ribbon committee hearing that saw broad elements of the charges confirmed by a parade of bumbling witnesses.

The way the pieces in the jueteng jigsaw puzzle were falling into place during the Senate committee hearing, it appears to many observers that the payola story retailed by Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson had the ring of truth to it.

Erap Estrada has, in fact, been convicted in the minds of many people who have been following the inquiry on radio, TV and the newspapers.

As a result, the Senate has been boxed into handing down a guilty verdict. We doubt if an acquittal would sit well with the public keenly following the Blue Ribbon hearings.

* * *

THAT’S the credibility problem the Senate faces.

The replacement of Pimentel with Sen. Miriam Santiago, the most passionate defender of Erap Estrada in the Senate hearings, as chairman of the Blue Ribbon committee may add to lingering doubts that that committee — and even the Senate itself — could still be objective.

This is not fair to Santiago, but that’s the way it is. Her spirited defense of Erap in the televised inquiry into jueteng payola charges will be remembered when she sits down as new chairman.

* * *

UNTIL yesterday, Estrada apologists were still insisting on what they called the respect for the “constitutional process” — meaning impeachment. The insinuation is that other processes, especially for the President’s resignation, are not constitutional and must therefore be rejected.

The falsity of this argument should be exposed. People should be told that impeachment is not the only process provided under the Constitution for removing a bad president.

Resignation by the president anytime is constitutional. Section 8 of Article VII that cites impeachment also provides for possible death, permanent disability and resignation as the other bases for removing the Chief Executive and for the Vice President becoming the President.

President Estrada can resign anytime during his term without violating the Constitution.

* * *

SOME aspects of the Luneta prayer rally for Erap Estrada last Saturday were able to move a number of people who watched the proceedings on TV.

Even the demeanor of a contrite-looking President Estrada reciting an emotional prayer recaptured for him the fans who had drifted away in reaction to monumental scandals marking his administration.

TV viewers must be reminded that they were watching the performance of a veteran actor pretending to be a humbled president repenting for his sins and crying for sympathy and support.

Remember, we saw the same award-winning performance during Erap’s inaugural at the same Quirino grandstand two years ago when he belted out “walang kaibigan, walang kamag-anak” — a promise he has failed miserably to fulfill.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 14, 2000)

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