POSTSCRIPT / November 16, 2000 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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A senator has 2 minutes each day to grill Estrada

IT’S not fair to the Senate, but the sad assessment of most people is that if the impeachment trial of President Estrada were to open tomorrow and a verdict handed down soon after, the President would be acquitted.

The impression is that the President’s staunch allies in the Senate — who were nine as of last count — would not allow him to get the two-thirds vote needed for conviction.

That is, as we’ve said, if the speedy trial were to commence tomorrow and judgment handed down soon after a summary hearing.

* * *

BASED merely on their body language, the Erap allies have been tentatively identified as senators Miriam Santiago, Juan Ponce Enrile, Gregorio Honasan, Blas Ople, Ramon Revilla, Tito Sotto, John Osmeña, Tessie Oreta and Francisco Tatad.

But in the same way that a Manuel Villar materialized in the House of Representatives last Monday and vaulted with a prayer over the Erap sentinels in the chamber, a Pentecostal miracle is still possible in the Senate.

Prayer and such powerful elements might just move some of the Erap stalwarts in the Senate, especially those who are still serious with their religion, to cast a Conscience Vote by the time the juror’s verdict is to be handed down.

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WHAT constitutes a two-thirds vote? Is it two-thirds of the 24 full membership of the Senate or is it to be based on the 22 members left after senators Marcelino Fernan died and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ran to become Vice President?

Two-thirds of a full 24 is 16 votes, while two-thirds of 22 is 14.66 rounded to 15 votes. The fate of Mr. Estrada could hang on this one-vote difference between the two interpretations.

How exactly does the Constitution say it? The pertinent text of Section 3 (6) of Article XI (Accountability of Public Officers) says: “The Senate shall have the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment… No person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of all the Members of the Senate.” (underscoring ours)

* * *

WE noticed that the same phrase “of all the Members” is also used in the earlier Section 3 (3) pertaining to the House of Representatives which says: “A vote of at least one-third of all the Members of the House shall be necessary either to affirm a favorable resolution with the Articles of Impeachment of the Committee (on justice), or override its contrary resolution….” (underscoring ours)

The House interpretation is obviously that the phrase refers to the actual physical membership — not counting those members who had died or left the House for some reason.

That was why in determining the “one-third of all the Members,” the House agreed on the magic number 73, which is one-third of its actual 218 membership.

* * *

FOR the two chambers of Congress to be consistent and in harmony, it would seem that the Senate which is coming late into the impeachment picture may be forced to follow the accepted interpretation of the House, which is that the vote will be counted on the basis of the actual warm bodies (which is 22 in the Senate).

Two-thirds of 22 is 15 (rounded from 14.66), the magic number that we think is needed to convict the President. Right now, not more than 13 votes can be presumed to go against Erap, while nine votes are lined up in his favor.

The computation assumes that no senator will inhibit himself or be disqualified for jury duty. Possible disqualification is another issue, but we’re not discussing it now.

* * *

WILL the senators, sitting as jurors with Chief Justice Hilario Davide of the Supreme Court presiding, be allowed to ask questions of witnesses, one of whom could be a certain Joseph Ejercito Estrada?

If we go by the recent joint public hearing on the jueteng payola scandal by the Blue Ribbon and the justice committees, allowing the senators ample time to interrogate witnesses could stretch the impeachment trial till the President is ready to step down in 2004.

But to deny senators their accustomed theatrics of grilling witnesses in full view of the gallery and the TV cameras could trigger a revolt that could topple brand-new Senate President Aquilino Pimentel faster than Sen. Ramon Revilla could say “impitsment.”

* * *

WHAT to do? Word from the closed meeting of the rules committee chaired by Majority Leader Francisco S. Tatad has it that the group has agreed to give each senator two minutes a day to shoot questions.

Considering that even a bumbling actor could resort to circumlocution or outright evasive ambiguity, two minutes is not much.

But 120 seconds of exposure a day is better than nothing. Better to be photographed with one’s mouth open, a hand upraised as if “stressing a point,” than be captured slouching in the jury box waiting for the kidney to burst.

* * *

IF you were a senator, how would you use your precious two minutes? If it’s only the President in the witness stand that day, you have no choice but to aim for him.

But it is likely that the prosecutors (11 illustrious lawyer-congressmen backed by an army of volunteer private lawyers) will move to subpoena the fair ladies of the President. It is inconceivable that the charges can be amply discussed without bringing in the distaff side of the all-star cast.

Until the jueteng inquiry was overtaken by the Villar fastbreak, the Blue Ribbon committee of then chairman Pimentel dragged its feet in inviting Erap Estrada’s fabulous women. The committee also neglected the preemptive action of barring their possible flight.

* * *

THIS time, it seems that the women won’t be spared. They would soon be receiving their call slip, although they may be called in only toward the end of the show. That is, if they have not slipped out by then.

There is a possibility, the more imaginative among us observers claim, that the women are the weakest links in the President’s defense.

Erap Estrada, aka Asiong Salonga, can take anything, even a brawling scene. But will he be able to stand the sight of his loved ones, the mothers of his children, being paraded, grilled and humiliated before a watching world?

Some people we know are actually praying and burning candles every day that — if only to spare his women and his children — Erap would make the supreme decision to capitulate and resign.

* * *

WE think resignation is the best route for Erap. At this point, all is lost. His personal reputation is ruined. His presidency will never be effective. There is no sense clinging on.

Even an acquittal by the Senate, which is still likely at this point, will not clear him before the bar of public opinion.

In fact, acquittal will just destroy the Senate and send it tumbling with him. It will also destroy the senators who show rabid partisanship. Those who are up for reelection in 2001 with the Erap jueteng ticket are doomed.

* * *

ERAP should consider consolidating whatever assets he could still save and quietly work out an accommodation with the incoming administration.

In the same way that his minions, his women and the parasites living off him won’t gladly go to prison for him, why should he suffer further for them? It’s not worth it.

But if he were to resign anyway, and we think he would eventually, he should hurry doing it before the impeachment trial begins and before the Senate takes jurisdiction over his person as the accused. Once the trial gets under way, resignation would be messy.

If he prefaces his resignation with a public apology, a convincing show of contrition, and some measure of reparation, the Filipino public — notorious for its short span of attention and a forgiving heart — might allow him a graceful exit.

* * *

IMAGINE the irony of Erap Estrada going to jail ahead of his bosom friends the Marcoses, whom he has been trying hard to protect and restore to the mainstream of decent society.

While Erap the gambler is a master of the bluff, he also knows the value of insurance when one is holding a losing card. Instead of losing all, he should not find it too difficult buying insurance and quitting with what’s left.

He should not listen to the people whispering to him not to give up. As they are living off him, they are merely looking after their own self-interests — not his or the country’s welfare.

From the APEC summit in Brunei where he had to go to maintain the farce that he is still in control, Erap might want to come back through a back door, go into retreat, and be alone to think.

He has to make a decision quickly, before the Senate trial begins.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 16, 2000)

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