POSTSCRIPT / January 7, 2001 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Enough evidence, but not enough senators to convict

AFTER 16 days of the impeachment trial, what’s the score? Our scorecard at this point has “impending mistrial” scrawled across it, for a reason we will give later in this piece.

We’re stuck with a situation akin to what the Comelec might call a failure of election where no winner could be declared because the system or the human element, or both, have failed.

* * *

HOW can there not be a mistrial, when some senators sitting as judges do not perform as judges but as partisans obsessed with either defending or prosecuting an impeached President Estrada?

We have counted at least five senators always poised to rise to the defense of the President, earning every peso of the millions that Mr. Estrada must have spent on them.

On the other hand, there are at least three senators always picking up where the prosecution had stumbled. These avid opposition senators are quick to pursue leads and questions not adequately discussed by the prosecution lawyers.

* * *

THE probability of a mistrial, or the fatal failure of the court to bring the trial to a credible conclusion, would be dramatized if somebody insists on the disqualification of at least eight senators who have been patently partisan for either side.

When you remove these eight senators from the lot of 22 senator-judges, you reduce the court to a skeleton of only 14 judges!

There cannot be a credible trial before 14 senators who are burdened by a constitutional requirement to produce 15 votes (two-thirds of the original 22 senators) for conviction. One of the 14 senators left is abroad undergoing medical treatment, leaving 13 for the hearings.

* * *

IF the highly partisan senators are not disqualified, their putrid presence would continue to pollute the “solemn” proceedings. (If we may borrow the adjective that a senator gone mad last Friday used in describing the trial.)

In the end, whatever judgment is rendered by the impeachment court hobbled by the presence of partisan senator-judges would not find acceptance with the public also sitting as an extended jury.

When a tribunal consisting of 22 senator-judges and one non-voting presiding officer functions in effect as an arena of contending political gladiators, the result is inevitably a bloody mistrial.

* * *

WE commiserate with Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. of the Supreme Court whose time, legal wisdom and integrity had been borrowed to lend prestige and credibility to the partisan process of impeachment.

We’re also sorry for the majority of the senators who have been able to remain true to their oath as judges or who have suppressed the urge to stand as either a defense or a prosecution lawyer.

* * *

ANOTHER reason why we have “mistrial” on our scorecard this early is that while there is already enough damning evidence to convict Joseph Ejercito Estrada, there are not enough senators willing to convict him.

The Senate may not realize it yet, but it was handed this historic constitutional task of trying an impeached President, but it is bungling the awesome job as the whole world watches.

All because of a few senators who have refused to shed their partisan colors.

* * *

AS things stand now, if a verdict vote were to be taken tomorrow, President Estrada would be acquitted. This despite the overwhelming evidence showing him amassing unexplained billions while the nation suffers.

As we’ve been explaining since the inception of the trial, the evidence appears to be immaterial and irrelevant (to borrow the favorite adjectives of the defense panel) to the judicial process — as far as a number of coopted senators are concerned.

The bare fact that makes acquittal inevitable is that the court needs 15 guilty votes, but there are not enough of the 21 senators sitting as judges to muster the magic number.

(Note that when we predict acquittal, we advisedly say “if a vote were to be made tomorrow.” D-Day or Decision Day is not tomorrow, but several weeks down the road. And a few things still could happen between now and that day.)

* * *

ACQUITTAL has been wrapped up by President Estrada as far as the Senate is concerned. He already has the necessary numbers – a minimum of eight senators to vote for acquittal (or to abstain) regardless of the evidence presented. This leaves at most only 14 votes that are potentially for conviction.

He is now busy trying to win over also the extended jury, the public. Even as a lame duck president, Mr. Estrada is campaigning all over again among the masses. He is in fact campaigning harder than he did in 1998.

He has to go back to the people because his acquittal must gain public acceptance, or acquiescence, when it comes. Otherwise he would reap a pyrrhic victory where he and the entire nation would lose everything.

Forcing an acquittal upon an incredulous public spells disaster.

* * *

BUT there’s still a chance that the projected acquittal would not materialize. If on D-Day or thereabouts, Malacañang’s reading of the public pulse is that the President’s acceptance rating is critically low, his runners in the Senate could hesitate to force an acquittal.

Expect, therefore, a stepping up of the Estrada campaign from now until D-Day. As the presidency itself is at stake, no budget is too big if it could help deliver the goods. And never mind if public funds are being used for the purpose.

The Estrada camp cannot afford an error or miscalculation. The presidential mistresses and cronies are either low-profile or totally invisible (some of them are reportedly abroad). No controversial orders are issued. Potentially contentious issues are avoided. Questioned projects are on hold.

On the positive side, the President goes around distributing land titles, foodstuff and the usual election goodies. Crowds are organized, bought if necessary, to swarm around him and profess undying support. Media are assiduously courted.

* * *

MALACANANG has given up on the so-called elite, or the Makati perfumed crowd. After all, despite their money they hardly count when confronted by the warm bodies of Erap’s beloved masa.

Surveys are being conducted with increasing regularity to assess the campaign results and help guide Malacañang and Senate operators in deciding if and when to force an acquittal verdict.

* * *

ONE possible miscalculation with disastrous consequences is for pro-Estrada senators to hand down an acquittal when the public has not been adequately prepared for it.

There could be such a miscalculation if the people, notorious for their short span of attention and low threshold of satisfaction (“mababaw ang kaligayahan”) show signs of cooling down or being bored by all that histrionics in the Senate.

Such a lagging of interest, compounded by a perceived rise in the President’s approval rating in the polls, may mislead Mr. Estrada’s operators to think that the people are ready to accept acquittal when such is actually not the case.

* * *

THE public’s stand must be clear all the time until D-Day. Even the scheduling of fewer and smaller street marches, or the toning down of rally speeches and media commentaries, could be taken to mean a waning resistance to acquittal despite the evidence.

The mass media, especially radio and television, are crucial in this short-term battle for the people’s minds. This will explain the gargantuan budgets being allocated for influencing broadcast personalities.

The combined national circulation of all newspapers is not even 1.5 million and this readership is concentrated in the urban centers.

President Estrada is pole-vaulting beyond the press, reaching out to the masses through well-placed radio commentaries and his visits that leave the fans screaming for a view, or a touch, of their hero.

An Aprodicio Laquian type with access could write an entire book on this second whirlwind courtship of Erap with his mass base.

* * *

ON the other side, what is the opposition doing? We do not see much, outside the dainty get-together of like-minded middle-upper class Erap bashers in Makati and the critical comments in Erap’s favorite broadsheets.

These anti-Erap rallies get good coverage in the print media, where the elite have well-placed friends. But how many Filipinos read newspapers daily?

In these anti-Erap rallies, it is always the same crowd meeting in the same plaza or street corner. Their number does not grow substantially since they are mostly talking to themselves, trying to convince the same people who are already convinced.

* * *

WE’RE reminded of a non-issue raised by master tactician Ernie Maceda that was able to creep into the front page of newspapers, including the Star.

The former ambassador to the US said that the bottom line in the impeachment process is a choice between Estrada and Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo!

We must remind everybody that the issue has been and still is whether Erap Estrada is guilty or not.

Arroyo is irrelevant and immaterial to the key issue. Mr. Estrada must be judged according to the evidence presented, not according to who his Vice President is.

Many people just read the headlines and those who saw our headline the other day without an attribution might have thought it was the paper peddling the Estrada vs. Arroyo line. It was Maceda, not the paper, who floated that clever non-issue.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 7, 2001)

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