POSTSCRIPT / January 24, 2012 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Corona is luckier than Estrada in Senate trial

DAVIDE COURT: Impeached Chief Justice Renato C. Corona is luckier than then President Joseph Estrada who in 2001 faced trial in the first-ever impeachment of a Philippine president.

Corona should thank his stars that Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile is presiding over the trial. With his firm and fair hand, the octogenarian senator is the saving grace of the judicial-political process now entering its second week.

In contrast, Estrada had the misfortune of having then Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. co-presiding over his trial together with then Senate President Aquilino Pimentel.

Davide was the chief of the High Court that later declared the presidency vacant after ruling that Estrada had, judging by his body language and public statements, “constructively” resigned.

Shortly after, Davide hurriedly administered the oath of office of then Vice President Gloria Arroyo as “acting president” with Pimentel holding the microphone like an acolyte. Ms Arroyo later metamorphosed from acting to actual president.

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LEGALITIES: Corona is lucky being defended by a powerhouse headed by former Associate Justice Serafin Cuevas, the professor of some of the prosecutors. Ranged against the veteran jurist, the congressmen-prosecutors look like amateur operators of the student council.

(Incidentally, Cuevas was with Estrada’s defense panel then led by court miracle-worker Estelito Mendoza. He also happens to be a leading member of the Iglesia ni Cristo, if that matters at all).

But the fate of Corona, who has to contend with relentless administration propaganda to blacken his reputation, will not be decided mainly on legalities or the brilliance of his defense team.

The fact that 11 of the 23 senator-jurors are lawyers will have minimal impact when the final hour of reckoning comes, when every senator will weigh his vote against his personal interests.

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PLAN B: Conviction of Corona requires 16 (two-thirds) of the now 23 members of the Senate. The total membership should be 24, but Liberal Sen. Noynoy Aquino left in 2010 to become President.

If Corona can muster at least eight votes, he is safe. It might be easier for him to secure eight votes than for his enemies to gather 16 votes to convict him.

It is too early to predict the final score, but Malacañang seems to be unsure of conviction. No wonder there is a Plan B, a fallback to pursue Corona’s ouster even if he is acquitted.

This could be similar to the EDSA-II “People Power” march that drove then President Estrada out of the Palace to avoid a costly and possibly bloody conflict.

The administration has gone all-out to demolish Corona in the public mind, to shame him into resigning, because the Palace is not sure of convicting him.

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ODOR OF POLITICS: It is clear that the Senate — not only Corona and/or the Supreme Court — is also on trial.

By the way they talk and conduct themselves, some senators have shown that they are not neutral jurors. At least one leading member of the Liberal Party does not even try to hide his rising to the succor of prosecutors when they fumble.

Enrile has said that the impeachment court will be guided by the Constitution, the applicable laws, the evidence and the conscience of the senator-jurors.

Those factors will not cover everything. For one, the foul smell of politics is heavy in the background.

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PRESSURE: The Senate is actually glued together by a modus vivendi among several groups, including the major parties. Anytime the various factions shift, tectonic tremors could revamp the leadership in the chamber.

Enrile has said that they can have the Senate presidency anytime they want to grab it. “They” presumably includes President Aquino, the playing coach of the prosecution team hounding Corona.

If he wants to stay, the Senate President will be under pressure to try remaining in the good graces of Malacañang despite his claim of independence.

As for the other senators, six of them are up for reelection. Although four of them are conceded as sure winners, they may be tempted to accept assistance from the Palace when the campaign rolls in next year.

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BINAY FACTOR: The ramifications go beyond the Senate. For instance, Vice President Jojo Binay would not want Corona replaced with, say, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio who is often mentioned as the Palace choice.

The Binay camp identifies Carpio with Transportation Secretary Mar Roxas, who has a pending election protest against the Vice President with the Supreme Court sitting as a Presidential Electoral Tribunal.

As Carpio’s ascendancy in the tribunal will be bad for Binay, he can be presumed to be moving to keep Corona safe.

This point is reminiscent of the hesitation of some sectors to press the ouster of then President Arroyo if she would just be replaced by then Vice President Noli de Castro, arguably the worse of two evils.

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EDSA-II: Estrada never saw conviction nor acquittal in his impeachment trial since the process was aborted after the prosecutors walked out on Jan. 16, 2001.

They abandoned the fight when they could not force the opening of an envelope thought to contain bank documents proving that Estrada was the real Jose Velarde, purported owner of a questioned account.

The walkout triggered what was to be called EDSA-II. Four days later, Estrada left Malacañang by the back door and crossed the Pasig River to avoid the mob at the front gate.

With this lesson, Enrile declared that under his watch, he would not allow such antics as walkouts.

If the same stance were taken by Davide, Estrada could have been acquitted. The opening of the envelope days later revealed documents showing that he was not the owner of the Jose Velarde account.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 24, 2012)

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