Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Side issues

This is my column today.

If we are to believe the prosecution team, the issue is neither Chief Justice Renato Corona nor the Supreme Court. It is, as Niel Tupas whined publicly, about making officials of this land accountable to the solemn oath that they made when they assumed office. And yet, he heaped scorn at the man —who is not the issue at hand—and addressed him in the first person during his opening remarks.

If we are to believe the defense team, the issue at hand is not anymore Chief Justice Renato Corona but the independence of the Supreme Court and the judiciary as a co-equal branch of government. And yet, the defense took pains defending the supposed honor and integrity of Corona, the same man who is supposedly no longer the issue at hand. The rally that was staged Monday morning at the Supreme Court was not also about the Supreme Court or about Justice per se, but about Corona.

The networks also chose to focus their cameras on Corona so that a small window bearing the somber face of the Chief Justice was on camera the whole time the trial was ongoing and being televised.

Both spokespersons spent considerable time in their opening remarks last Monday addressing what the impeachment trial is not supposed to be about. Most of the main characters in the impeachment trial—with the exception of the senators who so far have succeeded in resisting efforts to grab the limelight—have also been spending time addressing these so-called side issues prior to the start of the impeachment. Corona himself delivered a scathing speech at the steps of the Supreme Court Monday morning answering the allegations directed at him, most of which he said were non-issues.

We should cut the bullsh*t and acknowledge the elephant in the room – this very costly exercise is about one man – and his name is Renato Corona.

It gets more complicated. Just as Corona was concluding his speech, the prosecution team’s own press conference started at the Senate. The members took turns lambasting Corona for answering the allegations they themselves fed to the media. This game of tag and one-upmanship will be a continuing source of amusement and befuddlement in the next few weeks. It’s a game where the first party commits a violation of the rules and when imitated by the second party the first partly readily accuses the second party of violating the rules. If you are confused, don’t fret. So is everyone else. And it’s intentional; this is, after all, the way legislators and lawyers make money in this country.

This running around in circles is exasperating. But this is the stuff that will make the impeachment trial interesting to many. It’s the verbal scuffle, the efforts to outwit and outmaneuver, the bombs, the surprise tricks and sleight of hand that many will look forward to. To get to the heart of the issues, we will all have to suffer a lot of fools and dig through a lot of crap.

And whether we like it or not, we will have to deal with very many supposed non-issues that are central to the issues at hand. Actually, I predict that the debate over what issues are central and which are not will become more and more contentious.

For example, Hacienda Luisita. For the longest time, the matter of the Supreme Court decision to redistribute Hacienda Luisita to farmers was whispered about as the real impetus for the President’s zealousness to impeach the Chief Justice. Well, Hacienda Luisita has finally been acknowledged as a side issue in the impeachment trial. Corona himself brought it up Monday morning at the rally. He said that the government wants him impeached because he is a major hindrance to the desire of the President’s family to retain ownership of the Hacienda. Given that the Supreme Court decision to redistribute the hacienda was unanimous, why the Cojuancos would vent their anger on Corona alone is a question that has not been answered in a satisfactory way.

But it is quite telling that the issue is already out in the open. The President’s loquacious youngest sister herself seemed to have acknowledged the Aquino family’s stake in the impeachment trial. In a television show, she was asked the rather frivolous question: If she were made to choose one, who among Former First Lady Imelda Marcos, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago would she choose to invite for dinner? She picked Senator Santiago because, and I quote verbatim: “We need her vote in the impeachment.” Since she is not a government official, nor has she packaged herself as part of the civil society movement, the use of the second person pronoun has been largely interpreted to refer to her family, or to be more specific, her family’s business interests.

The allegations that the Coronas have amassed wealth and the story about the mismanagement of the World Bank grant are side issues that are obviously propagandist in nature. Corona has only been Chief Justice for less than two years and most of the disputed pieces of property that Corona is supposed to own were supposedly acquired prior to 2010. The World Bank project has been there in the last decade. Both were not even included in the complaint transmitted to the Senate. The inordinate attention to the list is intriguing given the fact that based on independent verification, it includes original titles of previous owners, parking spaces, and properties owned by children of Corona.

An important side issue is the need to ensure that this particular impeachment trial does not repeat the mistakes and the consequent premature termination of the Estrada impeachment trial. A lot of efforts have been made to recall the controversial and contentious components of the Estrada trial, which has enabled Estrada to once again register his vigorous protestations and to submit his sanitized version of history.

And as the impeachment trial got under way last Monday, many noted just how this latest national soap opera is threatening to divide the nation once again. This particular comment struck me because it validated the observation that the supposed invincibility of President Benigno Simeon Aquino is showing signs of weaknesses. As proof, supporters of Corona dared to stage a rally and even came up with protest slogans complete with an effigy of Aquino. All these would have been unthinkable a few months ago given the supposed popularity of the administration.

And because we are in the Philippines where the primetime newscast has to include features on the lives of celebrities and on fashion, we have to note that an important sideshow to the impeachment trial was the color of the robes that the senators wore at the start of the impeachment trial. They wore maroon robes. The robes were a different set compared to what they wore when they took their oath as judges last December. They didn’t look like Santa Clauses anymore, but the resemblance to the Black Nazarene was uncanny. Fortunately, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago was absent due to sickness. Santiago would have pointed out that maroon is not exactly the same as Cambridge red, reportedly the color of choice of the senators.


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