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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 7, 2005
Arroyo claims hollow victory
By Leslie Davis

MANILA - She did want justice. She did desire the truth to come out. Above all, she wanted her day in court. That was the plea from Philippine President Gloria Arroyo in mid-July, when the heavy, soot-laden Manila air resounded with calls for her to step down over allegations she rigged the 2004 elections.

The opposition, which has yet to reveal a coherent center of its own, took its fight off the streets and into the halls of Congress, where, at the opening of the session on July 25, opponents filed an impeachment complaint against Arroyo. The charge sheet contained a plethora of offenses, the most important being the alleged blatant cheating that swindled the Filipino electorate out of its expressed will. Other charges included overpricing of major infrastructure contracts and human-rights abuses.

The plan from there was to gather the required 79 signatures of approval from House members, the magic number needed to

 

transmit the complaint to the Senate, where senators would sit as judges over the woman many are now convinced doesn't really deserve the job.

The Philippine Senate is a loose cannon for Arroyo, the last place she wants an impeachment complaint to end up. This is where the full story would come out live, every day in front of a national TV and radio audience. Not only that, only four of the 23 senators could be considered rock-solid allies. Several senators, including the Senate president, a long time ally, abandoned her in July. Others have conspicuously perched themselves on the fence. Without the comfortable numbers in the Senate, her acquittal would not be a sure thing.

But the House of Representatives is a completely different story. It is here where Arroyo enjoys an absolute clear majority. This is where her loyal minions could and would do everything to save their queen. And their queen would do anything for them, including administering a congressman's favorite form of arm twisting; promises of funds released for their pet projects and juicy positions for relatives and friends.

On Tuesday, her majority came through for her. The Philippine opposition conceded defeat in a vote on whether to impeach Arroyo, though said it would keep up its campaign to unseat her through the courts and in the streets. With more than half the 236 Lower House votes cast, only 31 lawmakers had voted to impeach Arroyo, leaving the opposition well short of the 79 it needed to send Arroyo to a Senate trial. As of now it looks as if Arroyo will not have to face a public trial and almost certain removal from office.

As she heads off to New York this week to preside over the United Nations Security Council, of which the Philippines is a rotating member, she will no doubt hold her head high. She had tried to get her diplomatic corps to shield her from any inquiries from the foreign media in New York. But her executive secretary told her that wasn't possible. So now, her impeachment has been killed and she can stand before the world body and the accompanying media and gloat that it was all pure harassment in the first place.

But no matter what image she projects in New York, Arroyo's troubles at home are not even close to being over. In fact, there are those who are saying that she has merely won the first battle in this political war, but that there are many more to come.

Even some of her allies are saying the victory was a hollow one for Arroyo, one that does nothing to clear her of the serious allegations that are proving to be more and more difficult to deny with each passing day. The impeachment charges were not thrown out because the opposition lacked enough evidence. The opposition has mountains of evidence against her. It all came down to a technicality, one that Arroyo apparently blatantly exploited to her major advantage.

There is a provision in the Philippine constitution that states that not more than one impeachment proceeding can be initiated against a sitting president in the same year. The logical reason for this is so the president of the republic doesn't have to spend entire days defending actions in court, while neglecting duties.

In early July, a day after Arroyo admitted on national television to calling an unnamed elections commissioner to protect her votes, lawyer Oliver Lozano walked into the building housing the Philippine Congress and filed a hastily produced impeachment complaint against Arroyo. The charge on the complaint stated only that Arroyo had betrayed the public trust by calling an elections commissioner. It said nothing about cheating the people of their sovereign will. It was considered a poorly constructed complaint because it used as its only evidence several newspaper clippings. There was little chance it would even get past the committee level, which first determines if the complaint has proper form and substance. The opposition, not fully realizing what had happened under its nose, filed a much stronger and more detailed impeachment complaint two-and-half weeks later, when Congress opened its current session. This complaint was considered well prepared and thorough, and could easily pass the committee level. Then if the opposition could have received the required 79 signatures, it would have gone to the Senate for trial.

But the opposition was never to get its complaint off the ground. The House justice committee, controlled by Arroyo's majority, ruled that since the constitution stated that only one impeachment proceeding could be initiated against the president in a particular year, then the first complaint, the weakest one filed by Lozano, would be the one the committee would take up and consider. The other, stronger complaint, which would have surely nailed the president in the Senate, was thrown in the waste basket. In protest, the opposition staged a walkout. Then with nobody around to raise objections, the majority on the justice committee voted to throw out the weaker Lozano complaint as well, saying it was "grossly lacking in substance". Arroyo would not be impeached this year.

And so, whether the Filipino people would find out if Arroyo was truly elected fair and square came down to a definition of the word "proceeding". The majority claimed that the mere filing of the papers meant that a "proceeding" had commenced. The opposition said that filing of papers is just filing of papers and that the committee was only debating if a proceeding should take place. They and several constitutional scholars argued, the idea with which everyone had agreed, that of determining with finality Arroyo's innocence or guilt, was of paramount importance to the country. The spirit of the law means compromise, which would lead to the truth.

But then came a stunning revelation that indicates the lengths to which Arroyo has gone to make sure the truth does not have a chance to emerge. A day before the House voted to throw out the opposition's stronger impeachment complaint, a former cabinet minister who resigned back in July claimed she overheard an extraordinary conversation between the president and an aide. It was July 8 and the aide told the president that Lozano had just filed his complaint. According to the minister, Arroyo then instructed her aide to find a congressman to endorse the Lozano complaint. Indeed, moments after that conversation, a little-known congressman went to Congress and endorsed the Lozano complaint. Which even to the casual observer would seem mighty strange; here is the president of the republic actually telling an aide to find a congressman so she could have herself impeached.

But, of course, Arroyo knew exactly what she was doing. For back in November, 2000 when she was still vice president, an impeachment case was filed against her by the same lawyer, Oliver Lozano. And as with this time, an ally in Congress then went to endorse it. And same as this time, the complaint was thrown out because it was considered useless by the committee. Through a crafty ploy, Arroyo was inoculated from the anomaly for a further year, thanks to a technicality she exploited.

Lozano insists he does not know Arroyo, saying he doesn't even support her. Few in the opposition, however, are buying that line. Regardless, the deed is done.

So while Arroyo can claim victory, those in the Philippines who simply want to know the truth behind the serious allegations against her are convinced it brings the Philippines to a dangerous precipice where trouble surely awaits. For without a legitimate venue to help uncover the truth, street protests, until now fairly mute, are only bound to grow. Frustration and anger will surely spread. Then, as Filipinos like to point out, "anything can happen in the Philippines".

"The virtual death of the complaints in the committee is not without dire political consequences to the president," wrote commentator Amando Doronila in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. "The quashing of the complaints is an empty victory for the administration. It merely demonstrated that the administration has the capacity to deploy the advantages of incumbency to save the president from being unseated. Until the president stands trial where she can defend herself and where it can be shown that the accusations are false and do not constitute impeachable offenses, it would be hard for her to regain public confidence and reestablish the legitimacy of her government."

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