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SILING LABUYO: Duterte’s quest for absolute power

Still basking from a successful ASEAN Summit, President Rodrigo Duterte feels energized by the public display of support he has gotten particularly from the three powerful world leaders: Presidents Vladimir Putin (Russia), Xi Jinping (China), and Donald Trump (U.S.). The president is probably enjoying a feeling of legitimacy these days over his drug war with the attention he has gotten.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the only leader who addressed Duterte’s drug war and the extra judicial killing (EJK) in the country. Duterte felt personally insulted by Trudeau’s comments and reiterated his mantra that he is only accountable to the Filipino people who voted him into office. The president’s arrogance is probably buoyed by ASEAN leaders’ silence on the EJK matter and the financial support he is getting from China, Russia, and the United States for his drug war.

But after the euphoria dies down, reality will set in that after his term, Duterte could be facing multiple legal problems in several fronts along with some of his cabinet people and PNP personnel for the manner they conducted the war and the resulting EJKs. He also knows that for the police to continue to do the bidding for him, they must be assured that they too will not be prosecuted for the EJKs that they have committed. He is also accused of amassing ill-gotten wealth, of being involved in the drug trade, and the man behind the Davao Death Squad that reportedly has now been made part of the PNP.

Thus the idea of a revolutionary government though constitutionally infirm is quite appealing to the president. A revolutionary government will not only grant him unbridled power, he could even stay in power longer as he desires and his supporters willing to countenance. With Martial Law still in place in Mindanao, he has floated the idea of expanding it to other parts of the country. The loose talk about destabilization moves by the opposition was a ruse to get the ball rolling. But there was a hitch – the military will not go for it and said so publicly through Vice President Leni Robredo and the AFP’s spokesman. “No revolutionary government because Leni said so,” quipped the president when asked for comment. But it does not mean he will not resort to this when push comes to shove.

With such formidable obstacle getting in the way, the next best thing would be to control all branches of government to ensure their desired outcomes will be accomplished. The dismissal of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s plunder case (courtesy of Arroyo appointed justices) gave Duterte hope that this route holds promise. Apart from the four (Samuel Martires, Noel Tijam, Andres Reyes, and Alexander Gesmundo) he has already elevated to the Supreme Court, Duterte will have the pleasure of appointing eight more justices as their mandatory retirement age of 70 comes up. The only justice who would still be there after Duterte’s term is no other than Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, an appointee of the previous president.

Duterte’s ruling party already controls both Houses with two trusted lieutenants at the helm: Senate President Aquilino Pimentel and Speaker of the House Pantaleon Alvarez. Alvarez has initiated the impeachment proceedings for Chief Justice Sereno and despite the charges lacking substance, the Justice Committee still went ahead for impeaching the lady justice. Impeachment being a numbers game, many are alarmed by the brazen exercise and abuse of impeachment power by the Speaker. Alvarez apparently has an axe to grind against Sereno related to the PIATCO arbitration case but that could just be noise and the real intent is to really have full control of the Supreme Court by not leaving anything to chance. Duterte wants to be shielded from future legal actions that could land him in jail. With Sereno out of the way, Duterte and company (and this includes his family who are being investigated by the Ombudsman for illegal drug trade involvement) can have his kangaroo court and whistle into the sunset with the fruits of his labor in tow.

The Ombudsman, another independent constitutional body is next in sight for impeachment. There are plenty of congressional endorsers waiting in the wings once the signal is given to initiate the impeachment actions. Ombudsman Conchita Morales has initiated an investigation on the president’s alleged ill-gotten wealth. She also recently formed a team to investigate the president son Paolo and son-in-law Manases Carpio for involvement in the illegal drug trade.

Administration factotums are urging both ladies to resign rather than risk impeachment but both are defiant and even challenging the administration to go ahead with their plans. If everything is on the level, both are confident that impeachment will not prosper but they recognize the reality of the situation and are therefore fighting it tooth and nail through the legal means.

In the meantime, another independent body is now under administration control with the resignation of COMELEC chairman Andres Bautista who was an Aquino appointee. Senator Leila De Lima, a former justice secretary and rabid critic of the president is languishing in jail courtesy of the Supreme Court majority who gave their imprimatur based on flimsy charges and tainted testimonies of drug lords currently in the Penitentiary.

The signs are clearly there but the question is will Duterte succeed in any of these undertakings? Public support for the president is still high and therefore there will be no critical mass to contend with for a while. Filipinos’ tacit approval of Duterte’s war on drugs and resultant EJK stems from deep frustration and the belief that the country has finally found a leader with the balls to go after corrupt officials and fighting criminality head on albeit with attendant vulgarity. Public support for Sereno is low and there is much to be desired with her trust ratings. Even within the employee ranks at the judiciary, nothing comes close to what former Chief Justice Renato Corona got when he was in the same impeachment boat. Sereno not only has a public relations problem, she has her own enemies within the Supreme Court. A lady justice is even willing to testify against Sereno if it ever gets to the senate trial.

Perhaps the military and the Catholic Church are the remaining bastions that could thwart such dastardly machinations. There is currently a cold front from the military (but it does not mean they are not concerned). There are, however, signs of life from the Princes of the church vocalizing displeasure and disapproval of EJKs. Bishop Socrates Villegas, a former acolyte and trusted aide of the late Cardinal Sin might light a fire, get the conflagration started, and rally the people to start confronting Duterte’s quest for absolute power.

Lord Acton got it right, that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” especially in the hands of people like Duterte and company whose hunger for power and messianic delusions knows no border. Edmund Burke admonishes that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

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