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Saturday, July 23, 2005

Will There Be An Impeachment Trial?

Posted by Sheila Coronel
PCIJ

THE battlefield is the House of Representatives. The opposition as of tonight still does not have the requisite 78 or 79 (what is one-third of 236?) members needed to fast-track the impeachment complaint against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to the Senate. "But we're quite close," says San Juan Rep. Ronaldo Zamora, who will be the lead prosecutor in the impeachment trial.

Zamora wouldn't say just how close, but some opposition congressmen have told reporters they already have 62 as of tonight. Others say they are sure of at least 67.  That's still a dozen short, but they're not giving up. Frantic meetings are taking place this weekend as the opposition is keen to get the one-third members needed so that the impeachment complaint will not have to go through the justice committee and will instead be tried directly by the Senate. "I might get lucky this weekend," says Zamora, who says the impeachment complaint will be filed at the House first thing Monday morning, no matter how many signatories it will have by then.

So far, those who are expected to sign the impeachment complaint are 28 members of the minority, which includes four party-list representatives. At least 17 of 31 members of the Liberal Party have also committed to sign. In addition, there are 20 members of the so-called "conscience bloc" (made up of renegade Lakas-NUCD, Nacionalista Party, and independent congressmen) and nine other party-list representatives likely to go for impeachment. But even if all these sign the complaint, they add up to only 74, still five votes shy of the one-third.

Administration congressmen led by House Speaker Jose de Venecia hope they will get lucky this weekend as well. House members say the Speaker and his wife Gina have been making frantic phone calls and visits, and making even more frantic promises. Congressmen have reportedly also been getting offers of projects from cash-rich government entities like PAGCOR (Philippine Amusements and Gaming Corp.) and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.

In a press conference today, party-list Rep. Eulogio "Amang" Magsaysay Jr., of the Alliance of Concerned Educators said two congressmen and three other persons called him the past week. The offer: P500,000 not to sign the impeachment complaint and an assurance of P5-million worth of projects.

Taguig-Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano, House deputy minority leader, also accused the administration of offering all sorts of inducements, including appointments of congressmen's protégés to plum government posts.

Pro-Arroyo representatives, meanwhile, say that the opposition is offering payoffs as well. Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay says his opponents have a war chest courtesy of ousted President Joseph Estrada.

Both sides have denied the offer of sweeteners. But all this talk hardly does any good to the tarnished image of the House of Representatives. The House's reputation and past record are far from stellar, and reports on the wheeling-dealing going on even before the impeachment process has begun only further dent its credibility.

The popular perception is already that in a House made up of many loud and voluble members, it is money that talks the loudest. The controversies that raged in the past over congressional voting on controversial bills have involved bribes being paid so congressmen will vote a certain way. The impeachment will certainly not be spared from this kind of scandal.

All these is not exactly good news for the legislature. The impeachment will be a test of the viability and legitimacy of Congress as an institution. After the debacle of 2001, when people massed up in the streets to protest a compromised impeachment trail, Congress has one more chance to demonstrate that it is capable of exercising its constitutionally mandated task of holding the executive to account.

Can Congress hold a credible impeachment? Or will it be seen as hostage to political, partisan and pecuniary interests?

We'll just have to see. For now, the battle is for signatures. The impeachment complaint, says Zamora, will have close to 15 specific charges, ranging from election fraud to obstruction of justice to graft and corruption. "We will have to prove (the president's) personal culpability," he says. "You'll be surprised at the kinds of witnesses we have lined up and the testimonies they will give."

"It's really their choice," he says. "The Palace will have to decide whether they want the President  to go through this once (in the Senate) or twice (in the  House and the Senate)."

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