Machiavellian mischief in Malacañang

By Carol Pagaduan-Araullo
Streetwise | BusinessWorld

President Benigno S. Aquino III’s volte-face regarding Charter change (Cha-cha), after repeatedly stating that he did not see the need for it (not even for the promised economic benefits its proponents claimed would follow), is self-serving no matter how one looks at it.

Mr. Aquino says he arrived at the conclusion that Charter change is indeed necessary and urgent after he saw how the Supreme Court has become too pakialamero — or what he calls its “judicial overreach.”

The constitutional proviso he apparently wishes to be rid of is Article VIII, Section 1 defining judicial power as “the duty of the courts of justice to settle actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable, and to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the Government.”

This gives the Court wide latitude to intervene, examine and adjudge certain acts of any agency in the executive department, including the Office of the President (such as in the case of the Disbursement Acceleration Program or DAP) as well as the laws enacted by Congress (such as the Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF) as illegal or unconstitutional.

This provision is widely acknowledged as a response by the framers of the 1987 Constitution to the tyrannical abuse of power by President Ferdinand E. Marcos when he extended his term of office by declaring martial law and thereafter imposed the 1973 Constitution with its Transitory Provisions that legalized his illegitimate hold on power.

(Flashback: Marcos dictated the provisions he wanted on a captive Constitutional Convention then manufactured the Charter’s ratification through the fake citizen’s assemblies. When challenged before the Supreme Court, Marcos arm-twisted the Court into ruling that the legality of the Charter was a “political question” that it was not competent to rule upon. The wily lawyer that he was, Marcos used his absolute control over the military to ensure that the Court would bend to his will and help legitimize his authoritarian rule.)

Mr. Aquino’s decision to embark on Charter change in order to clip the powers of the Court is a direct result of the DAP decision. This ruling has so incensed Mr. Aquino that he is now raining fire and brimstone on the Court — accusing the Court of violating its own ruling regarding the DAP; cuts to the Judiciary’s budget; the impending abolition of the Judicial Development Fund; running after the justices’ statements of assets and liabilities; threats to impeach the Chief Justice he appointed but who turned out to be a great disappointment; and perhaps the coup de grace, removing the Court’s power to check the abuses of the two other branches of government through Cha-cha.

It seems Mr. Aquino believes these attacks on the Court’s independence will result in the Court’s overturning its unanimous DAP decision, an outcome thought to be highly improbable before Malacañang’s blitzkrieg against the Supreme Court.

On the other hand, amending the Constitution in order to allow Mr. Aquino to seek a second term of office is crassly self-serving. Not even his seeming coyness and dithering about it nor his hallucinatory justification that the people, a.k.a. his “bosses,” are calling on him to stay the course of his good governance reforms, can camouflage the fact that his anointed one, Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, is lagging in the polls while the opposition presidential candidate, Vice-President Jejomar Binay, is way ahead of the pack.

So why should the prospect of the next President not being his partymate matter so much to the man who claims to be so eager to reach the end of his term? Mr. Aquino claims that being President has made him a “masochist” forced to labor under the heavy burdens of his office while being subjected to several impeachment petitions and targeted for “personal attacks” by his political enemies. (If we believe Mr. Aquino, the latter are legion: the Leftists who oppose his US-backed regime; the Juana Change Movement reformers who used to believe in him but have since become one of his worst critics; the Supreme Court justices who would not grant him “good faith” while he usurped the congressional power of the purse; and now the people responsible for the New York Times editorial “Political Mischief in the Philippines” who called Mr. Aquino’s Cha-cha as “jeopardizing Philippine democracy.”)

Is it because he faces the prospect of being hailed to court, at the minimum for numerous counts of technical malversation due to the unconstitutional DAP, if not for graft and corruption for failure to account for the hundreds of billions of public funds that he and his subalterns (notably Budget Secretary Butch Abad) illegally juggled and siphoned off to their favored political allies, business cronies, and local bailiwicks?

And yet there are those who say — loyalists and detractors alike — that Mr. Aquino is merely playing a game with his political enemies. The prospect of his running for and winning a second term sends a signal to all those who are about to shift their allegiance from the Aquino-led coalition to the Binay bandwagon: the sitting President is not yet a lame duck. His canine Liberal Party mates and close allies (most of whom were erstwhile devotees of former President Gloria Arroyo) are bestirred with the tantalizing possibility that they too could have extended terms. Then there is the side effect that diversionary ploys take people’s minds off the pork barrel rip-off, the spiraling cost of living, jobless growth, intensifying and expanding poverty, landlessness, armed conflicts and human rights violations.

Some even venture to say that Mr. Aquino is merely joking. It is a “joke” that gets his minions scurrying to figure out how to dance the Cha-cha before Mr. Aquino’s time runs out. Or a “prank” that sends shivers down the spine of the opposition standard bearer and jolt him into distancing himself from Cha-cha.

It is a “stunt” and has all the hallmarks of a dictatorship in the making no matter Mr. Aquino’s pedigree as the son of opposition leaders who figured prominently in bringing about the downfall of the hated Marcos dictatorship.

It’s a hard sell and most people are not buying it.

Carol Pagaduan-Araullo is a medical doctor by training, social activist by choice, columnist by accident, happy partner to a liberated spouse and proud mother of two.

Published in Business World
August 31, 2014

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