PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte’s supermajority in the Philippine House of Representatives as good as guarantees he will survive his first impeachment vote but recent events have indicated rumblings of discontent among lawmakers, representing the first sign of trouble for the country’s most powerful man.
The impeachment complaint – the first to be filed against the intrepid leader – will need the support of one-third of the House in order for it to make it to Senate for trial. For a conviction to stick, a two-thirds Senate vote is then needed.
With more than 260 of the House’s 292 members belonging to the pro-Duterte faction, however, the vote is not expected to make it an inch past the blocks.
But according to opposition politician Gary Alejano, the lawmaker who initiated the complaint, Duterte cannot yet rest on his laurels. He claimed of a possible shift of alliances among Duterte loyalists, thanks to the leadership’s strong arm tactics during voting for the revival of the death penalty.
“It is a possibility… even those who voted yes (to the death penalty), we can really feel that they’re upset because they’re being coerced and threatened,” he said in ABS-CBN News.
In his Thursday complaint, Alejano claimed Duterte was responsible for the deaths of over 8,000 drug suspects and accused him of betrayal of public trust, corruption that allegedly led to him to amass some US$40 million in unexplained wealth, as well as other high crimes in relation to the administration’s war on drugs.
Duterte’s supporters immediately thumbed their noses at the complaint, calling it a waste of time, “fabricated” and part of a destabilisation plot against the president. Political observers repeatedly cited Duterte’s support in both houses of Congress in predicting the vote’s failure.
But Alejano, not to be discouraged, suggested the support may not be genuine. Referring again to the death penalty vote, he claimed the leadership often employs authoritative methods to wrangle backing for its policies, forcing House members to do its bidding by issuing threats.
On March 8, the lower house overwhelmingly approved the re-imposition of the death penalty for serious drug offenders, a major win for Duterte’s bid to use death as a deterrent against crime.
The third and final reading of the death penalty Bill, which permits death by hanging, firing squad and lethal injection, was passed with lawmakers voting 216 to 54 with one abstention. Senate will in the coming months vote on it.
Duterte has been gunning to reinstate the death penalty, which he views as a vital part of his campaign against drugs, despite major pushback from religious forces in the Catholic-majority country.
But despite the resounding win, his leadership did not seem satisfied. Shortly after the vote, reports emerged that Duterte’s ruling party had stripped a dozen lawmakers of their congressional leadership posts because they voted against the Bill.
Victims of the purge included ex-president Gloria Arroyo who was dumped as deputy speaker of the House and 11 other legislators, all members of the ruling coalition.
According to Alejano, these legislators may now consider backing his impeachment complaint.
“There’s a tendency to use scare tactics on people and strong-arm them. They’re all acting like the president so, even if some voted yes, you can feel they did it begrudgingly,” he said.
It has also been reported that some who voted for the Bill only did so out of fear of losing funding and other benefits from the president and his congressional allies.
Besides the death penalty vote, Duterte will now have to grapple with concerns over his stance on China.
The president had last year controversially agreed to “set aside” The Hague South China Sea ruling against China, in his bid to mend Manila’s ties with Beijing and steer his country away from Washington. He promised to revisit the issue during his term, offering little more insight beyond that on the Philippines’ policy on China.
But recent Chinese actions in the disputed maritime zone has put Duterte in an uncomfortable position.
Last week, he was forced to allay public fears on the matter when a Chinese survey ship was spotted by the navy on Benham Rise. In his explanation, Duterte claimed the Chinese had received prior invitation to conduct research in the 13 million hectare waterway but this was later disputed by the country’s defence and foreign departments.
Then on Friday, a Hainan Daily report quoted Sansha Communist Party secretary Xiao Jie as claiming that China will begin preparatory work this year on an environment monitoring station on the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Xiao Jie is also the mayor of Sansha City, said to be an administrative base for the disputed South China Sea islands.
Duterte has yet to comment on the matter but presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said Saturday that the Philippines has contacted China for a response to the matter.
The report has, however, already set off alarm bells in the Philippines. Following the report, the Philippine Supreme Court’s Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio sounded a warning to the government, saying without intervention, China may impose an “air defense identification zone” and end up controlling all of South China Sea.
The waterway is a major shipping route where an estimated US$5 trillion of trade passes through annually. It is home to the Paracels and Spratlys – the two main island chains that a number of claimants have interest in, and where there is said to be reserves of untapped natural resources.
Other areas in the dispute include dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal. The interests of nations involved include demands to retain or acquire rights to fishing areas; the exploration of potential crude oil and natural gas; as well as the strategic control of important shipping lanes.
Philippines and China have been locked for years in a territorial dispute over control of the South China Sea. But in July 12, 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favour of the Philippines, saying China had no legal basis to claim “historic rights” to the South China Sea. The court also accused China of infringing on the Philippines’ sovereign rights through its interference with fishing and petroleum exploration and through the construction of artificial islands.
Carpio was part of the Philippine legal team during arbitration proceedings against China in The Hague.
Alejano, responding to the latest report, said his lawyers were looking at possibly filing a supplemental complaint to boost his impeachment case against Duterte.
According to Inquirer, the lawmaker said the team has been studying statements issued by Duterte regarding Chinese actions on South China Sea territories and that it appears that Cabinet has been “at a loss” to explain them to the public.
“If he has nothing to hide, it should be properly communicated to his team, to his Cabinet and to the Filipino people. He cannot just keep [agreements] to himself. He has to inform everybody,” Alejano was quoted telling reporters.
“If we will not assert ourselves now, then we cannot assert ourselves in the future,” he added.
But even if these issues ramp up support for Alejano’s complaint, consensus remains that Duterte will stay in power.
In the Inquirer report, election lawyer Romulo Macalintal was quoted as calling it nothing more than an “impossible dream” that “will not even reach the first base”.
However, if and when the vote fails as it is expected to, it might help lawyer Jude Josue Sabio’s case at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, should he file one next month as proposed.
According to Romel Regalado Bagares, a human rights lawyer at the Center for International Law in the Philippines, raising a case at the ICC now would be premature but it will stand a fighting chance once domestic remedies like the impeachment have been exhausted.
He was quoted in New York Times as saying even if the impeachment fails, it will make for a stronger case at the ICC as it suggests that Philippine institutions have failed to address the alleged offences.
Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada was the last leader to be impeached by Congress, following allegations of corruption and violation of the Constitution in 2000. His impeachment trial was stalled, however, by an uprising that eventually saw him forced from office.