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The banalization of impeachment

“BANALIZATION” IS robbing words, concepts, things, and even principles of their original, richer meanings, and making these something trite, common or used for more mundane purposes other than its original intent.  It is, in a sense, “degradation.”

We Filipinos seem to have a penchant for it.  The latest to be banalized are spas, so that every massage parlor or whore house is a “spa.” The Left has banalized the principle of people’s direct action by undertaking demonstrations so routinely and for the most trivial of issues. The idea of representation of marginal sectors has been banalized, with even businessmen financing “parties” and giving them names that start with “A” or “1” to put them on top of ballot lists.

The latest to be banalized in our country is the process of impeachment.

Impeachment is a delicate element in a republican democracy, because it allows a relatively microscopic group of elected officials—a fraction of the members Congress—to nullify, in the case of the president and the vice president, the will of the people (in our case at least 10 million Filipinos who voted for them). But that weapon is necessary to protect the people from leaders whom they voted into office but who deteriorated into criminals or tyrants.  Because it is such a threat to the people’s will, it has been very rarely undertaken in most countries with impeachment processes.

The road to the degradation of our impeachment process actually was paved by the 1987 Constitution.  Most countries limit the impeachment process to heads of state, and to some extent to members of the judiciary.  While several countries, including the United States, allow impeachment of other officials, this practice has fallen into desuetude.

After all, impeachment consumes the time and energy of parliamentarians whose main work is to enact laws, and it is the work of the justice system to investigate and convict corrupt officials. In our case though, the Constitution practically painted target signs on the backs of other officials, categorically providing that Supreme Court justices, members of the Commission on Election, Civil Service Commission and Commission on Audit as well as the Office of the Ombudsman are impeachable. (Note how Rep. Rodolfo Farinas, gloating over the Ombudsman case, is now aiming his gun at the next target, the Supreme Court.)

But what made the degradation of impeachment in our system possible is that the Constitution provides that other than “culpable violation of the Constitution, bribery, treason, graft and corruption, and other high crimes,” which are the sole grounds for impeachment elsewhere, there is another basis:  “betrayal of public trust.”

President Joseph Estrada signing a legal document as “Jose Velarde,” as banker Clarissa Ocampo testified, clearly violated the law. Accepting millions of pesos, like the former President did, according to Gov. Chavit Singson, was clearly a case of graft. The use of government administered pension funds to manipulate the stock price of BW Resources was patently illegal.

But Gutierrez’s impeachers couldn’t uncover anything even remotely similar to these crimes against her, so all of the articles of impeachment against her could invoke only “betrayal of public trust.” But the term is entirely a Filipino invention. It exists nowhere in any legal jurisprudence here or elsewhere so that one legal textbook, in exasperation, says it involves “loss of popular support even if the violation may not amount to a punishable offense.”

But that is unimportant for Gutierrez’s impeachers, since they fully know that evidence and argument are of no consequence since the impeachment of Gutierrez is entirely based on the number of congressmen and then senators who will vote against her, just as long as some ground—“betrayal of public trust”—is established to get the impeachment proceeding rolling.

It is the forces against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo which have degraded democracy’s weapon of impeachment. The blood lust against her has been seething; there is after all, for most insecure regimes, a need to demonize the past regime as a distraction from its inadequacies. Gutierrez wouldn’t cooperate with their project, thus she has to be taken out, and the only venue is impeachment. Using impeachment for a regime’s agenda—how much more can you debase a constitutional process?

The banalization of the impeachment process was all too obvious if you watched the live proceedings Monday night. Rather than a solemn, historical proceeding where the principles of democracy were being tested, you saw congressmen milling around, making small talk and cracking jokes, gossiping over their cell phones, with a few such as Bayan Muna’s Teodoro Casiño making sure the television camera was on him.  You could just sense that many were there to make sure that their pork barrel wouldn’t be compromised. Farinas himself degraded the impeachment by saying in his sponsorship speech that “we are not accusing the ombudsman of any crime, we are just referring the charges to the Senate, for them (senators) to decide.”

“P-Noy gets credit for impeach vote,” this newspaper’s banner headline story read. He likely jumped up and down in glee over that headline.  But he might later regret being known in our history as responsible for the banalization of our democracy’s impeachment weapon.

“Banalization” actually does not have a translation in our language.  But it’s just a notch lower than “binaboy,” or even the politically incorrect “binakya.”

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer