On political brinkmanship and constitutional crisis

The impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona by 188 members of the House of Representatives, the first in the 110-year history of the Supreme Court (SC), may lead to a constitutional crisis if not resolved quickly and peacefully within the framework of the constitution and existing legal system.

A constitutional crisis is a situation that occurs when a branch (or branches) of goverment disagrees about the extent to which a “co-equal” branch (or branches) of government hold sovereignty.  Constitutional crises commonly involve some degree of conflict between branches of government (or levels of government in a federal system). 

The immediate effect of a constitutional crisis is a political stand-off between or among the contending factions in government, which can lead to a breakdown in the orderly operation of government.  At its worst, a constitutional crisis can lead to government collapse (as has happened in Russia in 1993) or even civil war (as was the case in the 1861 American Civil War).

Whatever its repercussions are, a constitutional crisis can be devastating for democracy and its institutions, bad for the economy and tragic for the people, especially for the poor who will be hit the hardest.

How did we ever get ourselves into this precarious and potentially volatile situation?

Pres. Benigno Aquino III (Pnoy) was swept into power on strength of a campaign promise to fight corruption in government.  His campaign slogan “kung walang corrupt walang mahirap”  captured the imagination of the electorate and gave him an overwhelming mandate in the May 2010 elections.

Determined to deliver on his campaign promise, Pnoy concluded that former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and CJ Corona (both appointees of former president Gloria Arroyo and suspected by Pnoy to be protecting her interest) were getting in the way of his “tuwid na landas” agenda.

First to go was Gutierrez who was impeached by Pnoy’s partymates and political allies in the House of Representatives.  Facing the prospect of long-drawn and “bloody” impeachment trial in the Senate, Gutierrez opted to resign from her “constitutional” office.

He then set his sights on former president Gloria Arroyo (GMA) and announced months in advance that he will put her in jail before Christmas.  Defying the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) issued by the SC, Pnoy stopped GMA from leaving the country, charged her in court with a non-bailable offense and had her arrested and detained.

And now it’s CJ Corona’s turn to get grilled.  Pnoy has been battling the Corona-led SC since day one in office, but the impeachment of CJ Corona may be “pushing the envelope” too far.  The move, to me, is a dangerous “game” of political brinkmanship fraught with risks of ill and polarizing side effects on the nation that even Pnoy may not be able to control and contain. 

I will not judge the merits and propriety of the grounds for and the manner of CJ Corona’s impeachment by the Lower House.  Those are legal matters best left for the proper courts of law to appreciate and resolve.  I am however concerned with the potential risks and “unintended” effects of a partisan political process.

What will happen if the SC decides to stop the impeachment trial through a TRO?  Will the executive branch, headed by the “belligerent” Pnoy, enforce the letter of such a TRO?  Will the House of Representatives, the complainant and prosecutor, obey such a TRO?  Will the Senate, the impeachment court, defer in favor of such a TRO? 

Can we expect the senators to be impartial and judicious in the discharge of their constitutional duty as impeachment jurors?  What would be the repercussions of an acquittal or a conviction of CJ Corona on the government and the mood of the people?

Will the rank and file of the judiciary rally behind their embattled leader and in the process paralyze the operation of the judiciary?  Do they feel that the independence of the judiciary was compromised by the impeachment of CJ Corona? 

What would be the effect of a long-drawn and bruising impeachment trial on the mood of investors and the economy at large?  How will the military, the Church and the diplomatic community behave in the event of a full-blown constitutional crisis?    

Are GMA’s (and CJ Corona’s) supporters and political allies plotting to stage disruptive mass actions and undermine the Aquino government?  (Recall that GMA failed to effectively govern because she spent a great deal of time, effort and government resource protecting and defending her presidency against the constant threat posed by her numerous enemies.)

These are some of the hard questions on my mind as I contemplate on the possible ramifications of Pnoy’s political brinkmanship. 

Author:  Rene “RC” Catacutan
Published 16 December 2011

President Benigno Aquino III

Former President Gloria Arroyo

 Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona

Former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez

Members of the House of Representatives, led by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, showing the articles of impeachment against CJ Corona

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile swearing in the other senators as members of the impeachment court

Embattled CJ Corona addressing a crowd of supporters (consisting mostly judges, lawyers and court employees) in front of the Supreme Court




A small group of protesters calling for the resignation of CJ Corona