Today's vote will be about LP's rule, not Merci
The new ruling party will get the required votes. But at what cost?
MANILA, Philippines—The vote on whether to impeach Merceditas Gutierrez on Monday, March 21, will be a verdict not so much on the Ombudsman but on the real power that the new ruling party now wields in the House of Representatives.
The Liberal Party (LP), becoming the party in power for the first time in half a century, will no doubt muster more than the 94 votes necessary at today’s plenary session to approve the articles of impeachment against the Ombudsman appointed by the previous President.
To be sure, LP will get around 120 votes to pass the impeachment articles today, lawmakers from the minority conceded to Newsbreak.
That’s more than 94, the one-third of the 284-body that’s required in the proceeding.
But it’s also short of the 150 votes that justice committee chair LP Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. (of Iloilo) announced they already had less than two weeks ago. They had wanted to show that they could
muster the votes of more than half of the chamber.
The composition of the reported 120 votes reveals how unstable the LP’s position is as the ruling party.
According to House records, there were 74 congressmen and women registered as LP at the start of Congress last year, although the party is now claiming it has 84. It could not impeach Gutierrez on its own.
The rest of the sure 120 votes—or 150, if the LP insists—will come largely from party-list representatives, who number 56 in all. The others will come from among the “perennial absentees” who are vulnerable to threats of disciplinary action by the House leadership, and from among “flexible” congressmen who were being enticed with promises of SAROs or release of funds. (The House averages 220 members in attendance in important plenary sessions.)
On both counts, LP won’t be able to claim that it earned those support as a party.
They were clearly garnered because, on the one hand, there is some degree of solidarity among party-list representatives (they feel treated as second-class citizens by district congressmen). Both complaints were filed by party-list affiliates.
On the other hand, getting the commitment of so-called vulnerable or flexible congressmen was, by all indications, the feat of a few individual LP members, among them Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., by virtue of his position. He was said to have talked to congressmen who commanded bloc votes from Mindanao, like Zamboanga del Norte Rep. Romeo Jalosjos, who has been sounding off Malacañang for hundreds of millions in additional funding for building facilities in time for the Palarong Pambansa in Dapitan City in May.
Where’s the coalition?
The more telling part of the vote distribution today would be how LP is unable to build a broader coalition with different parties or blocs, unlike how it was done by Lakas-CMD, Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino, and Lakas-Kampi in the past 19 years.
While it will get the votes of a few members from the other political parties, those parties—the bigger ones—are going to either vote against Gutierrez’s impeachment or abstain practically as blocs.
Lakas-Kampi has around 50 congressmen; the Nationalist People’s Coalition, 30; the Nacionalista Party, 22; PMP, 5.
Combined with members of smaller parties and independents, they are as many as, if not more than, those whom LP has persuaded to vote to impeach the Ombudsman.
LP has an ally in the National Unity Party, which was formed only months ago by 32 congressmen who used to belong to Lakas-Kampi, and is widely believed to be supported by businessman Enrique Razon, a close Arroyo ally who also contributed to President Aquino’s campaign.
As of posting time, however, NUP’s leaning remained unclear, as some of its members were alluded to in text messages as “P-Noy traitors” who were meeting secretly with Arroyo’s political lieutenants to make sure that a close vote will be achieved in the impeachment to make it “less credible.”
No point man
The failure to consolidate votes from a broader base was due to the fact that the LP “didn’t have a point man” in the negotiations, according to some lawmakers.
Individual LP congressmen tried to project their own importance and influence, while it appeared that Belmonte was the only one exercising the power of his office more astutely. The rest, congressmen added, were “kanya-kanyang pasikatan.”
It didn’t help that some crude dirty tricks prior to Monday’s plenary session were attributed to LP congressmen. There was the chain of text messages about Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez (still with LP) handing out P1 million to congressmen who attended meetings at the Arroyo-owned LTA Building in Makati City and agreed to vote “no” or abstain. Then, just last Saturday, there was the text message that Zamboanga City Rep. Isabelle Climaco forwarded to colleagues, reportedly upon instructions from appropriations committee chair Joseph Abaya (LP, Cavite), that the administration will withhold the pork barrel of congressmen who would vote “no” or abstain.
Suarez and Abaya denied the text messages, and Climaco has simply refused to discuss the incident. But opposition congressmen are convinced those messages were spread by LP itself—the first one, to push anti-impeachment solons to a corner; the second one, truly to threaten colleagues but in a plausibly deniable way.
In the process of negotiating the House votes, the LP exposed how amateurish and less savvy in crucial political battles it has been, based on interviews we had with lawmakers and party leaders belonging to the minority.
In explaining their so-called “conscience vote,” members of the minority accused their colleagues from the ruling party of mishandling their newfound power. “They are forcing [the House leadership] to come up with 150 [votes], but with a weak case, mahirap (that’s difficult),” said a third-term congressman.
The perceived weakness of the case stems from the fact that the complaints are basically about the Ombudsman’s supposed dismal performance. It’s an argument that may not exactly hold against a “betrayal of public trust” charge in a quasi-judicial proceeding, solons with legal background said.
“If non-performance is an impeachable offense, dapat pati si P-Noy puwede naming i-impeach (then we can also impeach President Aquino),” the congressman said.
The House committee on justice has approved two impeachment complaints against Gutierrez. The complaints—one filed by groups led by former Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros and another by Renato Reyes of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan—are based on Gutierrez’s inaction on different sets of cases filed against ex-President Arroyo’s relatives and allies.
Hontiveros’s case is practically a resurrection of the case filed in 2009 by former LP president Jovito Salonga, and which was dismissed by the House justice committee that was then dominated by Arroyo allies.
The credibility of the process is getting eroded as well with the refusal of Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. to inhibit from the case, despite clear conflicts of interest.
Tupas’s father, Gov. Niel Sr., was suspended by Ombudsman Gutierrez for misusing P85,000 of provincial fund for a training seminar. The younger Tupas himself is facing charges with the Ombudsman for the ghost seminars he conducted when he was a provincial board member.
The dismissal of the senior Tupas was one of the grounds of the complaint filed by Salonga in 2009, and which was dismissed by the justice committee then.
Tupas Jr. now heads the justice committee, which heard and approved the two complaints filed against Gutierrez. By virtue of his position, he will be the lead prosecutor in the impeachment trial when it goes to the Senate.
Tupas was the one who revealed days ago that an official of the influential religious sect, the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), was calling some congressmen to urge them to vote “no” or abstain. He refused to name the INC representative. Gutierrez’s lawyer is former justice secretary and Supreme Court associate justice Serafin Cuevas, an influential member of the INC.
A few legislators confirmed to Newsbreak that they received such calls, but these were far from sounding like “pressure.” To some congressmen, the attempts by INC were even unnecessary since many of them were leaning toward abstaining.
A Lakas-Kampi lawmaker pointed out that the LP has no moral authority to paint the INC calls in a bad light since the supposed attempt to influence votes was similar in principle to President Aquino giving marching orders to LP congressmen to impeach Gutierrez.
“They saw nothing wrong in P-Noy directing them…. Where does it say that P-Noy is the only one who can rightfully state a position? Everybody is a stakeholder here, including [the religious sector] who form part of a constituency,” said Zambales Rep. Mitos Magsaysay.
As it is, “Gloria’s camp didn’t do anything”—or perhaps couldn’t do anything—to prevent the impeachment of Gutierrez, another minority congressman said. But the LP sure did diminish its own victory, he said. – Newsbreak
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