Sunday, July 20, 2014

Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III is on the warpath again.

Late last week, his administration filed a motion for reconsideration of the Supreme Court decision that struck down two items in its Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).

By a vote of 14-0 the Philippine Supreme Court had decided that the two items violated the constitutional provision that the president, the senate president, the speaker and the chief justice can only transfer their budgetary savings to within “their respective offices.”

One such fund transfer was to the House of Representatives, the other to the Commission on Audit, an independent body. Neither are under the Office of the President. Therefore the transfers were unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled.

In its motion for reconsideration, the government maintains that the “cross border fund transfers” were constitutional, that the transfers were above board, and that the mechanism used to incur savings under the DAP have existed in previous administrations under the present constitution.

The motion also argues that bad faith should not be imputed to authors, proponents and implementors of the DAP; they should enjoy presumption of innocence and regularity in the performance of their official functions and duties. In their original arguments earlier this year, government lawyers cited provisions of the Administrative Code of 1987, which was issued by President Corazon Aquino, the incumbent’s late mother. There seems to be no new arguments in the motion for reconsideration.

It’s a no-brainer, however. No administrative code or even act of Congress for that matter, can prevail in a clash with the constitution. I can’t see 14 hard-nosed justices changing their minds now just because President Aquino wages a word war against them.

He has gone as far as making threats: “My message to the Supreme Court: we don’t want to get to the point where two co-equal branches of government would clash and where a third branch would have to mediate.”

He refers to Congress, normally an independent and co-equal branch of government, but by a sad twist of politics, is abnormally under his thumb. He could instigate Congress to impeach the justices or reduce the court’s budget to the point of crippling it.

This is the threat of a spoiled brat and a thug. A statesman will speak of principles and how they may be upheld. But Aquino doesn’t rise to that level. By keeping most of Congress in his pocket and by trying to intimidate the justices, he imperils the system of checks and balances essential to a democracy.

He claims good faith and that the DAP served the welfare of the people. The claim rings hollow when you consider that four senators weren’t included in the program. These happen to be the only ones who didn’t cooperate in his drive to impeach an earlier nemesis, then Chief Justice Renato Corona.

According to close observers, many of the DAP items were “priority local projects” funded on the request of “lawmakers and other officials.” Although these funds were released directly to implementing agencies, public suspicion is that they were treated as pork barrel funds, the bulk of which could have found their way into the pockets of “lawmakers and other officials.”

Hence, regardless of whether the DAP is constitutional or not, there must be a full accounting of its funds. Various civil society organizations are now moving strongly for the impeachment of Aquino. Unfortunately for them, impeachment is a political game of numbers. In the House where the process must begin, Aquino supporters have the numbers.

But that shouldn’t stop those who would launch impeachments proceedings. If that’s the moral thing to do, it must be attempted even if it fails.

Meanwhile Aquino wages war against the Supreme Court, and democracy in Asia’s first republic hangs in the balance.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. He is also an English-language consultant for the Indonesian government.


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