Duterte on ‘war path’ against Philippine justice system

Analysts say president’s action against Supreme Court chief justice and top government prosecutor are a sign of panic.

Critics say the president's policy against illegal drugs and corruption is 'imploding' [File: AFP]

Congressional allies of President Rodrigo Duterte have moved forward with the impeachment case against the supreme court chief justice, while the Philippine leader himself has threatened to file a similar complaint against the government’s top prosecutor.

The moves, according to analysts, are a direct assault on the country’s democratic institutions, and an indication of the president’s “unravelling” policies. 

Members of the House of Representatives on Thursday said there are “sufficient grounds” for the impeachment case against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno to proceed for further investigation.

She has been accused of professional misconduct, and for failing to fully disclose her income — allegations she has denied. 

More hearings are expected in November before a final vote is taken by House members, who are overwhelmingly aligned with the president. But as early as July, the House speaker had already hinted that Sereno could face an impeachment.  

Sereno is an appointee of Duterte’s predecessor and political nemesis, President Benigno Aquino III. She earned Duterte’s ire after she questioned his war on drugs, which has left thousands of people dead since 2016. 

She had also complained that the president overstepped his bounds by releasing names of judges with alleged links to illegal drug trade.

In response, Duterte vowed to declare martial law if the judiciary intervenes with his anti-drug war policy. 

Similarly, Duterte has vented his anger against top government prosecutor, Conchita Carpio-Morales, after her office announced in September that it is investigating alleged hidden bank accounts belonging to the president amounting to at least $20m over the years.

Antonio Trillanes, an opposition senator, had earlier revealed the alleged bank accounts belonging to Duterte and his family.

Carpio-Morales has recused herself from the case because her nephew is married to Duterte’s daughter. But that has not stopped her office from pursuing Trillanes’ allegations. 

On Wednesday evening, Duterte fumed against the top two female officials saying, “I did not start this ruckus”.

“We will file an impeachment case against her, and I would tend to believe that she was part of the conspiracy,” Duterte said of Carpio-Morales, who, like Sereno, is also an appointee of Aquino.

Duterte has denied the allegations of hidden wealth, to which Carpio-Morales replied, “If the president has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear.”

In recent days, Duterte has also challenged Sereno [right] and Carpio-Morales [left] to resign alongside him [AP/AFP]
In recent days, Duterte has also challenged Sereno [right] and Carpio-Morales [left] to resign alongside him [AP/AFP]

Chilling effect

Jean Encinas-Franco, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, said there is a growing sense that the country’s democratic institutions are being threatened by Duterte’s recent rhetoric and “threats of retribution”.

“The political repercussion to this is that there will be chilling effect on these democratic institutions,” she told Al Jazeera. 

“In the future, those who will try to make the government accountable for allegations of corruption, they would think twice because of the way this administration is behaving.”

She said that as a long-time mayor, Duterte is not used to being challenged by a co-equal branch of the government.

“I think this is still part of the way he is used to, being a mayor. As mayor, you practically have a kingdom. So that’s one part of the reason why he is behaving this way.”

Richard Heydarian, a political analyst and author of the recent book, The Rise of Duterte, said the president’s actions against the two officials have “weakened the check and balance within the Philippine democracy”. 

 “Clearly, the president is taking an offensive against a growing allegations that he may have some ill-gotten wealth,” he said.

“This is generally Duterte’s style. Whenever he comes under attack, he doesn’t defend himself as much as he tries to take the fight to the other side.”

Earlier this year, the Duterte administration detained one of his chief critics, Senator Leila de Lima, on drug charges. She had also been a thorn in his side after she questioned his anti-drug war policy. When she was the head of the Philippine human rights commission, she had also carried out an investigation into the alleged killings of over a thousand people while Duterte was the mayor of Davao.

In the case of Sereno and Carpio-Morales, however, Heydarian told Al Jazeera, it could be harder for Duterte to assail their records as they are seen as less political, and that “they are independent persons of highest integrity”.

‘Panic mode’

For Ellen Tordesillas, a Manila-based journalist covering Duterte, the president’s recent actions betray the “unravelling” of his agenda.

Tordesillas pointed out that Duterte had campaigned for the presidency on fighting drugs and corruption, and on both issues, he has yet to deliver on his promises.

She said that in the midst of growing public criticism, Duterte is trying to divert the public’s attention from his “failed” policies.  

“He is disassembling. On the issue of drugs, besides the fact that he was not able to solve it in the period that he promised, there is now a backlash because of the killings.”

In recent weeks, allegations that the president’s son, Paolo, the current vice mayor of their hometown Davao, is also linked to shipment of illegal drugs, has “discredited” his anti-drug war campaign, she said.

“So how can you make people believe that you are sincere in ending the drug problem when your solution is just to kill the small-time players, and you have no interest in stopping the supply?”  

On the issue of government corruption, which he also vowed to end, it is also “imploding” after the revelations of his alleged hidden bank accounts.

Between the two issues of drugs and corruption, however, it is the latter that concerns the president more.

“The alleged bank accounts negates his claim that he is not corrupt because that is unexplained wealth,” Tordesillas said.

“The president is panicking because he is unable to control the narrative.”

Source: Al Jazeera