Imaginary drums rolled and trumpets must have blared in the minds of movie-mad viewers as a hush fell over a jam-packed senate session hall and 23 velvet-robed senators filed in to cast their historic votes in the impeachment trial of Renato Corona, the Philippines’ chief justice.
To acquit or to convict the Philippines’ top judge – that was the question. And the bottom-line for most of the senators-turned-judges was that there was enough evidence to doubt the integrity of the country’s now former top judge.
At the heart of the trial was not an issue of corruption or an inquiry into the means by which Corona had acquired his substantial wealth, but whether Corona had failed to disclose that wealth, as required by the Philippines’ constitution.
Corona maintained that he had not broken any laws and was protected by a law affirming the confidentiality of foreign currency deposits. But, found guilty by a more than two-thirds majority, the presiding senator said the judge had showed a disregard for the constitution and betrayed public trust.
Ironically, for many of the senators, it seemed Corona’s own performance on the witness stand last week turned their vote against him.
Corona admitted to having at least $2.4 million in multiple bank accounts, but the prosecution claimed he had over $10 million in 82 banks – so, the defence pointed out, the charge was clearly inflated and fabricated.
Corona denied bias and peddling influence for personal gain and maintained that he was a victim, even referring to the case as his “Calvary” and accusing President Benigno Aquino of ignoring the country’s other problems to concentrate on one man. Aquino called Corona “the public face of all that ails the justice system” – and made no bones about it needing reconstructive surgery.
Speaking of reconstruction – the joke around town today was how all the senator-judges seemed to have gotten primped for their two minutes of air-time to explain their vote. There was a lot of freshly-dyed, neatly-coiffed hair, and clean shaven, bright-eyed faces.
Already colourful characters on ordinary days, viewers’ consensus seemed to be that the senators had bumped it up several notches for this final act in their power play.
Among those that stood out were the only three senators to vote for acquittal. Joker Arroyo (yes that is his real name, and no, he is not related to the former president), Miriam Defensor-Santiago, and Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Or as one watcher summarised: “a joker (long known for his off-beat comments), a crazy lady (she angrily screamed pretty much all of her vote justification and bets were being taken in the gallery as to how many blood vessels she’d pop in the process), and the son of a dictator who bled the country dry.”
And then there was the movie star-turned-senator, Lito Lapid, that everyone was waiting to hear – simply because he barely ever speaks a word in the legislature. He flashed a winning smile and acknowledged the public’s perception of him as ignorant and uneducated – even saying he didn’t understand what that “pizza pie” was all about, in reference to power-point presentations made during the trial.
But he was representing the Filipino everyman, he said, and he would vote according to his conscience. The silent, faded, movie star reclaimed his hero status if even for a few minutes when he said “guilty”.
It was every bit the show Filipinos expected it to be. And many are surprised it’s actually over -things like this very seldom come to a neat conclusion here. The fact it has is triumph enough for most Filipinos. It was “democracy at work” regardless of verdict. There was a trial, there was a decision, and it doesn’t seem like there will be any “people power” demonstrations in opposition to it.
Could trust in the country’s long floundering political institutions actually be restored after this? That’s one question that needs answering. But the more immediate concern for the general public is what will Filipinos do now to fill their weekday afternoons?