Judgment day in Philippines

Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment trial has been a soap opera-like saga that has had Filippinos gripped.

Where to begin? Even the simple facts of this story would rival the best plot any soap opera writer could concoct. Its twists and turns have kept the Philippines gripped for nearly five months.

People gather around televisions, watching the court proceedings unfold in the afternoons. Taxi drivers have it blaring from their radios.

We even saw flood victims who had lost everything take the time to gather around a single radio to listen in as the country’s top judge faced impeachment.

Renato Corona, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, was not a popular man to begin with. Closely allied with widely disliked former president Gloria Arroyo, many say he sealed his fate when he accepted her appointment to the top judicial post with barely a month left of her term.

It was perceived that Arroyo put Corona in as Chief Justice to protect her from prosecution for alleged wrongdoings while in office after she’d stepped down.  

And protecting Arroyo is just one of the impeachable offences he now stands accused of. The current president, Benigno Aquino III, had campaigned on a promise to clean up “institutionalised corruption” – and prosecuting Arroyo and Corona were two of his biggest goals. 

Out with the old, and in with the new. A Philippine “re-birth”, as it were.

‘Personal vendetta’

But it wasn’t a cut-and-dried case that had the full backing of the nation. Many Filipinos felt the new president should have concentrated his efforts on development, peace and order, and getting the country out of poverty instead.

They believed the chief justice when he said, over and over and over again, that the allegations against him were fabricated and part of a personal vendetta over judicial decisions against Aquino’s wealthy family and their interests.

While some senator-judges and political analysts have said that could be the case, the question of whether or not the allegations are true remains.

Corona stands accused of betraying the public trust by not disclosing his wealth, being biased in making judicial decisions, and lacking the integrity necessary to be the nation’s most senior judge. 

Public officials in the Philippines are required by law to declare their assets and liabilities. The prosecution claimed Corona had failed to do so, concealing accounts worth millions of dollars. Corona says he broke no laws, omitting his $2.4 million fortune from such a declaration because of another law that protects the confidentiality of foreign currency bank deposits.

Corona’s defence lawyers didn’t even bother to address the other impeachable-offence allegation, that Corona was biased in his judgments and protecting Arroyo. All the defence did was reiterate that the chief justice did nothing wrong, and that any “omission” on his part was unintentional.

Aware of the cameras, both sides have played to the national audience. The prosecution passionately sought to appeal to Filipinos’ sense of patriotism by arguing that “evil” needed to be purged for the country to stand strong.

The defence argued that the defendant was a victim of political bullying. A victim and a martyr.

Movie star judges

And thrown into the mix is the fact that many of the 23 senator-judges involved in the case are not lawyers but movie stars themselves – literally. Action heroes, comedians and thespians, elevated to positions of power having won favour with the voting public by appealing to the insatiable Filipino appetite for entertainment and drama – and always aware of their audience.

Many Filipinos didn’t buy the chief justice’s explanation of his perceived “walk-out” from the witness stand last week. They had waited months to see him cross-examined but that didn’t happen.

Corona spoke for three hours and then left, later saying that he felt unwell. His doctors backed him up by saying he was at high risk of a potential heart attack and was in hospital for days afterwards. 

But many Filipinos are immune to such health “reasons”. Arroyo was accused of the same “tactic” – and she remains in custody at a military hospital, rather than in prison awaiting trial.

A common joke is that the reason private hospitals in the Philippines are like five-star hotels is that there are so many privileged Filipinos claiming ill-health to escape prosecution.

Messages on social media suggested the chief justice was suffering from “Corona-ry dramatitis”.

Still, after months of this drama, a verdict is finally expected to be handed down on Tuesday. It’s the first time in Asia such an impeachment would’ve reached a conclusion.

With local elections approaching, the result of this case is bound to cause political reverberations. For some, it has compromised the independence of the judiciary and threatens a constitutional crisis.

To others it represents democracy in action and could herald a transformative political revolution.

Either way, Filipinos will be tuning in.