Government News Analysis

Bautista makes history

COMELEC Chairman Andres Bautista Impeached

Two weeks ago Andres Bautista (photo), the chairman the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) – the authority entrusted with ensuring fair and free elections in the Philippines – was quietly celebrating. The House Committee on Justice had just thrown out an impeachment complaint against him by an overwhelming 26-to-3 vote. They’d decided it had insufficient form. Yesterday, however, all that turned sour as the Philippine House of Representative, in plenary session, reversed Bautista’s fortunes and gave him the distinction of becoming the fourth person in the history of the republic to be impeached.

Bautista now joins a very exotic set. The other members of this quartet are the 13th president of the Philippines (1998-2001), Joseph Estrada; Ombudsman (2005-2011), Merceditas Gutierrez and the late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (2010-2012), Renato Corona.

What put him in that company was this. The House, by a whopping 137-to-75 vote and two abstentions, overturned the Justice Committee result with the ease of flipping a burger on a grill. Only one third of the House’s 297 members – in other words 99 representatives – would have been needed to junk the Committee’s decision to junk the complaint.

Members clearly decided that the Justice Committee’s ruling was incorrect. But it seems they wanted to do more than just overturn that ruling; they wanted to send a very strong signal that they’re prepared to use their power to the full is bringing anyone to account – irrespective of their rank – who’s suspected of abusing a government position.

And right there, like a scarecrow in a corn field, is the House message to the likes of Supreme Court Chief Justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, who’s also the subject of an impeachment complaint, and Ombudsman, Conchita Carpio-Morales, who looks like being next in line.

In our article – Impeachment insanity [21 September] – we said this: “None of this [the ruling by the Justice Committee to jettison the complaint], however, means that Bautista is out of the woods. Far from it – he may have sort of won a battle, but the war has just begun. For one thing, the full House – if a third of its members sees fit – can kick this issue upstairs to the Senate”.

And that’s precisely what’s happened. Despite Bautista feeling “vindicated” by the Justice Committee ruling, he now has the possibility of being put on trial in the Senate. That, though, remains up in the air. And this is why.

Earlier yesterday, Bautista tendered his resignation to the president, Rodrigo Duterte. If that was done in a timely fashion and if it’s deemed appropriate, and if Duterte accepts that resignation, then Bautista can escape a Senate trial. If he’s no longer the chairman of COMELEC, he can’t be tried in the Senate. That part of this thing will simply go away.

That’s precisely what happened in the case of fellow ‘impeachee’, Merceditas Gutierrez. She was impeached by the House on 22 March 2011; the Articles of Impeachment were dispatched to the Senate – as they will be in Bautista’s case – enabling it to sit as an impeachment court. However, on 29 April, Gutierrez resigned her position as Ombudsman leaving the Senate no option but to cancel her trial.

None of that, however, will influence other investigations hanging round Bautista’s neck – the Anti-Money Laundering Council is still considering a freeze of his assets; ongoing probes by the National Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and the Presidential Commission on Good Government, which he headed from 2010 to 2015 prior to being handed the COMELEC top job, will still proceed.

But what seems odd about Bautista’s impeachment is that it could very easily have been avoided by handing in his resignation to the president two weeks ago. Instead he left it until the 11th-hour – yesterday. On top of that, he didn’t make his resignation effective immediately; he post-dated it to 31 December.

All that may have simply been a terrible miscalculation by Bautista and/or his legal team. But what could have caused that messy handling was this. Bautista felt optimistic after the earlier Justice Committee hearing. He was buoyant; floating on air. It must have seemed to him at the time that he had the House on his side. So why should he resign; he still has another four-plus years ahead in the job. He’d just been given a resounding endorsement in the session hall. Quit? You gotta be joking!

But then today, prior to the House vote, there was an extended debate on the issue. But even before that Bautista, who’s well plugged-in to the system, would have got word that the outcome was looking bleak for him. He wasn’t short of backers two weeks ago – particularly among Liberal Party and other opposition members. A quick text from one or two of them would have told him how the land lay.

Liberal Party grandee, Edcel Lagman, who moved strongly to have the complaint scratched by the Justice Committee would undoubtedly have been looking out for him. He was still doing that after yesterday’s vote in the House as he unapologetically came up with a suggestion that’s plainly aimed at delaying Bautista’s case.

Here’s what he said: “Only form was discussed and voted upon this afternoon. The plenary should return to the committee on justice for further proceedings [of] the complaint against Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista”.

In other words, Lagman is hoping to first halt the Articles of Impeachment being formed by the House and giving the Justice Committee, with its apparent overwhelming support for Bautista, the opportunity to knock back the complaint again – this time, presumably, on grounds that it’s ‘insufficient in substance’.

Nice try Lagman, but that’s precisely the sort of blatant dirty politics which the House had just indicated it wants removed from Congress. Political ploys like that belong in the gutter not in a legislature that’s desperately trying to win back the trust of the people.

Bitter at the day’s outcome, he also said this: “I think we should have supported the integrity of our committee system”. In other words, the voices of the 26 representatives who, in effect, protected Bautista are, to his mind, more relevant and possess more integrity than the 137 who opted not to. Now, if you want an example of elitism in action, that quote more than fits the bill.

So, to return to that resignation letter – this looks more like an insurance certificate than a genuine notice to step down. In other words, the rationale behind it seems to be that if this thing appeared to be going Senate-wise, Bautista could quit his job and avoid a Senate trial; conversely, if there was a chance that the Justice Committee ruling would to be upheld, he could withdraw his resignation letter in the knowledge that, under the rules, another impeachment complaint couldn’t be filed against him for a further 12 months.

As it turned out, however, Bautista played a poor poker hand badly. His bluff was always going to be called. He was never going to beat the House, his resignation pledge – also posted on Twitter and to his “COMELEC family” – was no ace card; the dating on it gave his intention away. That was the tell.

As Kabayan Representative Harry Roque – the man who’s spearheaded the case against the COMELEC chairman – pointed out later: “Because his resignation is not immediate, nor official, there is no assurance that he will indeed resign at the end of the year”.

And that gives Roque and the majority of his colleagues grave concern as he went on to explain: “2018 is a very crucial year. All the contracts for the 2019 midterm elections will be signed by next year. I call on Chairman Bautista to desist from any signing any contract related to the 2019 midterm elections”.

What comes next is hard to say, other than Lagman will get little support for his sly tactic and the House will go ahead with formulating the Articles of Impeachment and passing them to the Senate. From there – until further notice – things will proceed in the normal fashion of such cases as the Senate schedules a date for the trial; possibly, that could up and running by late next month.

It all comes back to that resignation letter and the date of Bautista’s resignation. The fact is, 31 December is unacceptable given what’s at stake here. If Bautista stands by that date, he will be put on trial in the Senate; if he changes the date to make it with immediate effect, he’ll spare himself the ignominy and the stress of a Senate grilling that’s likely to be very rough.

Meanwhile the carnival will go on. Other things to look out for, then: for Bautista, a steady drip of media and other Liberal support; words of wisdom, encouragement and empathy coming from a certain cell in Camp Crame – the residence of the alleged drugs-profiteer, Senator Leila De Lima; Bautista requiring urgent medical attention, though that perhaps closer to the trial should it go ahead; photo-ops with religious themes: prayer vigils, solemn faces, hands poised in supplication, candles and such. And, of course, claims from all that God is on their side – leading us once more to wonder: who is on His?

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