Aquino Targets Philippines’ Top Judge as Slowing Economy Threatens Support
The Philippine Senate ruled that an impeachment trial against Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona can proceed, bolstering President Benigno Aquino’s campaign to oust the country’s top judge.
Corona, an ally of jailed former president Gloria Arroyo who was appointed by her two days after Aquino’s 2010 election win, faces eight charges that include favoring Arroyo in court decisions. The 23-member Senate rejected Corona’s petition today for a preliminary hearing on the validity of the charges.
Aquino’s push against his predecessor builds on campaign promises to crack down on corruption that have underpinned approval ratings of more than 70 percent. With the economy slowing, Aquino risks losing political support if Corona’s trial becomes a drawn out affair, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
The opposition “hopes when the economic crisis is getting worse, people will turn their attention to the economy and Aquino would lose the political battle,” Casiple said. “Aquino wants the trial to end as soon as possible.”
The government last week said exports fell more than estimated in November, declining for a seventh month as global demand weakened. The country’s $200 billion economy grew 3.2 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier, after expanding 3.1 percent in the second quarter, the slowest pace since 2009. Gross domestic product grew 7.3 percent in 2010.
“There are a few negative factors that are likely to put a lid on growth in the near term,” Santitarn Sathirathai, a Singapore-based economist at Credit Suisse Group AG, wrote in a Jan. 12 report. “We fear that the weakness in the Philippines’ electronic exports may not just reflect cyclical developments but also structural deterioration relating to loss of competitiveness.”
Speculation that the central bank will cut interest rates on Jan. 19 has helped push the nation’s benchmark stock index to a record, supporting gains in the currency.
The Philippine Stock Exchange Index advanced 2.9 percent last week, the steepest weekly gain since October, and the peso strengthened 0.9 percent, outperforming currencies in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. The gauge fell 0.8 percent today and the peso declined 0.4 percent to 43.878 per dollar, the biggest drop since Jan. 6, according to Tullett Prebon Plc.
The evidence against Corona is “very solid,” Aquino said today. Corona, who accused Aquino of “planting the seeds of a dictatorship” in a Dec. 14 speech, has denied any wrongdoing.
Corona spoke to supporters who dressed in black and held a mass in his honor before entering today’s Senate meeting with his wife. Corona told his supporters he had become “hindrance to a dictatorship” and said politicians and rivals had conspired to unseat him.
“We are not here to indict the Supreme Court as an institution or do battle with the judicial branch,” Congressman Neil Tupas, one of the prosecutors, said during the hearing, describing Corona as a “loyal servant” of Arroyo.
Police arrested Arroyo on Nov. 18 in a Manila hospital on charges of election fraud, preventing her from leaving the country after Corona’s court granted her permission to do so. Arroyo sought to shift public attention to the poor economic outlook in a paper released by her spokeswoman on Jan. 12 that criticized Aquino’s policies.
“The gains achieved by previous administrations -- mine included -- are being squandered in an obsessive pursuit of political warfare,” wrote Arroyo, who appointed 12 of the Supreme Court’s 15 members. “The leadership’s palpable deficiencies in vision and execution are hurting our economy.”
Philippine lawmakers on Dec. 12 impeached Corona, Arroyo’s former chief of staff who she first named as an associate justice in 2002.
Aquino criticized the high court on Dec. 5 for blocking the formation of a “truth commission” to investigate Arroyo, saying the decision raised doubts about its impartiality. He also faulted the court for allowing the former leader on Nov. 15 to seek medical care overseas, a decision superseded by her arrest.
Aquino’s approval rating dropped to 72 percent in November from 77 percent in August, polling agency Pulse Asia Inc. said on Dec. 6. He had the “trust” of 74 percent of 1,200 adults surveyed from Nov. 10 to Nov. 23, compared with 75 percent in August, the survey showed. The survey had a margin of error of three percent.
“We have become convinced that when it comes to Mrs. Arroyo, Mr. Corona has lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong,” Aquino said in a Dec. 13 speech. “We refuse to bequeath to the coming generations a Supreme Court that would be a den of corruption.”
The Senate proceedings will be held during the afternoon so legislative matters can be dealt with in the mornings. Corona must step down if two-thirds of the Senate finds him guilty on any of the charges, according to impeachment rules.
“This impeachment sends a chilling threat to the Supreme Court to withhold the exercise of its judicial power and just let the president have his way,” Eduardo De Los Angeles, a lawyer for Corona, told the Senate today. “It has also brought the branches of government into collision, and now it divides the nation.”
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