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VIEW FROM THE CENTER: The imperial presidency redux

MANILA (MindaNews / 28 April) — Last week’s column, “SC co-equal branch?” (TMT, April 18) discussed the “independence” of the judiciary visualized from the angle of the Sereno quo warranto petition, and the President’s purported non-involvement in this affair. Today’s column will touch on the role of the third co-equal branch of government, the Congress, with respect to the clear admonition of DU30 that Chief Justice Sereno is now his enemy and needs to be booted out.

“I will ask Speaker Alvarez now, kindly fast-track the impeachment…do it now. Cut the drama or else I will do it for you.”

“It will be done once we resume sessions,” Speaker Alvarez meekly replied. (Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 10, 2018)

I have yet to parse what the President meant exactly by his statement except for its clear element of a threat by the executive against half of the legislature.

Sereno’s goose is cooked, thanks to the House of Representative (HoR) which will now have to do the President’s bidding, reducing itself into an institutional doormat. By passing on to the Senate the bill of particulars, this act will be equivalent to a messy self-castration by the honorable congressmen. The Chief Justice will now seek justice from the Senate sitting as judges in an impeachment court. If the Corona scenario will be replayed, we are going to have senators making a lot of moolah from the endeavor. The irony is simply overwhelming.

This column will not dwell on the mechanics of the impeachment of the Chief Justice, if ever there is one. I am looking at this sordid affair from another angle: the imperial presidency and its impact on the bureaucracy and the body politic. In a three-part series on “the imperial presidency” (TMT, June 22 and 29; July 6, 2017), I used as reference an excellent book by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. published in 1974. I will cite the same reference to examine an angle on the actuations of the Deegong that encroach upon the principle of the co-equality of the three branches of government. This is not a treatise on the principle of checks and balance enshrined in our Constitution. This is simply a depiction of how the executive branch bullies the judiciary and the legislature – and gets away with it.

The imperial presidency hypothesis in Schlesinger’s book is buttressed by the long history of the American presidency. I wrote then: “My take on this book is that the evolution of the American presidency has been impacted and eventually distorted by a combination of the acts of the respective occupant himself, the non-vigilance of the American Congress and the realities and exigencies of geopolitics; thus, giving rise to the imperial presidency.”

Schlesinger wrote: “During time of emergencies, US Presidents unilaterally assumed enormous powers but ceased control once the emergency is gone. Congress thereby reasserting itself.” (Lincoln during the American civil war and Roosevelt in World War 2)

In the Philippine context, the best example of the imperial presidency was that of Ferdinand Marcos. His was the fruit of a series of perversions and weakening of democratic institutions, bits and pieces at first, then castration of the Congress and the judiciary, culminating in a purported crisis, one of his own making, and then the declaration of martial law, establishing his regime as a full-fledged dictatorship.

Unlike the counterpart American Presidents who unilaterally ceased control and power once the emergency was over, in the case of Marcos, his powers were not unilaterally ceded and lasted for a good part of two decades ending in political upheaval in 1986.

In the present context, the Philippines with its weak democratic institutions is ripe for the emergence of a strong-willed leader. I wrote then that the Deegong was inevitable, that what was needed was a strongman President in “a weak state populated by weak leaders.”

This is what we have now, an imperial presidency, courtesy of weak institutions, especially the co-equal branches riven by conflicts of personal and political self-interest. We may soon see the total taming and acquiescence of a lame judiciary and the surrender of congressional prerogatives and subsequent dismantling of the principle of checks and balance.

And in the dominant executive branch the exercise of arbitrary decisions by the imperial president will be the norm. We already have inklings of that when the DU30 proclaimed what could be the Duterte Doctrine on corruption: He said he will “…not tolerate any corruption in his administration and he will dismiss from office any of his men (women) who are tainted even by a ‘whiff of corruption’; and he is ready to sack any public officials even on the basis of false allegations of corruption.” (Inquirer.net, March 30, 2017, emphasis mine)

This is a dangerous attribute of an imperial presidency, and I wrote then: “There is no question that the president has the power to terminate from government anyone who fails to serve at his pleasure. But the President must be subject to the minimums of fairness and the etiquette of dismissal, for no apparent reason than that the process is widely regarded as civilized behavior. But more importantly, there is a greater overarching principle that covers the conduct of the mighty, the powerful and the humble – the rule of law.”

The seasoning of the imperial presidency will continue as PRRD indulges in the capricious usurpation of decisions which by the principle of subsidiarity should have been lodged with his alter-egos – cabinet members and their departments and the regulatory agencies. The closure of Boracay upon the President’s pronouncement that it was a cesspool and his declaration to turn it into a land reform area have elicited contradictory responses from his own bureaucracy.

Similar presidential outbursts meant to shock and dramatize have been the style of the president from the very beginning, when he threatened to fatten Manila Bay with the bodies of illegal drug pushers and the enforcement of his dreaded tokhang. All these, plus his intimidating demeanor is erroneously equated as the quintessence of political will.

These anomalies are just symptoms of decades-long history of systemic discordance in our practice of governance; one that is grounded in a unitary presidential government with a highly centralized authority. The resultant weakness of democratic institutions has inevitably augured the creeping evils and abusive measures which are manifested in an imperial presidency.

Paradoxically, with an inherent rotten system; with the dismantling of the concept of “co-equal branch of government for check and balance”; and absent the traditional moral voice of the formal churches—Duterte’s imperial presidency could be what the doctor prescribed.

Except, if allowed unchecked, we might just find ourselves one day ruled by another full dictatorship!

 (This column first appeared in  The Manila Times issue of April 25,2018  http://www.manilatimes.net/the-imperial-presidency-redux/394746/. Lito Monico C. Lorenzana, a Dabawenyo based in Manila, served under four Philippine Presidents as a member of the Cabinet and several Commissions. A Harvard Kennedy School of Government-educated political technocrat, he was one of the prime movers of the Citizens Movement for Federal Philippines, Secretary General of the 2005 Consultative Commission, and one of the founders of the Centrist Democratic Party of the Philippines, Ang Partido ng Tunay na Demokrasya and the Centrist Democracy Political Institute)


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