Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo:  Reuters/Ezra Acayan
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: Reuters/Ezra Acayan

While Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has countered and deflected criticism of his heavy-handed and often controversial rule, a new impeachment motion filed by the political opposition threatens to overthrow through legal means his popularly elected administration.

The complaint, filed last Friday by Filipino lawmaker Gary Alejano, accuses Duterte of a litany of criminal offenses, including violating the constitution, betraying the public trust, bribery, graft, corruption and other alleged high crimes. Duterte has maintained his innocence. 

Alejano’s motion focuses largely on Duterte’s war on drugs campaign, which the impeachment complaint claims has aided and abetted in the extrajudicial killing of thousands of drug suspects by both police and vigilante groups.

The complaint also alleges that, during his tenure as mayor of Davao City, Duterte hired 11,000 “ghost” employees and commanded and funded a “death squad” that killed thousands of innocent victims, based on the claims of two former self-confessed death squad officers. An earlier Senate inquiry to the death squad allegations was shut down earlier this month by pro-Duterte senators due to “lack of evidence.”

The impeachment motion also raises what opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes has repeatedly referred to as Duterte’s “unexplained wealth”, including P2.2 billion he allegedly holds in undisclosed bank accounts and 40 properties supposedly acquired and held by Duterte and his family that were not included in his official asset declaration statement required of public officials.

Senator Antonio Trillanes attends a senate hearing in Manila on September 15, 2016. Rodrigo Duterte shot dead a justice department employee and ordered the murder of opponents, a former death squad member told parliament September 15, in explosive allegations against the Philippine president. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS
Game-changer: Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis 

Duterte will have plenty of time to prepare his political and legal defense. The motion was filed the day before Congress went on a two-month recess, with the next sitting scheduled for May 2.

While Trillanes, an ex-navy officer, declared the motion would be a political “game changer”, analysts believe the time-lag will give Duterte room to stake out a pointed response to his opponents, as some perceive he did with the arrest last month of drug war critic and ex-justice secretary Senator Leila de Lima on drug charges.

Impeachment proceedings in the Philippines, often launched but seldom successful, are a numbers game Duterte will likely win without significant political defections between now and May. All indications so far are that the political currents are still moving in his favor.

His known allies in both the House of Representatives and Senate have a clear majority, with 260 out of more than 290 congressmen aligned with his ruling party, while only six of the 24-member Senate are in the opposition.

Congress rules require that one-third of House members must support an impeachment complaint in order for it to prosper and be forwarded to the Senate, which would then convene itself as an impeachment court. Had the impeachment proceedings started as soon as the complaint was filed, it would have been voted down easily by Duterte’s congressional allies.

It appears now Alejano strategically timed the filing precisely to deny the President’s allies that chance and to use the two month recess to chip at Duterte’s still favorable public opinion ratings in a bid to win political defections.

Trillanes has since accused Duterte of “major blunders”, including his supposed “flip-flopping” on pursuing peace with communist rebels in the country’s south and his alleged military “inaction” on the three-month long presence of Chinese survey ships at Benham Rise, a maritime feature east of the Philippines included in its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Protesters marching against China display placards during a rally over the South China Sea disputes in front of a Chinese Consulate in Makati city, metro Manila, Philippines August 6, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco
Nationalistic: Filipino protesters against China’s actions in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

He has also seized on Duterte’s admission this week that his government can not resist China’s plans to construct “environmental monitoring stations” at the Scarborough Shoal, also in the Philippines’ EEZ and administered by China ever since a 2012 stand-off over the territory in the South China Sea that the previous Benigno Aquino government lost.

“They’re trying to project that they are in control and confident but on the contrary that is not what is coming out,” said Trillanes about the impeachment motion, predicting cryptically that the situation would soon “come to a head. “Things may be much more different by May.”

Duterte, currently on a tour in Southeast Asia, remained defiant before his departure. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella, meanwhile, branded the impeachment motion as part of a “destabilization” plot spearheaded by Alejano and Trillanes, noting the former military officers’ unsuccessful coup attempt against then-President Gloria Arroyo in 2003 in the so-called “Oakwood Mutiny.”

While Alejano and Trillanes may not yet have the numbers in Congress, they do have sections of the international community on their side. Last week, the European Union deliberated a bill to support a United Nations Human Rights Council investigation into the extrajudicial killings surrounding Duterte’s drug war.

The European Parliament also raised critical questions about de Lima’s pre-trial incarceration, which the detained senator has challenged as illegal at the Supreme Court.

This picture taken on September 1, 2016, shows policemen investigating at a crime scene where a body lies dead on the ground after the police received a message from a concerned citizen of the existence of a drug den in the area. Two were captured alive, one died. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called US leader Barack Obama a "son of a whore" on September 5 as he left on his foreign trip with more than 2,400 people dead in his bloody two-months-old war on crime. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS
Lethal: Duterte’s drug war has been widely criticized. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis 

The lawyer of self-confessed Davao death squad member Edgar Matobato, meanwhile, said that he planned to file by April crimes against humanity charges against Duterte at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague in connection with the death squad’s alleged killings in Davao City when Duterte served as the city’s mayor. US-based Human Rights Watch has corroborated the allegations in its independent investigations.

Political analysts expect the political temperature will rise over the next two months as Duterte’s government parries the opposition’s jabs as Alejano and Trillanes bid to build momentum and win congressional defections for impeachment hearings in May. The analysts note that while Duterte currently has strong support in Congress, dozens switched to his side only after his thumping election win last year.   

Even if the impeachment case is ultimately thwarted, legal analysts say information and testimony revealed during the proceedings could provide sufficient justification to file an ICC case, in which the international court could take jurisdiction if it is perceived that all national legal remedies—including impeachment—have failed.

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