Then presidential aspirant Rodrigo Duterte points during a press conference in a November 30, 2015 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco
Then presidential aspirant Rodrigo Duterte points during a press conference in a November 30, 2015 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is gradually tightening the noose on his sundry critics, in moves critics see as textbook vindictive politics. Buoyed by historic-high approval ratings, the Filipino strongman is chipping away at democratic institutions with force and speed.

The latest victim of his authoritarian lurch is the Ombudsman Office, a constitutionally independent body tasked with holding elected officials to account.

In a highly controversial move, one many legal experts view as unconstitutional, the Duterte administration perfunctorily sacked Overall Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur Carandang, who has been charged with grave misconduct and placed on 90-day preventive suspension.

For months, the magistrate has been investigating allegations of corruption against the president and his family members, specifically alleged secret overseas bank accounts owned by Duterte and his children. The move comes amid allegations that Duterte’s son, Paolo, is involved in illegal drug smuggling – charges the until recently vice mayor of Davao City has strenuously denied.

For a president who prides himself in his supposed probity and simple lifestyle, the Ombudsman Office’s probe was nothing short of a direct assault on his public image and persona.

In response, an incensed administration accused Caradang of violating a banking secrecy law as well as grave abuse of power for “falsely claiming” that the Ombudsman Office received a document regarding the president’s supposed secret bank accounts from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMlC).

Paolo Duterte, then Vice Mayor of Davao City and son of President Rodrigo Duterte, talks to his lawyer during a Senate hearing on drug smuggling in Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines, September 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

The AMlC, a task force designed to track suspicious money transactions to and from the country, denied that it has ever submitted any documents to the Ombudsman.

The magistrate has been accused of dishonesty, misusing confidential information and disclosing false information, thus violating the law against “causing any undue injury to any party including the government or giving any private party any unwarranted benefits.”

Carandang is also accused of violating administrative orders by “divulging valuable information of confidential character acquired by his office or by him on account of his official position to unauthorized persons or releasing such information in advance for its authorized release date.”

Critics, however, have slammed Carandang’s de facto sacking as unconstitutional and a direct assault on the country’s democratic institutions. They cite a Supreme Court Ruling in 2014 that upheld the independence of the Ombudsman Office from executive interference.

Packed with Duterte loyalists, the government now hopes the country’s highest court will “revisit” its earlier decision. Just weeks earlier, the government also revoked the operating license of online news outlet, Rappler, based on questionable allegations of ‘foreign ownership.’ The constitution forbids foreign ownership in media.

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) decision against Rappler has been widely interpreted as a quasi-legal silencing of a top Duterte critic. Now, many fear the president is going after the last bastions of independence within the state, especially the Ombudsman Office.

Members of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines during a protest outside the presidential palace in Metro Manila, January 17, 2018. Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

The Ombudsman Office is now led by Conchita Carpio Morales, a fiercely independent former Supreme Court justice who has repeatedly declared that her office will not be intimidated by Duterte’s threats.

Duterte threatened late last year to impeach Morales and challenged her to preemptively resign, the magistrate, who happens to be a relative of the president, declared that she “will not be baited into abandoning [her] constitutional duties.”

The president has repeatedly accused her and other independent figures such as Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Aranal Sereno of serving the political opposition’s agenda. Sereno currently faces possible impeachment by the Duterte-leaning Philippine Congress, based on what many view as politically motivated charges aimed at silencing opposition in high state offices.

Duterte’s supporters often emphasize that former president Benigno Aquino III, now the de facto opposition leader who also faces possible charges of criminal negligence for the deaths of 44 commandos in a 2015 botched anti-terror raid, appointed Sereno and Morales.

They see the government’s gathering crackdown on critics as a lawful and pre-emptive purge of a cabal of conspirators bent on deposing the democratically elected president. Street demonstrations have brought down at least two elected administrations in the Philippines, namely the Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada regimes.

An activist shouts during a protest against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte near the Malacanang palace in Manila on September 21, 2017. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Opposition legislators were quick to describe Duterte’s latest move as “dictatorial” and unconstitutional. Congressman Gary Alejano, who belongs to the tiny opposition faction in the legislature’s lower house, accused the government of “destroy[ing] the very concept of ‘independence’ of the Ombudsman, which insulates it from political pressures and allows it to perform its mandate.”

Alejano maintained that the charges against Carandang were “ill-founded” since the magistrate “did not release any document to the public or expose substantial portions of the supposed bank records” of the president and his family members who currently serve in the government.

Duterte’s son, Paolo, recently resigned as vice mayor of Davao City, the president’s hometown, amid unproven allegations he is involved in a Chinese illegal drug syndicate. He claimed his resignation was due to recent personal “unfortunate events”, including a failed marriage and public spat with his daughter. His alleged offshore bank accounts were believed to be a subject of the Ombudsman Office’s investigations.

Senator Antonio Trillanes III, a vocal critic of the president who has pursued the drug allegations against his son, condemned Carandang’s dismissal as an “impeachable offense” for violating the constitution. He described the move as “another Duterte tactic that’s meant to bully democratic institutions into submission so he could go on with his dictatorial and corrupt ways.”

Duterte can rely on the support of highly quiescent politicians in Congress and an increasingly deferential Supreme Court, which has repeatedly sided with the president on controversial decisions in the past year. As the country moves from democracy to dictatorship, there may soon be no independent voices or credible checks and balances left.

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