The Problem with Impeachment in the Philippines

When the highest officials of the government are accused of graft and corruption, they can be removed from office through impeachment. The Constitution lists the following impeachable officials: the President, the Vice President, justices of the Supreme Court, officials of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman. The following are among the grounds for impeachment:

  1. Culpable violation of the Constitution
  2. Bribery
  3. Graft and corruption
  4. Betrayal of public trust

The impeachment filed against former president Joseph Estrada proved to be an informative and educational experience for Filipinos. They learned about the previously untested process of removing from office high-ranking officials charged with wrongdoing.

The 1987 Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole power to initiate impeachment proceedings, which start with a verified complaint that may be filed by a congressman or any citizen. An appropriate committee hears the case and reports its recommendation through a resolution that must be affirmed by at least one-third of the House membership. In Estrada’s case, the House took the other option: the verified complaint was signed by one-third of the House’s members, an act which amounted to automatic approval and constitution of the Articles of Impeachment. The Articles were then sent to the Senate, which has the exclusive power to investigate and decide impeachment cases. Its members acted as judges and the chamber was presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. While the impeachment complaint against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was nipped in the bud by the majority of the members of the lower house, most of whom belong to the majority block.

Ironically, the other officials against whom impeachment proceedings have been initiated are the chief anti-corruption official himself, Obudsman Aniano Desierto, and COMELEC Commissioner Luzviminda Tancangco. Three impeachment complaints have been filed against Desierto during his seven-year term, the last two in his last years in office and within months of each other. These complaints, however, were still within the bounds of the Constitutional provision that limits impeachment complaints to only one per year. The second impeachment complaint against Desierto was filed in late 2001, the third in early 2002.

In all these “few” cases, Congress has been criticized for its failure to use its power of impeachment. These made the public think that the House has no moral and political will to exact accountability from erring public officials.

The intricacies of filing and initiating impeachment proceedings do not have public appreciation. The technical requirement that must be fulfilled is perceived by most people to render the whole process unreal. Without a resolution of endorsement from a house member, a verified complaint for impeachment cannot be filed, as in the case of the impeachment complaint of Linda Montayre and the People’s Coalition against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Even when impeachment complaints are properly filed, requisite formal procedures must be complied with to make the process legitimate and effective. Moreover, Congress is a political, not a judicial, body. Therefore, partisan, political, or pragmatic considerations come into play. The ruling party or coalition may be protective of a member or a leader of its political fraternity, or initiating impeachment proceedings against a particular official may not be politically expedient. This political pragmatism has resulted to lack of accountability, hence, lack of the government’s credibility to reform itself.