It’s different in the Philippines

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
Public officials rarely resign even after they’ve lost public trust.

Marites VitugThe impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona ended its sixth week yesterday and prosecutors are considering resting their case soon. As Sen. Edgardo Angara said, in his fitting words, there is no need to “prolong the agony of our nation.”
We’ve learned valuable lessons on accountability and transparency. We’ve seen how the chief justice, cloaked in power, accumulated wealth in his 9 years in the Court with little regard for  honesty. His assets and liabilities statements speak for themselves—as well as his condominium and land titles and bank accounts.
As Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile likes to invoke, the documents are the “best evidence.”
In other democratic countries, similar “agonies” of trying high public officials are avoided. When faced with scandalous revelations, they opt to bow out of office. They cut their losses. While they leave with tarnished names, they hope to rehabilitate their reputations away from the ogling eyes of the public.
History has many examples. One of the most instructive is the case of US President Richard Nixon who resigned in 1974 after the US Congress charged him with obstruction of justice and abuse of power, following the Watergate scandal. Rather than be subjected to impeachment, Nixon stepped down.
The most recent example is Germany. The president, Christian Wulff, resigned on February 17 amid allegations he accepted favors from businessmen and after prosecutors asked Parliament to strip him of his immunity.
“Events of the past days and weeks have shown that this trust, and with it the ability to work effectively, have been persistently impaired,” a beleaguered Wulff said. He acknowledged that Germany needed a president who enjoys the full trust of the people. His position, while largely ceremonial, requires moral integrity.
In a conversation, eager and bright-eyed European diplomats, very new to the Philippines, expressed surprise that the chief justice is still hanging on—especially after they read reports that Corona withdrew P36 million on Dec. 12, 2011, the day he was impeached.
“It’s like being caught with a knife at the scene of the crime,” one of them said.
The analogy made it more graphic to me, a Filipino who, like many others, lives in a society where a number of public officials blur the lines between what’s right and wrong, what’s ethical and unethical.
In a recent visit of a Japanese academic who watches the Philippines closely, I asked him whether they have something similar to our impeachment. “None,” he said, “because our officials immediately resign after they are linked to a scandal.”
Shame and honor are embedded in their culture.
Gutierrez and Zubiri
It’s very rare for Philippine officials who have committed wrongdoing or are confronting allegations of corruption and misdemeanor to acknowledge that they have lost public trust and therefore are stepping down.
Two examples stand out. Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri resigned last year because of allegations he benefited from massive election fraud.
“I am resigning because of these unfounded accusations against me and these issues have systematically divided our nation and has cast doubt on our electoral system which has affected not only myself, but this institution together with the public as well,” Zubiri said in a privilege speech. “No amount of power, position or wealth is worth sacrificing one’s honor and integrity for.”
Earlier, Merceditas Gutierrez resigned as Ombudsman after she was impeached. She said in her statement: “At a time when the present administration is in its infancy and beset with more urgent problems, the last thing that the nation needs is for the House and the Senate to be embroiled in a long drawn-out impeachment proceeding against a single public official… To carry on my battle to cleanse my name before the Senate would detract from the time which could otherwise be devoted to legislative work which would address the needs of millions of Filipino people.”
It seems that Corona will slug it out, wounded and without any claim to moral ascendancy. –

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.