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Rodrigo Duterte’s sacking of Philippine Supreme Court chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has added a powerful voice to a growing coalition of opposition forces. By Margaret Simons.

Sereno joins fight against Duterte

Recently sacked former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno at a general assembly of Tindig Pilipinas.
Credit: Dave Tacon / Polaris

The recently sacked chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno, has thrown her authority behind nascent attempts to unite left-wing and liberal groups in effective opposition to President Rodrigo Duterte.

On Tuesday, Sereno appeared at an Independence Day gathering of the recently formed coalition, Tindig Pilipinas, which translates as “Stand up Filipinos”.

The Tindig Pilipinas coalition is an attempt to build the capacity for a renewed manifestation of the peculiarly Philippine political invention, people power, which has led to two presidents – Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada – being ousted through mass demonstrations after the machinery of politics failed.

In a rousing speech at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, Sereno urged about 700 representatives of unions, women’s groups, non-government organisations, Muslim and Catholic activists and senators from the Liberal Party and the democratic socialist Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party to forgive each other for the sins of the past, cease fighting internally and focus on supporting democracy and constitutional rule.

Sereno was sacked as chief justice by a vote of her fellow judges in what is viewed as the latest, and potentially most serious, attempt by Duterte to remove constitutional checks and balances on presidential power. She is the first constitutional officer in the Philippines to be removed without an impeachment trial.

Significantly, Sereno’s sacking has caused Liberal Party and left-wing politicians to come together in protest.

Sereno has more credibility in the eyes of the public than the former head of the Human Rights Commission, Senator Leila de Lima, who was jailed in 2017 after a long record of opposing Duterte’s war on drugs, in which an estimated 20,000 mostly poor Filipinos have been executed by police and so-called vigilantes.

De Lima was jailed on charges of drug dealing. Amnesty International has deemed her a prisoner of conscience and described the charges as “pure fiction”, but de Lima is not a popular figure in the Philippines and has been damaged in the eyes of a conservative electorate by gossip about her personal life. Many Filipinos appear to believe at least aspects of the corruption allegations against her.

Sereno, on the other hand, is widely respected. In a body politic almost universally tainted by allegations of corruption, she is perceived as at least relatively “clean”. She is now being courted by opposition parties to run in the midterm elections next May, which will serve as the first test of Duterte’s continuing hold on public popularity since he became president with a clear majority of the vote in 2016. Sereno has so far declined to say whether she will run, and she refused to be interviewed by the media at Tuesday’s event.

But in her speech she directly addressed the fractured and compromised nature of the opposition forces, drawing a comparison with the way in which the Catholic Church had lost moral authority because of its “sins”.

“We’ve been corrupted by a phenomenal amount of fear,” Sereno said. “My friends at the Catholic Church, your sensitive conscience has been used and used against you … Guilt has been exploited. That is why the Catholic Church’s institutional clout has weakened and even the church’s voice has become softer and weaker.

“We have allowed guilt to suppress our ability to fight for what is right … We must come together as people of the faith and confess our shortcomings to each other. Once that confession and the penance has been done, we should take up the cudgels again and say, ‘We will fight. We know we have been wrong, but we will fight.’ ”

Her words were understood as a reference to the compromised nature of the Liberal Party and its allies.

The Philippines is one of Asia’s oldest democracies yet has so far not developed many of the features of a mature system. It lacks a robust party system, with loyalties depending on personal connections, pork-barrelling and distribution of favours rather than developed policy platforms.

Both voters and elected congressmen have little party loyalty. After Duterte’s election, many Liberal Party politicians switched to ally themselves with him to form a super majority in Congress.

The population votes for personalities and dynasties more than for parties. In a field of lacklustre presidential candidates, Duterte attracted a large vote from a population disillusioned with politics as usual.

Public opinion polls suggest he still holds popular support, but contradictions are beginning to emerge, with poor voters saying that while they support the war on drugs, they also fear they or their family members will be the next to die.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the Supreme Court, which is dominated by appointees of Duterte and previous president Gloria Arroyo, is due to vote on Sereno’s motion for reconsideration of her sacking.

Duterte has announced that he wants to change the constitution to introduce a federal system of justice. In a statement released at Tuesday’s meeting, Tindig Pilipinas described this as an attempt by Duterte to remain in power beyond the expiry of his term in 2022. Under the current constitution, presidents can serve only one term.

The Liberal Party is now attempting to rebrand itself. The party colour, buttercup yellow, once stood for opposition to Marcos and for people power, but has come to be regarded cynically due to the failings of the Aquino dynasty under both Corazon and Benito. Having run on anti-corruption campaigns, both administrations largely failed to deliver.

There was a spattering of the familiar yellow on T-shirts and balloons at Tuesday’s gathering, which was also addressed by the latest scion of the Aquino dynasty, Senator Bam Aquino.

But Tindig Pilipinas has largely shunned the colour in an attempt to be seen as outside the compromised politics of the past.

The gathering brought together a wide collection of groups. It was addressed by Catholic bishops and representatives of the Muslim minority population, now living under martial law in the war-torn southern province of Mindanao.

In a statement released at the meeting, Tindig Pilipinas described itself as “a call to action for every freedom-loving Filipino” as Duterte “and his minions continue to diminish the constitution and narrow the democratic space”.

The organisation claimed to have formed chapters in different provinces and regions. “We have created different hubs with varying advocacies and melded into one common cause – the restoration of a living vibrant democracy”.

The group pronounced itself opposed to extrajudicial killings, in unity with Senator de Lima, against Duterte’s “misogynistic” attacks on women and against the continuation of martial law in Mindanao. Foreign policy is also a concern, with the group in opposition to Duterte’s perceived submissiveness to China, which has recently been accused of seizing the catch of Philippine fishermen in disputed waters.

Ties between China and the Philippines were tense after the Aquino administration filed a case with a United Nations-backed tribunal over the disputed waters. The ruling, in the Philippines’ favour, was handed down a few days after Duterte became president – but Duterte put the victory to one side in exchange for warmer ties and Chinese funding for his administration’s ambitious infrastructure program.

In her speech, Sereno focused not on individuals, but institutions. She said the country had to realise that despite the hope that accompanied the new constitution after the fall of Marcos, the past few years had revealed that the institution of democracy remained weak and easily undermined.

Sereno said her fight with Duterte had begun when she wrote a letter in 2016 calling into question his naming a list of judges he said were involved in the narcotics trade. After this, Duterte had told her that she was now his enemy and he would remove her from the Supreme Court. She had thought at the time that his words were emotional and did not mean much, but she now realised he had set out to remove her from that moment.

The immediate reason for Sereno’s sacking was her alleged failure to declare all her wealth and pecuniary interests – charges she denies. At the Tindig Pilipinas gathering she said if she had been granted a proper impeachment trial, the allegations would have been shown to be baseless.

She talked about the erosion of hope in the Philippines following the drafting of the constitution after Marcos fell from power in 1986.

“In 1987 we had so much hope in our institutions that had been put back in place, institutions that were supposed to be part of a new democracy. We were all supposed to rise up, different sectors of the population united. That didn’t happen. Now my enemy has risen up and these past years he is reinforcing how weak our institutions can be.”

She called on the opposition forces to stop fighting each other and to refuse to be distracted by scandals and attacks on individuals.

“So much of our time is being wasted because of scandals and betrayals. Why can’t we have stability in our country? Let me remind everyone, confusion and divisions, red herrings and allegations can be stratagems. The important thing is that we build the country from constitutional values and that we hold our leaders to account.” She described the Duterte administration’s failure to act against Chinese incursions as an attack on national sovereignty.

Instead of being motivated by personalities and hatred, Filipinos should rise above their differences and “focus on the huge, huge prize” of continued democratic and constitutional rule, she said.

Despite the new call for unity and focus, Tindig Pilipinas has yet to cut through the cynicism of the Philippine population.

The popular political website Rappler reported Sereno’s speech as a powerful “charm offensive” while drawing attention to continued differences between elements of the left, with some insisting on uncompromising resistance to Duterte while others continued to accept positions in his administration.

News assistant Rona Mae Lallana assisted with translation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 16, 2018 as "Sereno to urge a pact". Subscribe here.

Margaret Simons
is a freelance journalist, author and associate professor of journalism at Monash University.

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