The arrest last Friday of Senator Leila de Lima as part of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs is the latest escalation in the decade-old battle of wills between Duterte and de Lima that long pre-dates their respective elections to national office in May 2016.
The arrest, along with Duterte's general conduct in his rancorous battle against de Lima since his inauguration last June, represents the failing of three important political tests, all to do with the Duterte administration, and the straining of a fourth, to do with the Liberal Party. The results of this last test may be the most important for the remaining years of Duterte's single six-year term.
The first failed test is a presidential one. Duterte did not rise above his personal animus towards de Lima and her decision to use her role as chair of the Senate Committee on Justice to investigate the conduct of the his crusade-like war on drugs. Philippine presidents have been frequently criticised for using and misusing the powers of their office to pursue political vendettas against their opponents. The Duterte-de Lima battle since June 2016 may well be the best post-Marcos example of this presidential proclivity. In August 2016, during the campaign to have de Lima removed from the Senate Justice Committee, Duterte publicly recommended that de Lima consider killing herself over her alleged links to the drug trade.
The second failed test is a legislative one. The legislative branch is supposed to be a co-equal branch of government that acts as a check on the misuse of presidential powers. However, both the Senate and the House of Representatives have aided and abetted the President in his personal battle against de Lima. Soon after the Senate Justice Committee began hearings into the conduct of the war on drugs, the Senate voted 16-4 (with four abstentions and absences) in September to remove de Lima (a former Secretary of Justice and head of the Commission on Human Rights) as Chair and replace her with Senator Richard Gordon. Gordon then immediately stopped these hearings. In the same vein, this Monday the Senate voted to demote four senators who had questioned the arrest of de Lima.
In December, the House of Representatives launched an ethics investigation targeting de Lima that featured House Majority Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez (who was instrumental in convincing Duterte to run for president) publicly supporting the airing of a 'sex tape' allegedly involving de Lima. This move was strongly and successfully opposed by a cross-party coalition of female politicians.
The third failed test is a ministerial one. The Secretary of Justice Vitaliano Aguirre III is a close friend, law school classmate and fraternity 'brod' of the president. His conduct as secretary in relation to investigation of de Lima's alleged links to the drug trade are coming under growing media and political scrutiny. He was the admitted source of the 'sex tape' that has been widely derided as fake. A leaked Bureau of Corrections memo implicates Aguirre in providing special treatment in prison to criminals who testified against de Lima. Aguirre publicly accused, with no proof provided, one former and one sitting politician of paying witnesses to recant their testimonies implicating de Lima. Senators have criticised Aguirre's speech during a pro-Duterte rally last Saturday when he repeatedly asked the crowd who they wanted jailed after de Lima.
The final test is one for the Liberal Party. Will it now stand up for its elected member behind bars and act as an opposition party? The Liberal Party in Congress and Vice-President Leni Robredo from the Liberal Party chose to try to work with President Duterte, despite his growing attacks on the party and its historical legacy. The Liberal Party, shorn of many of its members who opted after the election to switch to President Duterte's PDP-Laban Party, joined the PDP-Laban-led super majority in the House of Representatives. Liberal Party senators also joined the PDP-Laban-led majority in the Senate. Two senators who had run on the Liberal Party slate even voted in September with the majority to force de Lima to step down as chair of the Justice Committee, while another abstained.
The four senators demoted on Monday (who voted against de Lima's removal as chair in September) now have agreed to form an opposition bloc in the Senate with de Lima and Senator Antonio Trillanes, another harsh critic of the president. Vice-President Robredo, banned via third-party text message from Cabinet meetings in December for disloyalty, is also taking a clearer position in opposition to the Duterte administration. If the Liberal Party can act against the stereotype of Philippine political parties as feckless and empty, then some good could come out of the Duterte-de Lima battle. If the Liberal Party fails this test, then checks on presidential powers will again likely come from outside the political system.