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Arroyo Moves to Break Stalemate Over Impeachment of Chief Justice - 2003-11-05

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has moved to break a week-long stalemate between the Supreme Court and Congress, which has brought demonstrations to the streets of Manila and put the armed forces on alert. The deadlock has raised the specter of a political crisis six months before presidential elections.

President Arroyo proposed a compromise between the three branches of the Philippine government aimed at defusing a confrontation over the impeachment of the country's top judge.

Ms. Arroyo proposes that the House of Representatives withdraw its move to impeach Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide and instead launch an investigation into charges of corruption that were the reason for the impeachment.

Ninety members of the House of Representatives last week signed a petition to impeach Judge Davide accusing him of using $800,000 in court funds to buy luxury cars and homes.

The Supreme Court responded with a hold order, saying it needed time to consider if the move was constitutional. Legally, government officials can only face an impeachment motion once per year, and the chief justice had already beaten an impeachment attempt this year.

The confrontation has divided the government and led to street demonstrations in Manila. Police restrained hundreds of demonstrators who sought to enter the court building as the Supreme Court deliberated the issue.

One of the congressmen who signed the impeachment petition, Felix Fuentebella, says it is time for the people to know the truth. The congressman said an impeachment trial in the Senate is the proper place and added that the lawmakers will not stop until justice is rendered.

Police also restrained a group demonstrating in support of the embattled judge, who denies the graft allegations.

Lawmakers who back impeachment say they are fighting rampant corruption in the Philippine government. But government supporters say the move is politically motivated in anticipation of national elections in six months.

Chief Justice Davide presided when the court ruled that President Arroyo legally assumed the presidency, after Joseph Estrada was forced from office amid massive street demonstrations in 2001.

Mr. Estrada, who is on trial for corruption and still claims to be the legitimate president, is the one who brought the first impeachment motion against Justice Davide this year.

The prospect of street demonstrations led the government to put security forces on alert Tuesday. Senior officials said it was a precautionary move to maintain law and order. They said it was not made out of fear of an attempted coup, like the one by junior officers last July that shook the country for several days before it was ended peacefully.