The Endgame in Manila

The game of chess has hundreds of openings and variations but one of the most intriguing, because of the potential exciting exchanges in the middle of the chess board, is the Queen’s Gambit.

This chess opening was first recorded in 1490. It is a bold opening by the white pieces that is either accepted or declined by the opposing black pieces but still will evolve into a battle of who controls the middle. In orchestrating the impeachment case against Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III is challenging the chief magistrate to a showdown at the core of Philippine politics.

For now, Corona is accepting the gambit by declaring that he does not intend to resign but instead will fight off any move to oust his from office, of which only the Philippine Congress has the sole power. Corona even lashed back at Aquino virtually calling the president a dictator.

Aquino and Corona are heads of separate branches of government that are constitutionally co-equal but not necessarily adversaries. The president however sees the chief justice as a stumbling block in his single-minded and determined efforts to prosecute former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who appointed by Corona to head the court despite a Commission on Election ban against his appointment even if the then 2010 election campaign period was already ongoing.

The two have been clashing over major political issues that have so far reached the Supreme Court. Among them was the aborted impeachment trial against former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, also an Arroyo appointee, and most recently the watch list order against the former president, not to mention the recent Supreme Court decision to finally distribute the vast Hacienda Luisita to its tenants and farm workers. Hacienda Luisita is owned and controlled by the president’s family on the Cojuangco side.

The president’s obvious disdain and personal contempt for Corona is not without context and foresight. Corona was a long time chief of staff and legal aide of Arroyo when the latter was still a member of the Philippine Senate and later as vice president. Corona also served as Arroyo’s presidential legal adviser when the latter was sworn into office following the ouster of former President Joseph Estrada in 2001.

Unless removed from office, Corona will serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court until 2018 when he reaches 70 years old, the mandatory retirement age of court justices. Aquino’s term will end in 2016. Between now and 2016 and in between the prosecution of Arroyo, Corona’s helm at the Supreme Court will be a major factor in determining Aquino’s ability to send Arroyo to prison.

He has now seen how Arroyo may have astutely and deliberately positioned herself in order to have a Supreme Court largely appointed by her, although it was not entirely her fault. Arroyo happened to be the second longest serving president of the Philippines, next only to the 21-year reign of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, which allowed her to appoint the majority of the sitting members of the current Supreme Court.

Knowing how the political landscape could change overnight, especially if Corona is still the Supreme Court chief justice when Aquino bows out of office in 2016, the president sees it to his best interest to have his main political adversary ousted from office. By singling out Corona in the impeachment, Aquino is hoping the ouster of the chief justice will influence and tilt the balance of power within the highest court of the land.

This is a bold and all-out gamble that could either sink or propel the Aquino government. Both Corona and Aquino have made their opening moves. Let us watch how they will position their pieces and develop the offenses and defenses as the game of political chess wears on.

(Edwin Espejo blogs for Asian Correspondent at http://asiancorrespondent.com/author/eeportal/.)