A repeating cycle: Aquino the latest ex-Philippine President to face criminal charges

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Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino faces charges for graft and “usurpation of authority”. Duterte seems keen to serve justice.

By John Pennington

Ex-Philippine President Benigno Aquino will soon face charges of corruption, just as his predecessors Ferdinand Marcos, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did in the past.

However, what else does he have in common with those he succeeded and how likely is he to be given a reprieve?

Two years ago, 44 police commandos died during a botched attempt to capture Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Hir, known as Marwan. The raid – named Oplan Exodus – was a disaster.

Aquino took guidance from suspended policemen Alan Purisima and Getulio Napenas. Both are also under investigation. The Senate ordered telephone companies to reveal the contents of text messages between Aquino and Purisima. The text messages were evidence of the information – some of it incorrect – Purisima was providing Aquino.

“President Aquino’s blanket justification in utilising Purisima for Oplan Exodus that ‘as the Chief Executive, I can directly order any person — subordinate to be exact — to do what must be done’ is misplaced,” Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales explained.

Aquino will soon face an anti-corruption court to answer charges of graft and usurpation of authority. Aquino claims he was not involved in planning the raid. He is now working with his lawyers to consider filing an appeal.

Aquino is not the first President to stand trial

Aquino is not the first former President to face graft charges. In the Philippines, a President rarely exits his post and goes quietly into retirement. Fidel Ramos is a notable exception.

When Ferdinand Marcos, president between 1965 and 1986, left office, he and his family had stolen up to $US10 billion. Before his ouster and exile, he stood accused of diverting funds for personal use.

While he died in 1989, his wife Imelda faced a conviction for graft in 1993. Although the Supreme Court overturned that conviction five years later, in 2010, she was ordered to repay a fraction of the funds taken by her husband. They got away extraordinarily lightly, but the Philippines is still working to recover more of the lost money.

Joseph Estrada returned to office following his conviction

Estrada was elected President in 1998 and declared war on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. He made the sort of gains that Aquino was trying to emulate. However, Estrada resigned in 2001 after going on trial for impeachment.

Six years later, the anti-corruption court handed down a life sentence for stealing $US80 million. Six weeks passed before his successor as President Arroyo pardoned and freed him from house arrest.

He then made a return to political office despite having promised not to when asking for clemency. After he lost the 2010 presidential election to Aquino, he won the Manila mayoral election in 2013.

Aquino is not the first President to stand trial

Although his successor Arroyo survived several impeachments during her time as President between 2001 and 2010, she faced accusations that she rigged the 2004 election in her favour.

She was arrested for electoral sabotage in 2011, released one year later, then arrested again on graft charges in the same year. Last year, she was finally acquitted and is now a serving member of Congress.

“It is my fervent hope that nobody else will suffer the persecution that had been levied on me through self-serving interpretation and implementation of the law,” she said after the Supreme Court overturned her plunder conviction.

The treatment of ex-Presidents is in line with how politics in the Philippines works

Aquino’s post-Presidential life is following a similar pattern to his predecessors. Marcos, Estrada and Arroyo did not serve full sentences following convictions, although this is partly because the Filipino justice system moves incredibly slowly. Nevertheless, their successors or allies also kept them out of danger. All returned to public office.

Traditionally, this is one effect of the nature of the Filipino political system. Corruption is endemic because families or family alliances dominate politics. Favour and promotions are more likely to be gained through nepotism or friendship rather than merit.

For example, it was Arroyo who released Estrada early, just weeks after his conviction. When the time came for her to face trial last year, judges appointed by Aquino acquitted her, and she praised current President Rodrigo Duterte. Arroyo and Aquino come from established political families with historical ties to each other.

Aquino and Duterte are not closely linked

Aquino stood down as President in 2016 before Duterte won the election. Even he has already had to face calls for impeachment from those who oppose his war on drugs.

However, the big problem for Aquino is that he does not have a good relationship with Duterte. The pair clashed over the war on drugs. Duterte partly blames Aquino for the proliferation of illegal drugs. Aquino decided against joining other ex-Presidents at Duterte’s first State of the Nation address. Duterte ignored Aquino’s gains in the South China Sea dispute.

Duterte pushed for an independent panel to investigate the 2015 attack and has so far shown no leniency towards Aquino. Duterte’s political dynasty has few links with Aquino’s even if he is prepared to pay tribute to Aquino’s father, Ninoy.

Aquino faces a quiet political future

If Aquino is convicted, he faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years and permanent disqualification from holding public office. Duterte has consistently criticised Aquino’s handling of the raid and could be about to break the cycle whereby Presidents and ex-Presidents serve each others’ interests.

He does not come from the same powerful family background as Aquino or his other predecessors. Although he is on better terms with Estrada and Arroyo, he seems keen to serve justice. Arroyo pardoned Estrada on the pretext of his age. At 57, Aquino cannot expect similar leniency.

Compared to his predecessors, the graft charges Aquino faces are relatively modest. However, he could serve the most severe punishment of them all. In that case, he would have to bide his time until Duterte is gone and another of his allies is back in office.

Do not expect Duterte to let him off lightly, but at the same time, do not rule out another Aquino come back in the future.