MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine Senate voted on Tuesday to remove the country’s top judge, a landmark victory for President Benigno Aquino that should embolden his campaign to root out institutional corruption and could quicken the pace of economic reforms.
Twenty out of 23 senators voted to oust Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona on charges of failing to declare his wealth, making him the first Filipino official to be removed by an impeachment court. The decision bars the 63-year-old, who accused Aquino of waging a political vendetta against him, permanently from public office.
The ruling was welcomed by investors and economists, who have grown concerned the trial was distracting the government from policy matters at a time when the Philippines is seeing a resurgence of interest in its long-underperforming economy.
The impeachment paves the way for Aquino to focus on fiscal reforms and to tackle the prosecution of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is in detention at an army hospital awaiting trial on electoral fraud and corruption charges.
Investors and analysts regard the two cases as crucial tests of whether Aquino can take advantage of his high approval ratings to crack down on endemic corruption that has slowed growth and turned off investors for decades.
“The effect is clear. It will be a boost to the anti-corruption campaign of the president, it will also be a big boost to his support base,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms in Manila.
The ruling could give Aquino more influence to push reforms through Congress, such as a proposed sin tax on alcohol and tobacco that would raise about $1.4 billion more this year for the government. That would go some way to address chronically low revenue collection and support his plans to improve decrepit infrastructure that remains a major barrier to growth.
Moody’s ratings agency gave a fresh vote of confidence in the country on Tuesday, lifting the rating on its sovereign debt to “positive” from “stable,” nudging the Philippines closer to coveted investment grade status.
“This would demonstrate that President Aquino has some control over the Senate, which would bode well for the fiscal reforms,” said Euben Paracuelles, an economist at Nomura in Singapore, said of the impeachment ruling.
At least sixteen votes - two-thirds of the total - were needed to convict Corona on charges of failing to disclose his assets, liabilities and net worth. The prosecution accused Corona of hiding a portion of his Philippine peso and US dollar bank accounts valued at more than $4 million.
“Corona is merely the public face of the things that ail our judicial system,” presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said in a statement, adding the verdict was a step in restoring confidence in the judiciary.
Corona was also accused of showing favouritism towards former leader Arroyo by ruling that she could leave the country last year despite a government ban on her overseas travel. His impeachment on the financial charges meant no verdict was required on his alleged bias towards Arroyo.
“Ugly politics prevailed. I am innocent ... My conscience is clear,” Corona said in a statement. His lawyers said they had yet to consult Corona on whether they would file a case with the Supreme Court questioning the verdict.
The Senate trial, broadcast live on television, has transfixed the country since January. As the senators stood one by one to explain their votes, dozens of protesters outside the building chanted “Convict Corona”.
Supreme Court employees watched the broadcast in the lobby of the court building, clapping when three senators voted to acquit Corona.
Corona, a diabetic, was in hospital for the verdict, having suffered from low blood sugar after his testimony last week. His aides initially said he was suspected to have had a heart attack.
Corona’s supporters say the case was a political vendetta by Aquino that weakens the country’s institutions. Corona says Aquino decided to pursue him due to his connections to Arroyo, and because of a Supreme Court ruling last year to break up a sugar estate owned by the president’s family.
Aquino has maintained broad public support for his anti-graft drive. He won a landslide election victory in 2010 on the back of pledges to end a culture of corruption that has long dogged the economy, and which he says flourished under Arroyo.
With additional reporting by Karen Lema; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Robert Birsel