By Manuel Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine Senate begins the impeachment of the top judge on Monday in a case that could drag on for months and distract President Benigno Aquino from his promised focus on lifting the economy, creating jobs and rooting out corruption.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona has vowed to fight to clear his name in a trial which has its roots in the bitter rivalry between Aquino and his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is under hospital arrest awaiting trial herself on charges of election fraud and corruption.
Corona, appointed by Arroyo, is charged with betraying public trust and violating the constitution. He is accused of bias in favor of Arroyo as she faced charges late last year and, among other things, of failing to disclose his assets and liabilities.
"If you want me removed, kill me," Corona said in an interview with local ABS-CBN television station.
Analysts say that a guilty verdict would be a boon for the president whose popularity remains high more than a year since he took office but who has struggled to draw in foreign investment and carry out major reforms.
"I doubt Aquino's reputation will be impacted much if Corona's impeachment trial does not end in a conviction," Scott Harrison, managing director of security consultancy Pacific Strategies and Assessments, said.
"(But) if Corona is convicted, it will send a powerful message that Aquino is intent on weeding out corruption in government and that should resonate well with the public."
The downside for Aquino's government is that the trial could last as long as six months.
The government plans to spend about 142 billion pesos ($3.23 billion) this year, mostly on infrastructure projects, to stimulate growth after weak spending dampened overall economic output last year.
"I am more worried the trial will distract government's focus, efforts and initiatives on the economic side," said an analyst at a foreign bank in Manila who declined to be identified.
While Manila has slowly reduced its overall debt load via innovative debt schemes, it has yet to gain major victories in its pursuit of big tax evaders and in improving tax collection.
According to Treasury data, the government lowered its debt load to around 52 percent of GDP in 2010 from more than 70 percent in 2004, earning an upgrade from Fitch Ratings to one notch below investment grade. Moody's last year raised its rating to align with Standard & Poor's at two rungs below.
In December, S&P revised its rating outlook for the Philippines to positive from stable, noting that the country needs to achieve sustainable gains in raising revenue to merit an upgrade.
Sixteen votes from the 24-member Senate, sitting as judges in the trial, are needed to remove Corona from office, a decision that would permanently bar him from public office.
Aquino can already count on 14 votes against Corona.
"It's already a foregone conclusion that very likely he will win and Corona will be convicted," said Benito Lim, political science professor at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University.
"If he does not, that's a tragedy."
(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by Nick Macfie)
(Reporting By Manuel Mogato)