Aquino vs. Arroyo: It's personal

The pathetic standoff at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport involving former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Philippine immigration officials Tuesday evening, only highlights how far contradiction among the country’s privileged elite can go – a bitter clash that could plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.

Both camps – the Arroyos and President Benigno S. Aquino III – have only themselves to blame.

Arroyo, bearing a Supreme Court order to allow her to leave to seek medical treatment for a reputed rare bone disease, arrived with her husband Jose Miguel Arroyo to board a flight to Singapore. However, immigration authorities stopped them on orders from Aquino and the Justice Department.

That sets up a confrontation with the Supreme Court, the majority of which she had appointed, issued the order allowing her to seek treatment in any of five countries that do not have extradition treaties with Manila.

Legally, there is nothing that would and should bar the besieged former president from leaving the country in the absence of a proper court order. In fact, Aquino’s Justice Secretary, Leila de Lima said that authorities can’t arrest the Arroyos because no charges have been filed against them. There is an executive order, ironically issued by the former president herself, however, that places a person under a watch list and whose flight outside the country may be stopped by immigration officials. It is an executive edict that is now being questioned before the highest court of the land by the Arroyos.

The Aquino government believes it has a case against the former president and is morally obliged to perform its duty of preventing a potential fugitive from justice from leaving the country. As it now appears, the Aquino government is taking the risk of being cited in direct contempt by the Supreme Court for what the current president believes is his moral obligation.

Longtime personal feud

The NAIA standoff however is not just mere legal and political issues between two of the country’s powerful political clans, it also has personal undertones to it.

During several attempts to impeach President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo when she was still the president, the Aquinos – at least the Cojuangco side of the president’s family – were among the leaders of the movement that sought her resignation. President Noynoy Aquino’s late mother Corazon, also a former president, went to great lengths to apologize to former President Joseph Estrada for joining the protest movement that led to his ouster. Corazon Aquino played a major role in the installation of Arroyo as president of the republic in the aftermath of Estrada’s impeachment.

Ironically, it is Corazon Aquino, and to some extent her son, who also were among the first to drop Arroyo as an ally and call for her resignation due to corruption and widespread electoral fraud in 2004. It is a falling out that left Arroyo enraged. Under her watch, the vast Hacienda Luisita property of the Cojuangcos was declared subject to the coverage of the land reform program.

Aquino in turn has not got over the fact that the Arroyos pulled all the plugs during the 2010 presidential elections in which the current president won convincingly on an anti-corruption platform.

Both the former and current presidents share the same place in the history of Philippine politics. They are the only presidents whose parents also served as presidents of this oldest republic in Southeast Asia. They practically share the same origin, having roots in central Luzon. Their parents were stalwarts of the Liberal Party, one of the oldest political parties of the country. They are also among the old rich families in the Philippines.

The Arroyo camp, however, displayed more arrogance and defiance by boldly challenging the Aquino government to implement its order preventing the former president from leaving the country. The Arroyos still think they should be accorded the privilege and perks they used to excessively wield and enjoy while at the helm of Malacañang.

Prosecution or Persecution?

Beyond that however, the Arroyos are now trying to portray themselves as being persecuted after the former president was denied her basic right to travel, including her right to proper medical care.

But there are reasons to be suspicious of politicians seeking medical care abroad. A long line of figures including Gloria’s own husband, Mike, have opted for medical care when corruption charges have arisen. Hiding under the cloak of “human rights,” they have sought shelter in hospitals or cited medical excuses to delay investigations or prolong court hearings.

Perhaps the most successful, or at least the most controversial, was former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, ousted and then put under house arrest on plunder charges. He was said to be suffering from osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease that was said to have damaged both of his knees. A series of other illnesses rendered him ill for the entire period of house arrest, although he staged a miraculous recovery when Arroyo pardoned him in 2007, appearing relatively hale and hearty when he ran in 2010 national elections, finishing second to Aquino.

After the NAIA fiasco, in which Arroyo and her husband were stopped from leaving the country, it will make their alleged agenda of seeking political asylum elsewhere now even more plausible for a host third country.

If the Arroyos succeed in their agenda, Aquino will only have himself to blame. He failed to capitalize on the year-plus he has already had to build a case against the former president. He seems more bent on keeping Arroyo a convenient scapegoat for his own growing failure. For Aquino, it appears that Arroyo’s conviction as an incorrigible grafter is the bar to which his government will be measured. He is taking a big political risk to display his obvious contempt for and dislike of the Arroyos.

For all these, we only have the Arroyos and Aquino to blame.

(Edwin Espejo blogs for Asian Correspondent at Chronicles from Mindanao.)