Marathon Man: the Philippines' Enrile Under Assault

The longest running act in Philippine politics may be getting set for a diminished role following President Benigno S. Aquino III’s takeover and apparent dominance of the Senate following mid-term elections on May 13. It appears as if Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile will likely lose his post to Aquino’s allies, most probably to Sen. Franklin Drilon, 68, who previously served as Senate President from 2001 to 2006. Given the longstanding enmity between Enrile and the Aquino clan, the president needs to have him out of the senate’s top job.

Drilon is chairman of Aquino’s Liberal Party and served as labor secretary under Aquino’s mother, Corazon, when she was president from 1986 to 1992.He was one of the architects of the Aquino coalition’s senate victory.With Aquino controlling 13 to 15 seats in the Senate as a result of his election victory, he can probably find a friendly face to push forward his ambitious second-half agenda, which includes reforming the country’s mining laws, passing a freedom of information act, solidifying implementation of the historic Reproductive Health Act and other issues.

It is unwise, however, to count Johnny Enrile out. The 89-year old politician has been at the center of virtually every major political event in the country since the late 1960s. He was the administrator of martial law for Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, he sparked the People Power revolt that brought millions of Filipinos to the streets to oust Marcos in 1986, his military allies were behind a series of coup attempts Corazon Aquino in the ensuing years.

Just recently, he chaired Senate hearings that gripped the nation over the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona, the chief ally of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whom Aquino is attempting to jail on corruption charges.

While his lackluster son, Jack Enrile, lost for the Senate this time around, Enrile is a survivor who has been on as many sides of Philippine politics as there are sides to be on.When he was defense chief under Marcos and later the first President Aquino, he maintained active dialogue even with communist rebels, some of whom came to visit his office from time to time. One now-deceased activist was a frequent visitor in the 1980s. Enrile took a shine to the young man, a vibrant student leader named Leandro Alejandro who was later assassinated by the military. The defense boss had personally guaranteed Alejandro's safety when visiting military headquarters and was reportedly furious when he heard of the killing.

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"Enrile has been around so long and knows so many secrets, he must have something on everyone," said one longtime observer of the country's rough and tumble politics.

Indeed it was a faked assassination attempt on Enrile himself, in which his car was allegedly attacked by gunmen on Sept. 21, 1972 that was used to justify martial law, which was declared hours later. Marcos named him head of the executive committee of the National Security Council, making him one of the architects of military rule. He eventually broke with Marcos in 1986 after the latter transferred his affections to General Fabian Ver, then the Armed Forces chief of staff.On the day he broke with Marcos, he told reporters that the whole assassination attempt was a political trick, although in later years he has returned to denying the fact.

On August 21, 2007, the 24th anniversary of the assassination of Benigno S. Aquino II, Noynoy Aquino's father, which would ultimately change the course of Philippine politics, Enrile publicly stated that the 14 soldiers imprisoned for 24 years for the elder Aquino’s death should be reviewed for clemency. Enrile paid for the legal services of the soldiers during their trial, and said the soldiers and their families had suffered enough.

Enrile was briefly Corazon Aquino’s Secretary of Defense in spite of his open disdain for her, feeling she should have stepped aside in favor of putting Enrile and his co-rebel Fidel Ramos in power. He and his rebel military followers undermined the early months and years of her government, which likely contributed to later tensions with Cory's son Noynoy, who was seriously wounded in a 1987 coup attempt led by Gregorio Honasan, an Enrile protégé who was reelected to the senate in the May 13 polls.

But even the fact that the many coup plots against Cory were all hatched by the coterie of Enrile acolytes known as the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) in the late 1980s couldn’t dent Enrile's influence. He was never arrested or charged with involvement in any of the coups and he soon found himself in the Senate along with many of the coup plotters including Honasan.

Indeed, Enrile's annual birthday party at his Makati mansion, on Valentine's Day and complete with a red hearts motif, was once known as the gathering place for renegade rightists during the first Aquino presidency.

A brilliant lawyer who graduated from Harvard Law School and was the adopted illegitimate son of a landed patriarch in northern Luzon and a fisherman's daughter, Enrile is also one of the great self-made men of the Phiippines. He rose from poverty, pursued and claimed the birthright of his natural father and clawed his way to the top of the country's political elite. So he may very well lose the senate presidency. But no one in Manila is betting he will fade quietly into oblivion. He will be 92 years old should he complete his present term in June 2016.