Supreme Court Weighs Philippine Destiny

In taking up the question of the presidential candidacy of Grace Poe, who now leads the public opinion sweepstakes for the election in May, the Philippine Supreme Court has assumed a crucial role deciding the country’s future. It is effectively a five-way race that has so far put the country in a dilemma.

As the campaign period officially kicked off this week, the high tribunal carried on with public hearings over a controversial case involving Poe’s candidacy. An orphan, she was found on the steps of a cathedral and handed over to the late actor and onetime presidential candidate Ferdinand Poe to raise. Her parentage has never been proven. Nonetheless, she leads the public opinion polls.

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) disqualified her from running because she had lived much of her adult life in the United States, taking US citizenship, and appeared not to fulfil the residency requirement of 10 years as a Philippine citizen. Poe sought a reprieve from the Supreme Court, some of whose justices appear to have shown political bias in her favor. The latest Pulse Asia poll shows her substantially ahead, with the approval of 30 percent of the electorate, trailed by Vice President Jejomar Binay at 23 percent, Manuel A. Roxas and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte both trailing at 20 percent.

The court hearings, which began in the middle of January and which were supposed to have wound down this week for a decision marked with nail-biting tension, went instead into long discourses and lectures that added uncertainty for the choices to be made by more than 50 million voters.

Comelec has ruled that Poe, being a foundling, is stateless and not a natural-born citizen, and therefore ineligible under the constitution; and that by its calculation based on documents presented, she lacks the residency period necessary for a presidential candidate.

To the pundits, the key question lies on whether she is loyal to the country after she had once renounced it. She studied and raised her family in Virginia, on the US east coast after graduating from Boston University.

It was famously said by the US humorist Finley Peter Dunne at the start of the 20th century that “no matter whether the constitution follows the flag or not, the Supreme Court follows the election returns.”

Issues have clouded the vision of hope in a country that celebrated three decades of democracy this month. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno, extended the arc of the debate to bring forth human rights and universal justice for the case of foundlings, perhaps hoping to push the court’s decision in that direction.

That call, coming from the head of a 15-member court, inadvertently fits into the dramatic storyline of Poe’s life. Fernando Poe Jr., once a beloved movie action hero was a presidential candidate 12 years ago but lost on account of vote-rigging and the court’s delayed ruling on his own citizenship. Poe’s supporters fear a revival of that scenario.

“They may well call it drama but this is my real life,” Poe said in her public rally coinciding with the Supreme Court’s hearing. “This is the reality that many Filipinos live with every day.”

Her rise to political stardom was quick, a neophyte Senator with the highest number of votes when she rode on her father’s name for a seat just three years ago.

In the latest of the court’s oral arguments, the Comelec was besieged for most of the four hours held in the American colonial-style courthouse: one justice who was formerly the solicitor general, Francis Jardeleza, accused the commission of “crossing the line” by not allowing the senator due process in her quest for candidacy.

The lengthy debate was so roundabout that it was shocking in its attempt not to hide the obvious, that the nation’s highest court appeared to lack impartiality.

Commissioner Arthur Lim, counsel for Comelec, held his ground in holding the line on the Constitution on a case that, whatever its outcome, may well end up a landmark one.

He said the commission didn’t find good faith on the part of the senator, that “we could not help but see that she was indeed just testing the waters” based on evidence in hand.

Pushed again by the justice’s questioning, he said: “We are dealing here with one truth and that truth is laid down by the constitution – clear cut though somewhat complicated.” He drove straight to the matter, that Comelec was going by the rules, clear and simple, and anything beyond that would pave the way for unpredictable changes.

Experts keeping watch on the hearings say a majority of the Supreme Court is likely to decide on the side of the Comelec, but delays however might alter the game in anybody’s interest. The Court said a ruling might be ready in March. Meanwhile, Comelec will have to print the ballots with Poe’s name among the candidates even without yet a decision from the Supreme Court, and there’s no telling how the public will decide.

One of the justices did not beat around the bush by pointing out that Poe was ranking high in the surveys, as though implying that ought to determine the legal arbitration of the case.

In deliberations held so far, justices openly expressing leniency toward Poe – as opposed to following the Comelec decision – were those appointed by President Benigno S. Aquino III, including the chief justice herself.

This does not stand in good stead with the president’s chosen successor, his friend and former interior and local governments secretary Mar Roxas, who hasn’t made big strides in the surveys at this stage in the campaign.

President Aquino reportedly offered the vice presidential slot to Poe earlier on, partnering with Roxas for the presidency. The talks behind the scenes fell through, hence the senator decided to run independently, counting on her huge popularity to make her win regardless of the political machinery. It provides Aquino with a dilemma: Mar Roxas, a wooden speaker and, some say, a wooden thinker, is not likely to deliver on his legacy. Grace Poe conceivably can.

Jejomar Binay has been credibly charged with vast corruption; and Rodigro Duterte, mayor of a major southern city known for his strong-arm tactics. Nobody in the country’s leadership wants either Jojo Binay, whose entire family is considered to have enriched itself illegally, or Rody Duterte, who has hinted he won’t wait for the courts to take care of criminals. He was believed to have approved the use of death squads in his home town of Davao City.

Criselda Yabes (yabescriselda@gmail.com) is a prize-winning Philipine author and contributor to Asia Sentinel