By: Criselda Yabes

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.”