The last column I wrote in 2011, before I left for a year-long fellowship with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. The feedback–to the subject of the column, not to my departure (or so I think!)–was overwhelming. Published on August 9, 2011.
The scene was surreal: the old cheat was visibly moved by the resignation of the young cheat, and praised the young man’s moral courage and sense of dignity. Apparently, there really is honor among election thieves.
For those of us with a long memory, Juan Ponce Enrile is the unlikely but altogether fitting benchmark for Juan Miguel Zubiri’s act of resignation. Even though Enrile did not lose the first dagdag-bawas case filed against him by Koko Pimentel’s father, involving allegations of cheating in the 1995 elections, Enrile did own up to massive election fraud—in 1986, during the heady four days of the Edsa revolution, when circumstance and strategic candor made him admit that he had cheated for Ferdinand Marcos in the snap election.
That made his reluctance to accept Zubiri’s resignation both an acute reflection of Philippine realpolitik, and an apt reminder of the many times our country has lost its way.
I wish to be clear: In resigning from the Senate, Migz Zubiri did the right thing. But that does not make him a hero, or turn him into the poster boy of the long-lost virtue of delicadeza. (Indeed, it does not make him worthy of colleague Neal Cruz’s vote in 2013.) When a thief finally decides to do the right thing, and returns what he stole, he remains liable for the original crime. When an adulterer finally decides to do the right thing, and ends a four-year affair, he does not erase his sin of adultery. When a plagiarist in the academe finally decides to do the right thing, and withdraws all his dilatory counter-petitions, his plagiarism continues to disqualify him for any academic honor or position.
But when a politician who stole into office on a fraudulent mandate finally decides to do the right thing, and resigns, he gets a hero’s reception. Instead of being met with outrage, he is showered with hosannahs. This is what is wrong with our country. Too many of us don’t know which side is up.
Let’s unpack the various issues that Zubiri, by resigning less than two years before the next Senate election, tried to sneak past the public discourse.
Did he cheat? He says, emphatically, that he did not. But he certainly benefited from election fraud (in his post-resignation interviews he said as much). The law, however, does not make any distinction between a fake mandate engineered with the active help of the politician, and a fake mandate manufactured without the knowledge of the politician. It is the same electoral crime. Zubiri did not qualify for the Senate; he did not cross the electoral threshold on his own two feet but negotiated the tricky passage with a backhoe.
Could Zubiri not have known? It’s possible, but that would make him an idiot, the only person who could not understand that malleable election results are by definition manufactured election results. (Chavit Singson first topped the Maguindanao vote, before election sleight of hand pushed Zubiri ahead.) The proceedings of the Senate Electoral Tribunal already proved, as early as two years ago, that massive fraud characterized the vote in Maguindanao, the very province that allowed Zubiri to pull ahead of his closest rival, Pimentel.
Did Zubiri close his eyes to the truth? He says he understands the sometimes surprising reality on the ground, but the improbabilities that riddled the Maguindanao vote in 2007 tell us that, despite his nine years in Congress, he could accept the possibility that not one of the opposition candidates made it to the winning circle in the Maguindanao vote, or that highly popular candidates could end up without a single vote.
Did Zubiri bluster his way through to a counter-protest? That is certainly how I understand it now. He said he wanted to expose an election conspiracy in Metro Manila and in about two-thirds of the country, but his resignation tells us he did not really care about these election results he called anomalous. It was merely a protective measure, designed to insulate his seat.
That Zubiri is the first senator to resign because of an election protest tells us more about the nature of politics as practiced in the Philippines, than about Zubiri himself. That is why an old hand like Enrile was visibly upset; this is not the way things are done. The ordinary rules, which apply to ordinary citizens like you and me, do not really apply to the powers that be. And that is what is wrong with our country.
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A common friend of Koko’s and mine shared the following joke. Pimentel, he said, should file the following brief measure as his first bill: “An Act Renaming the Province of Maguindanao into Don Juan Miguel Zubiri.” The text of the bill can fit into the palm of Zubiri’s hand: “Whereas, Juan Miguel Zubiri was declared as senator through the electoral fraud perpetrated in Maguindanao; Whereas this fraud was proven to the Senate Electoral Tribunal; Whereas Juan Miguel Zubiri, over the past four years, has presented to the public that there was no fraud in Maguindanao; Whereas, when his political situation became untenable, Juan Miguel Zubiri resigned the seat which was not his from the very beginning; Whereas, Juan Miguel Zubiri has the gall to declare that he is resigning to uphold his honor; The province of Maguindanao is hereby renamed Don Juan Miguel Zubiri to honor his historic acts, namely, of fraudulently winning in Maguindanao, of being proven to have won through fraud in Maguindanao, and of resigning his fraudulently won seat in the Senate when he was about to be definitively exposed to the public for the fraud in Maguindanao.”
A joke, as I said—but it’s on all of us.