Column: What’s not black and white but gray all over?

Published on July 31, 2007

Opposition Sen. Loren Legarda’s name has been floated as a compromise choice for chair of the Blue Ribbon committee. That trial balloon is worth a closer look.

Legarda has spent time in the political wilderness; she knows what it means to be out of power. At the same time, she continues to enjoy wide popular support; she is only the second Filipino to top two nationwide Senate races, after the venerable Jovito Salonga (who went on to top a third).

Not least, she is invested in our political system; she has spent millions of pesos in her electoral protest against Vice President Noli de Castro. Given our politics of scandal, our culture of speculation, the simple expedient of putting our money where our mouth is—say, by filing a case in court, or pursuing a complaint even without the public spotlight—is an underrated civic virtue.

When I asked her for her reaction, however, she merely replied: “While I believe the Blue Ribbon should be chaired by an opposition senator, I have not expressed interest in chairing it. But I wish to be a member.”

Even at the top, one must manage one’s expectations.

* * *

One more anecdote from the Supreme Court-organized summit on political violence, before the details of that historic event slip into the treacherous mists of memory: By far the most bizarre presentation was by Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez. He gave a rambling talk, at one moment citing depressing statistics (“we lack 800 prosecutors nationwide”), at another taking a swipe at political enemies (“during the last budget, Senator [Frank] Drilon capped the Witness Protection [allocation]”).

And then he concluded with an impassioned defense of … himself. “I fought for human rights, more than many of you here, I fought for human rights in the darkest days” of the dictatorship. “Nobody can tell me,” he started, and then changed tack: “Nobody understands human rights better than I
do.”

Perhaps that explains why we had the summit in the first place.

* * *

After Sen. Manny Villar was elected Senate president last week, his rival for the position, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., introduced Senate Resolution No. 22 into the first day’s agenda. The resolution, signed by 15 senators, “expressed the sense of the Senate” — its long title reads — “that Senator Antonio Trillanes IV be allowed to participate in the sessions and other functions of the Senate in accordance with the rule of law.”

* * *

At first, it seemed no one would object. Earlier in the morning, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, sitting as presiding officer, had already assured Sen. Mar Roxas that Trillanes’ absence from the senators’ mass oath-taking did not disadvantage him, and Sen. Rodolfo Biazon that the detained ex-soldier did not lose any rights to the “resources under his command.” (That phrase, you can say, is an ex-general’s non-legal gobbledygook.)

But Enrile, and then Sen. Joker Arroyo, thought otherwise.

Speaking from the apparently still-bitter depths of personal experience (“I was once arrested,” “I was never allowed to participate in the Senate”), Enrile asked Pimentel whether the resolution infringed on the boundaries of the courts: “Might not it be better if we respect the tripartite nature of our government?”

Arroyo, a human rights lawyer who helped defend Pimentel against martial law’s excesses, also wondered about the effect the resolution would have on the country’s courts. “The Senate must respect what is due the judiciary,” he said.

The debate was shelved for the next day. On Tuesday, 11 senators stood up for the interpellation. On Wednesday, the Senate voted 17-4, in favor of the resolution. Only Senators Dick Gordon, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Enrile and Arroyo voted against.

* * *

I cannot help but think that, even though the resolution was transparently well-intentioned, and filed by an ex-detainee himself, the dissenters got the issue right.

To be sure, the language of the resolution itself was based on a scrupulous regard for the prerogatives of the judiciary: a promise that Trillanes would be “present when needed by the court”; recognition that the “Regional Trial Court of Makati has primary jurisdiction over [his] person”; support for Trillanes’ petition for bail.

And yet, the full effect of the resolution was to pit the entire Senate, itself naturally jealous of its own prerogatives, against a lone court. Instead of strengthening the fundamental principle of checks and balances, it may have undermined it.

The issue wasn’t black and white; it was a shade of gray.

* * *

I used to fear for the soul of Fr. Ed Panlilio. I have always understood the charism of the priesthood as the art of the impossible, so how would the priest everyone calls “Among Ed” fare in the turbulent world of politics, where of course the principal discipline is the art of the possible?

I needn’t have worried. Correspondents from the Inquirer’s Northern Luzon bureau held a roundtable with the new governor of Pampanga province last Saturday, and I tagged along. I found a man with a sure sense of self, living proof of Max Weber’s distinction between living “for” politics and living “off” it.

Panlilio was asked if he had any regrets, and he said he had none. He missed saying Mass, yes, but it was a sacrifice worth making. “I went into politics because I love my priesthood,” he said.

More, next week.

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