Column: The case against Grace

Published on February 9, 2016.

EVEN A stranger passing through the Philippines must know that the official campaign period for national positions at stake in the May 2016 elections starts today. This might be a good time to review our readings of the major presidential candidates, but now from the point of view of their vulnerabilities. In the series of “path to victory” columns I wrote last year between Aug. 4 and Sept. 8, I did touch on the question of losing, but only briefly—and from the perspective of the respective campaigns.

How can a candidate lose the presidential race? That is to say, which of a candidate’s weaknesses are election issues? I would like to worry this question in a new series of columns. Let me start with Sen. Grace Poe, whose fate now rests with the Supreme Court.

In “Grace Poe’s path to victory” (Opinion, 8/25/15), I ventured that the 2013 Senate topnotcher had “the twin disadvantages of a newcomer. She has not yet had time to plant firm roots for a nationwide network of her own, and she faces residency issues. (Because she is a foundling, her Filipino citizenship cannot be in question; the law is clear. But then again, the Supreme Court found a way to justify Renato Corona’s midnight appointment as chief justice, and Juan Ponce Enrile’s petition for bail in a nonbailable case.)”

That was a rather optimistic view of the citizenship issue confronting Poe. In the months since, it has become a real threat to her candidacy, with the dissenting votes of the three Supreme Court justices in the Senate Electoral Tribunal decision serving as a warning. (And with a real impact on her survey ratings.) The columns by Oscar Franklin Tan and retired chief justice Art Panganiban, and the position of Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, have outlined the arguments in favor of Poe’s natural-born citizenship; cogent questioning from Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, among others, have forced those of us who follow the case to consider where true justice lies in the citizenship issue.

My layman’s view is simple enough, and I believe shared by many: We must put Magsaysay’s dictum to work, that those who have less in life must have more in law. A foundling—a defenseless person abandoned at birth, in Poe’s case right outside a church—must enjoy the fullest protection of the state it was born in. This includes presuming that the foundling’s parents were Filipinos at the time of its birth, and only reflects the generous, accepting nature of the Filipino. (And shouldn’t the state be a reflection of the best qualities of its citizens?)

My point: If the Court rules that Poe was a natural-born citizen, and reacquired that status after she renounced her American citizenship, it won’t be a problem for many Filipino voters. Her status as natural-born Filipino is not an election issue.

Residency may be a little more tricky, because it involves what the senator says was a misunderstanding when she filled out her certificate of candidacy for the Senate in 2013. But the Court will consider Poe’s intent to stay in the country after her father’s death—whether or not it will find that her return to the country in 2005 is decisive, I believe I again share the view of many that residency is also not an election issue.

Naturally, if the Court rules that Poe does not meet residency requirements, she will be disqualified from contesting the presidency; if the Court rules that she is not in fact a natural-born Filipino, she forfeits both the chance to run for president and her seat in the Senate. But if these issues are resolved in her favor, her survey ratings will recover. We have already seen a small demonstration of that dynamic with the latest Pulse Asia poll reflecting the reassurance her constituents received after the SET ruling.

In my view, the real election issue facing Senator Poe is her decision to acquire American citizenship, even if only for a few years. Isn’t it only fair, I asked her during the Meet Inquirer Multimedia forum the other week, to ask why she went down a path that the likes of Ninoy Aquino, Jovito Salonga and Raul Manglapus did not choose? I thought she gave a candid answer, saying she did not regard herself as on the same level as those famous exiles, but that she had valid reasons of her own at the time.

Voters might or might not be convinced, but I think Poe would rather have the convincing done on the campaign trail, rather than in the courtroom.

* * *

I had the privilege of representing the Inquirer at the 25th anniversary rites of the Daily Star of Bangladesh, a partner in the Asia News Network, last Friday. The Daily Star, started by four eminent journalists, and shepherded in the last 23 years by the great Mahfuz Anam, is a beacon of the free press not only in Dhaka but, as editors from newspapers published in India, Pakistan, and Nepal testified, also in South Asia.

Mahfuz, a freedom fighter in the war of liberation, ended his speech at the anniversary program with a straightforward declaration that was also a rousing call to arms. “In any clash between the government and the free press, the government wins in the beginning. But the free press wins in the end.” It was a statement of fact, and also a warning shot.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

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