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Comedy, tragedy

January 08, 2008 00:25:00
Conrado de Quiros dequiros@info.com.ph
Philippine Daily Inquirer

You can’t have weightier legal opinions on the matter than the ones offered by Christian Monsod and Joaquin Bernas. Joseph Estrada can’t run -- that is the verdict of the two. And while there will be no end to Estrada’s own lawyers challenging that view (Rufus Rodriguez insists Estrada can because “he won’t be succeeding himself”), it seems pretty much to clinch the deal.

Monsod’s and Bernas’ arguments are basically the same. The Constitution forbids not just two consecutive presidential terms, it forbids two presidential terms, period. Bernas says the framers of the 1986 Constitution made that clear. They had three choices for presidential terms: one immediate reelection, no immediate reelection, and no reelection at all. The delegates chose no reelection at all.

Even Cory Aquino, they say, could not run for reelection despite the fact that she was brought to power by People Power and not by election. The Transitory Provisions of the Constitution ruled that she had been elected president during the Feb. 7, 1986 election, and that effectively banned her from running again. The law is clear: Estrada may not run again.

I have no doubt Monsod and Bernas are right, their knowledge of the Constitution and of election laws is formidable and not easily challenged. But rather than dispelling the problem, their pronouncement only draws attention to a bigger, blacker and more formidable problem gripping the country today. That is the gap between law and morality, principle and expedience, reason (or plain reasonableness) and power. That is the disjunction between what ought to be and what actually is. That is the divorce between what should be done and what can be done.

To begin with, no one would be expending energy debating whether Estrada can run or not if he hadn’t been pardoned at all. He was a convicted felon, decreed so by the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan after a big production by government. Yet he was forgiven his sins almost immediately afterward and set free. Of course, his pardon was perfectly legal: It lay within the power of the President to pardon him. But was it moral? Of course, it could always be done; there was no lack of ways to justify it. But was it the right thing to do?

At the very least it raised questions about why it was so easy to pardon Estrada, a president who had betrayed the public trust by being “bantay-salakay,” by ripping off the country during his watch for completely selfish motives, and not so a soldier like Antonio Trillanes, who had served time longer than Estrada, who was in prison and not in a rest house, who did what he did at Oakwood for unselfish, if arguably misguided, reasons, and whom the voters had effectively pardoned by voting him senator of the land. At the very most it raised questions about why despite our lawyers and our constant perorations about the law, we can never find justice in this country, the most cardinal principle of which is that where there is a crime there should be punishment, or indeed where there is a grievous crime there ought to be grievous punishment.

Well, it also raised one other problem, which is: It lies within the power of the President to pardon him, but is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo the President?

Just as well, I have no doubt Cory Aquino was expressly forbidden by the Transitory Provisions from running again on the ground that she had already been voted president once before. But I have no doubt too that had Cory thought to keep power, her lawyers, which were as plentiful as the ones that crowded subsequent administrations, would have been able to justify it. That’s what lawyers do best in this country: find loopholes in the law. In any case, Cory had more than lawyers to advance her cause: She remained popular in 1992 notwithstanding the blemishes on her rule, the toast as much of her country as of the world.

It is a testament to Cory’s character that she did not run again. That she willingly, gracefully, and admirably surrendered the privileges and cares of power, trusting in the institutions she had restored to preserve her legacy of making goodly whole a badly tattered land. Indeed even more than that, of refusing a government car and a police escort on her way to attend the inauguration of the new President, insisting she was no longer President Cory but Citizen Cory. That was absolute class, and strikes a contrast with the way the petty lackeys in government today blare sirens and flash lights in the company of a motorcade while in a rush to go to the toilet.

It is a testament to Cory’s strength, but it is a testament as well to the country’s weakness, where laws exist pretty much at the sufferance of those in power. Thank God if you have a Cory, God help you if have a Gloria.

In the end, the truly monumentally ironic aspect of debating whether Estrada can have another six years or not, conscripting as it does the mental faculties of our best and brightest, such as we still have them, is doing that and forgetting that we currently have ruling us for the eighth year this January a President most Filipinos do not believe is their President. Whether Estrada may run or not, we may debate to our heart’s content and with all our barbershop philosophers never coming to any conclusion. Whether Gloria spoke to Garci or not, we may not debate at all -- we heard the tape. But it is a testament to the way law functions in this country that it can decree with impunity that a second term for Estrada may not happen and that the “Hello Garci” call never happened.

Estrada himself quips that if he’s going to make a comeback at all, it won’t be in politics, it will be in showbiz. Specifically to now act in comedies rather than in action movies. What can one say? He wants to be funny, he shouldn’t quit politics.

There’s no bigger comedy than that.

More Inquirer columns

Previous columns:
Tails and dogs– 01/02/08
‘Bagong bayan’ – 01/02/08
Milestones – 12/31/07
Driving demons away – 12/31/07
Rich, poor – 12/26/07
Adrian Cristobal, writer – 12/26/07
Silent nights, holy nights – 12/25/07
Yo ho ho – 12/24/07
Feudal – 12/20/07
Road to perdition – 12/19/07

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