I was on the second day of a week-long activity in a mountain retreat in Batangas on Tuesday when I first got the news. At first, I thought it was all a joke. You see, on Nov. 25, when I last appeared before the First Division of the Commission on Elections to argue my case against the candidacy of Grace Poe Llamanzares, I was given until Dec. 3 to submit my final brief. So were the two other petitioners, Prof. Antonio Contreras and Dean Amado Valdez.
One petition done, three more to go
My lawyer Manuelito Luna, who argued my case, thought we should comply on Dec. 2, meaning Wednesday, so on Tuesday afternoon, the Comelec had not yet received our final document. How then could they have ruled? A text message from CNN Philippines and a telephone update from Atty. Luna finally informed me that it was the Comelec’s Second Division that had ruled on the petition filed by lawyer Estrella Elamparo, former legal counsel of the GSIS, seeking the cancellation of Mrs. Llamanzares’s Certificate of Candidacy (CoC) for making material misrepresentations about her citizenship and residency.
Under Article VII, Sec. 2 of the 1987 Constitution, which has been quoted ad infinitum, “no person may be elected President unless he is a natural-born citizen of the Philippines, a registered voter, able to read and write, at least forty years of age on the day of the election, and a resident of the Philippines for at least ten years immediately preceding such election.”
A natural-born citizen is a Filipino citizen from birth without having to perform any act to acquire or perfect his or her citizenship. The petitioners contend that Mrs. Llamanzares is neither a natural-born Filipino citizen nor a resident of the Philippines for the ten year-period immediately preceding the May 2016 elections.
So there are now two conflicting decisions on Mrs. Llamanzares, one in favor and one against. The first one, from the Senate Electoral Tribunal, sustains her “right” to sit in the Senate, while the second, from the Comelec, directs the cancellation of her CoC for president. The first one is the subject of a Motion for Reconsideration (MR) from petitioner Rizalito David, who questions the five senators’ failure to adhere strictly to the constitutional issue involved. The second will be appealed to the Comelec en banc, according to Mrs. Llamanzares.
If the First Division rules in the same way as the Second on the three other petitions, the ruling will presumably be appealed to the Comelec en banc also, and ultimately to the Supreme Court. The final SET ruling and the final Comelec ruling will most likely be heard together by the Court.
In the SET case, Senior Associate Justice and SET Chairman Antonio Carpio, Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Justice Arturo Brion–the three Supreme Court justices on the nine-man Tribunal–had voted to disqualify the respondent for not being a natural-born Filipino. The residency issue was not touched at all. Five of the six senator-members had voted to support Mrs. Llamanzares, without anchoring their vote on the Constitution.
They may have to either refute or concur with the Justices when they rule on the MR, and at the same time take cognizance of the Second Division’s ruling disqualifying Mrs. Llamanzares. At the Comelec en banc, Mrs. Llamanzares will have to work for a reversal of the decision of the two divisions, if they happen to run alike.
Given the various forces at play, this is not at all going to be an easy task.
In a previous column, I expressed the hope that Mrs. Llamanzares would preempt the Comelec and the Court by withdrawing from the presidential race before they rule on her case, so as to render it moot and academic. She could then reconstitute her political life, without the odium of having been formally declared constitutionally unfit for high office. It is now too late for that. The Second Division has already ruled, the First Division would soon follow, and she has vowed “to fight for the rights of foundlings and the fundamental right of the people to choose their leaders.”
This quote appeals to partisan emotion, but it is not likely to alter the law on or the facts of the case. In declaring Mrs. Llamanzares ineligible to run for president, no right of foundlings or of the people to choose their own leaders is sacrificed. Through their Constitution, the people have decided that foundlings whose parents are not known are not, and cannot be, natural-born citizens, and therefore not eligible under the Constitution to run for senator, congressman, vice president or president.
Foundlings not discriminated against
They are not denied the right and the opportunity to be naturalized and run for other positions that do not require a natural-born status. But not everyone who wants to become senator or president may run for senator or president. The critical question is this: if it is legitimate for the Constitution to exclude those who are not registered voters, those who are unable to read and write, those who are not yet forty years of age, and those who have not lived in the Philippines for at least ten years immediately preceding the election, can the same Constitution not exclude those whose parents and their nationality are not known, and those who are not Filipinos from birth?
If we believe it is unfair or wrong for the Constitution to do this, then our remedy is to change the Constitution, and not simply to violate its provision as though it did not exist. While the provision exists, it is patent demagoguery to rail against it, and utterly disgraceful and depraved for one who knows she does not meet the constitutional requirement of citizenship and residency to claim she is being discriminated against.
The right to a nationality
Under international law, as the three Justices have so eloquently pointed out in the SET case, a foundling is guaranteed the “right to a nationality,” but that citizenship must be acquired through a legal process and is not automatically conferred. Under Philippine law, the foundling must first be formally registered, before it can be naturalized. Justice de Castro labored to point this out in the SET case. But it now turns out that Mrs. Llamanzares was never formally registered as a foundling, and never applied to be naturalized as a citizen before she started exercising certain rights and privileges proper only to citizens, such as the right to vote and to own a Philippine passport.
How then could she claim that she is a Filipino citizen, much less a natural-born citizen? Despite Justice Carpio’s statement that she is without dispute a Filipino citizen, although not a natural-born Filipino, I submit that her claim to actual citizenship remains in doubt. This is precisely because as a foundling with no known parents, she has failed to take the necessary legal steps to acquire or perfect her citizenship.
Failure to get naturalized
This was evident when she first became a Filipino voter and Philippine passport holder without having gone through a naturalization process; it became even more evident when she “reacquired” a citizenship she never had, through a misapplication of the so-called “dual citizenship law,” simply by declaring herself a “former natural-born” Filipino, born (biologically) to the Filipino spouses Ronald Allan Poe (aka Fernando Poe Jr.) and Jesusa Sonora Poe (aka Susan Roces), her adoptive parents, who were married after she was born, adopted her when she was already five years old, and never had a child of their own. The authorities in charge never bothered to check the truth or falsity of her declaration.
Nonsense on stilts
Mrs. Llamanzares wants us to believe that the cancellation of her CoC would deny her certain human or political rights as a foundling, and deny the people their “fundamental right” to choose their own leader. This is absolute nonsense. In a democratic and republican state, the people elect their leaders from among those who are constitutionally qualified for the office.
For all the reasons already stated, Mrs. Llamanzares is not so qualified, and knows she is not. Her exclusion from the race therefore inflicts no injustice on anybody, but on the contrary reaffirms the primacy of the Constitution and confers dignity on the electoral process. It is a breath of fresh air coming from and into the Comelec. The poll body could make it the beginning of a serious effort to regain the public confidence it has lost since it started rigging the automated voting process.
The end of Mrs. Llamanzares?
Is this then the end, or the beginning of the end, of Grace Poe Llamanzares? This is principally for her private funders to answer. Obviously, they have already spent tens, if not hundreds of millions of pesos on TV ads and crooked surveys, to create the impression that so many people would like her to become president, regardless of whether or not she is constitutionally eligible for the office. They will now have to decide whether to continue throwing good money after bad, in order to keep artificially alive a clinically dead political patient.
My own feeling is that unless the rich and powerful funders are assured they could buy the entire Comelec or the entire Supreme Court, without risking a public revolt, they will now have to abandon ship. From this political perspective, it could, indeed, mean the end of Mrs. Llamanzares.
A more hopeful perspective
But I dare to look at it from a different, and more hopeful perspective. Mrs. Llamanzares’s removal from the presidential race offers her a chance to make amends for all the lying she has been forced to do in the pursuit of her worldly ambition, and to be reborn into the fullness of freedom and truth. For we have it from the highest authority, that the truth alone shall make us free, and that it profits not a man who gains the whole world but loses his soul.
In being thrown out of the presidential race for not being a natural-born Filipino and a resident of the country for the required period, and in submitting to the Constitution with all docility, Mrs. Llamanzares gains something much more valuable than anything she could ever lose—-the opportunity to stand for and faithfully serve the Constitution, the common good, and the truth. This is the essence of public service which allows one to rise above himself.