First of two parts
Yesterday’s Feast of Saint Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist offers a lesson in hope and reform for officials caught in the venality of government. Before heeding Jesus’ call to follow him, Matthew was a tax collector in Judea for the Roman Empire, hated by Jews for collaborating with the conqueror and overcharging on levies, the way taxmen earned their keep. Called by Jesus, the once-sleazy Matthew evidently turned a new leaf and became a leading figure in the early Christian Church.
Now if Matthew can rise from many years making a living on levy-skimming to become a saint, can others steeped in sleaze or some other undesirable trait also change toward righteousness and service? The question has particular relevance to the looming presidential race among Vice-President Jejomar Binay, Senator Grace Poe, and Secretary Mar Roxas.
All three have worrisome issues burdening their quest for the most powerful position in the land: corruption allegations against Binay, foreign citizenship, use of falsified birth documents and limited governance experience for Poe, and unimpressive performance in his two Cabinet posts for Roxas.
Thus, for voters seeking solid governance in the next president, one big question is: Can these candidates change their leopard spots, so to speak?
Poe’s citizenship is more than legalities
Ladies first: Poe may seemingly have the least troublesome issues to address. Assuming the Senate Electoral Tribunal, the Commission on Elections, or the Supreme Court accepts her view that she is a natural-born Filipino, the way is clear for her presidential run. And lack of impressive governance work didn’t stop Benigno Aquino 3rd from parlaying his parentage into a landslide victory in 2010.
Still, Filipino citizenship and governance experience are substantial concerns which must be seriously addressed, even if voters may not care much about them.
The question over Poe’s nationality goes much deeper than just legalities. The constitutional requirement that the highest posts of the Republic — President and Vice-President, legislators, justices of the Supreme Court and collegiate courts, chairpersons and commissioners of the Constitutional Commissions — be natural-born Filipinos aims to ensure that national policy- and decision-making is not tainted by any loyalties or leanings toward foreign powers, or by acts voiding one’s loyalty to the Filipino nation.
So those aspiring for national office who had once sworn allegiance to another state or renounced Philippine citizenship, need to do more than just regain their natural-born status by legal means. They have to show that they have no shred of loyalty to any foreign country, especially if that state has major interests in the Philippines and may wish to influence decisions, policies, laws, programs, and other acts of our government.
In Poe’s case, her actions since regaining Philippine citizenship would bear scrutiny. Did she completely desist from acts reserved for American citizens, which include traveling on a US passport? In her performance of public duties, did she show no special regard for American interests, such as downplaying reports of US involvement in the police commando operation in Mamasapano, which she investigated.
And while it is neither fair nor constitutional to require that members of Poe’s immediate family be Filipino citizens as well, it cannot but be an issue that the husband and children of an aspiring leader of the Republic are American citizens and thus have the duty to place American interests above those of any other state.
Hence, if Poe’s official activities come up at dinner, how would the Llamanzares brood deal with a US Embassy request to know, for instance, if she has met with the Chinese ambassador? Or what her thinking is on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement boosting American military deployment in the country, especially if the sensitive information asked for is crucial to US national security and geopolitical interests?
Poe supporters and American officials may dismiss the above scenario as alarmist or even ludicrous. But even they cannot provide absolute assurance that Poe’s US links would never be exploited for America’s gain. That’s exactly why the Constitution demands that top national officials be natural-born Filipinos.
Would President Poe’s advisers rule?
On lack of governance experience, the concern expressed by some, including people in business, is that Poe would be too dependent on her advisers, especially her running mate, fellow Senator Francis Escudero. One businessman further remarked: “It would be back to Cory and PNoy,” referring to the late President Corazon Aquino and incumbent Benigno 3rd, her son.
Both Aquinos and Joseph Estrada swept to power riding massive popularity, but with nil record of sound national governance and policy making. In the current administration, inexperience showed after just a month in office, with the August 2010 Rizal Park hostage crisis, in which eight Hong Kong tourists died, and relations with the territory and China plummeted.
And while the growing economy he took over made Aquino look good, his own initiatives are messy, from his attempt to zero the budget deficit in 2011, cutting economic growth in half, to the Mamasapano operation, which he let a suspended police general run, and where he sacrificed beleaguered police commandos to save a peace pact marred by provisions violating the Constitution and endangering national security and sovereignty.
On Poe, the fear is that in her presidency, Escudero would wield immense clout, which he would then use for his own presidential ambitions, just as Roxas’s Liberal Party built up a massive campaign fund amid record smuggling, dubious transport contracts, and trebled pork barrel, including the illegal Disbursment Acceleration Program.
Poe needs to show over the coming months that she has the knowledge and leadership to take charge and make decisions and policies. She has to prove to the people that if they elect her to rule the country, it wouldn’t be her advisers actually running things with their own agenda and with no accountability.
Still, most voters probably don’t care much about experience or citizenship, for that matter. A prominant surname and a likeable face may be enough to carry the day.
(The last part on Thursday will discuss the Binay and Roxas issues.)