By Leandro Milan
Claiming public service was “emblazoned on my DNA (genetic fingerprint),” President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo stunned the nation when she declared on Nov. 30 that she was running for Congress in the coming elections. She said she would remain in her post even after she had filed her certificate of candidacy.
Her announcement was welcomed by her most ardent supporters but condemned by her critics, who accused her plotting to extend her hold on power as a way to escape criminal prosecution when she steps down from the presidency. When her term expires on June 30, 2010, Mrs. Arroyo, 62, shall have served as president for nine and a half years (three and a half years are from Joseph Estrada’s unfinished term), making her the second-longest serving Philippine leader after the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled for more than 20 years. According to surveys, she is the most unpopular leader the country has had since Marcos was booted out in 1986.
Mrs. Arroyo said her decision to seek a congressional post was due to her desire to continue serving and to heed what she called a “clamor” by her province mates for her to serve them. “After much contemplation, I realized I’m not ready to step down completely from public service,” she said on the government-run Radyo ng Bayan.
This is the first time that a President is running for a lower position, an idea that no one thought would ever happen. Even the framers of the Constitution failed to consider this scenario. Section 4 of Article VII of the 1987 Constitution states, “The President shall not be eligible for any re-election.” But the Charter is silent on whether the President could run again for a lower position.
While Mrs. Arroyo’s announcement maybe shocking, even shameless, to some, it was not completely surprising. During the past year, she has made 47 visits to the second district of Pampanga (18 of them to her hometown Lubao). This translates to nearly one trip a week. During her visits, she would be accompanied by staff from various government agencies and give away free PhilHealth cards, seedlings, medicines and cash for microfinance projects. Acting on the requests of barangay leaders, she would order the construction and repair of schools, roads, health centers, canals and dikes. To her cabalen, the presidential largesse is like manna from heaven.
On Nov. 28, two days before the President’s announcement, the President’s elder son, Pampanga 2nd District Representative Juan Miguel “Mikey” Arroyo, led a contingent of over 200 mayors, barangay captains and other local officials of Pampanga in a call on his mother in Malacañang.
“My dear mother, in your decision-making, my sentiments must be taken as inconsequential,” Mikey said in his speech. “My political future must be brought to the back seat because as public servants, we have sworn to give our all to our country. . . Madame President, I believe that the best service I can give to my constituents, whom I’ve grown to love so much, is urging you not to deny them the privilege of being represented by your person.” Mikey is eligible to seek reelection but is giving way to his mother.
The congressman noted the steady stream of farmers, fisherfolk, businessmen and civic leaders trooping to the Palace “to express their desire that they be given the privilege of being represented by … a stateswoman with the stature of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.” On Nov. 27, some 200 leaders from farming and fishing communities, as well as representatives from cooperatives and business organizations from the second district of Pampanga presented the President with a manifesto urging her to run in 2010.
Up against three unknowns, the President is a sure winner in the congressional race. There is near unanimity in the belief that there are no legal impediments to the President running for Congress. But this did not deter Akbayan Rep. Rissa Hontiveros from filing before the Commission on Elections a petition to disqualify Mrs. Arroyo from running in Pampanga. Hontiveros argued that the President, by refusing to vacate her post after filing her candidacy for Congress, will be violating the constitutional provision regarding “equal protection of the law.”
“As current President, she has all the powers and resources as well as access to it that will definitely prejudice the chances of any opposing candidate in any electoral competition against her,” Hontiveros said.
But beyond the legalities, there are those who question her decision on moral grounds. Pampanga Auxiliary Bishop Pablo Virgilio David said Mrs. Arroyo should forsake her plans “in the name of decency and for the sake of propriety.”
“I’d appeal to her not to run and to respect the spirit of the Constitution instead of exploiting the letter of the law, which indeed does not categorically prohibit running for lower positions,” David said.
Fr. Joaquin Bernas, an expert on constitutional law and a member of the 1987 Constitutional Commission, shared David’s sentiment. “We never thought the President would be humble. If I were her, I would not seek a lower office,” he said.
Bernas, dean emeritus of the Ateneo College of Law, admitted there were no legal obstacles to stop Mrs. Arroyo should she decide to run for representative. “Now, delicadeza ibang bagay yan,” Bernas told reporters.
Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz said the framers of the Constitution did not think of imposing a ban on an outgoing president running for a lower office simply because “really there is no person in his or her sound mind who will do such a funny and demeaning political circus.”
Bishop David’s older brother, UP Professor Randy David, who backed out from his earlier plan to challenge Mrs. Arroyo, noted: “There are areas of social behavior where there are no explicit laws because in many instances, the existing custom, the existing sense of shame and sensitivity to what is regarded as decent or what we call delicadeza are deemed sufficient to keep people in line. You don’t need specific laws.”
Circuitous route to the top
Most of the President’s critics – from the political oppositon to Church, business and civic leaders – however believe her decision to run for Congress is just the first step to her aspirations to regain power. This is how they paint the grim scenario: she will aspire to become Speaker of the House of Representatives, then move to amend the Constitution to allow for a shift to a parliamentary form of government, and finally crown herself prime minister.
Sen. Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, running mate of Liberal Party standard-bearer Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, said, “Her ultimate goal is to become House Speaker and ram through her burning desire to change the Constitution. Since she cannot hope to beat Noynoy, her next best option is to render his victory useless and lead the change in the form of government.”
United Opposition president and Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay voiced the same fears. “The real agenda is to … shift to a parliamentary form of government and snatch power from whoever is elected president in 2010 by becoming prime minister and head of government,” said Binay, who is the running mate of former President Joseph Estrada.
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Satur Ocampo said he suspected Mrs. Arroyo would finance the candidacies of many administration allies so that she could control majority of the House if she won.
According to them, it is only by regaining power as prime minister could she escape the deluge of suits that await her – from plunder to human rights abuses – after she steps down as president.
But Sen. Joker Arroyo, an on-and-off critic and ally of the President, dismisses the fears. He believes Mrs. Arroyo can never be prime minister.
“She is now very weak. She has no political clout; what more if she is only a congresswoman?” the senator asked. “She can never be prime minister because we have to amend first the Constitution. Since she cannot amend it, no way.”
He continued: “How can she succeed as speaker—she cannot do that—because the speaker of the next House will be the choice of whoever is the President. . . Chances are there will be no President that will support that—Noynoy won’t, Villar won’t, Erap won’t and even Teodoro won’t,” he said, referring to presidential candidates Benigno Aquino, Manuel Villar, Joseph Estrada and Gilbert Teodoro.
Senator Arroyo‘s observation was echoed by the Philippine Daily Inquirer. In its editorial last Dec. 2, the daily wrote: “In truth, however, and given the political realities, it will be difficult for a rookie representative, even a former president, to drive Charter change from a seat in the chamber. We have raised the threshold question before: If she could not effect a revision of the Constitution while she served as president, how can Ms Arroyo reasonably expect to change the Constitution as merely one of over 250 congressmen?”
Indeed, it is worth noting that Mrs. Arroyo’s allies in the House have tried vainly to ram through various proposals to amend the Constitution during the past two to three years. The influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has already made it known that while it was open to a constitutional amendment in the past, it is now rethinking its position if such a move would be used to perpetuate “a few people” in power.
In the 15th Congress, Representative Gloria Macapagal Arroyo will be joined by three other Arroyos: youngest son Camarines Sur 1st District Rep. Diosdado “Dato” Macapagal Arroyo; brother-in-law Negros Occidental 5th District Rep. Ignacio “Iggy” Arroyo; and sister-in-law Ang Kasangga party-list Rep. Ma. Lourdes Arroyo. There are reports that Mikey Arroyo will be joining a party-list group so he can possibly stay in the House of Representatives.