On the legal merits, the Comelec ruling was clear enough: Fernando Poe Jr. is a natural-born Filipino citizen because he had a Filipino father. This has sound legal basis in both the 1935 Constitution and the 1987 Constitution. That FPJ may have been born before his parents were actually married is irrelevant. He is the child of a Filipino citizen. There was no need for Fernando Poe Sr. to formally acknowledge FPJ as his child so he could be regarded a Filipino citizen. The question of legitimacy is being raised because FPJ’s mother happens to be American. The lawyers questioning FPJ’s citizenship argue that he should have followed his mother’s citizenship.
On this point, this is what Fr. Joaquin Bernas, member of the 1987 Constitutional Commission, wrote recently: “I find it easy to agree with those who say that FPJ follows the citizenship of his father even if he were illegitimate. After all, the Constitution, in saying that children born of Filipino fathers are Filipinos, does not make a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children…. But there are those who insist that illegitimate children follow the citizenship of their mother. I am aware of Supreme Court decisions which say this; but the cases I know were about illegitimate children of Filipino mothers…. This is perfectly understandable because, after all, it is perfectly within the power of our courts to determine who are Filipino citizens. But can our courts determine who are or not Americans?”
The fact is, whether he was legitimate or illegitimate, FPJ did not elect the citizenship of his American mother. He did not apply for an American passport even if that option might have been available to him at some point in his life. He chose to remain a Filipino even if that meant, in a country that had just been ravaged by war, dropping out of high school after his father’s death to help support the family. It is easy to imagine that any other young man in that situation would have grabbed the opportunity to migrate to the United States. FPJ had that chance but chose to remain Filipino.
The petitioners have served notice that they will appeal yesterday’s Comelec ruling. The case may reach the Supreme Court. When that happens, the petitioners will have to do better. They will have to prove that FPJ’s father was not a Filipino citizen. Or show that, in fact, FPJ carries an American or perhaps a Spanish passport. Or present evidence indicating that FPJ did in fact file for naturalization as a Filipino citizen. Only then can they disqualify him from running for president.
The factual requirements for deciding this case appear straightforward. The law also seems unequivocal. There is no reason why the Supreme Court would not be able to decide on this case with the same dispatch as the Comelec just did. Those who think that a protracted controversy would work against FPJ’s candidacy are mistaken. The longer this case drags on, the more it acquires the character of malicious harassment. The vast masses of our people who know what it is like to suffer the consequences of common-law arrangements and incomplete documentation in everyday life will have no trouble sympathizing with FPJ’s travail.
If the whole point of this exercise is to stop him from becoming president, no tactic could have been more stupid. Few movie actors in this country have tapped the wellsprings of Filipino identity as effectively as Fernando Poe Jr. In a society where the logic of the law often finds no resonance in the cultural sensibility of ordinary people, and where law is often perceived as a weapon of the powerful, the attempt to disqualify FPJ by the legal maneuver of challenging his Filipino citizenship has got to be the most misinformed political strategy ever mounted against any candidate. It is counter-intuitive and counter-productive.
This is the wrong issue to bring up against FPJ, for it is the one question in which those who are inclined to vote for him would rather trust their instincts than rely on what lawyers say. Because our people are not stupid, they are more prepared to listen to those who can convince them that FPJ is not the best person to lead this country at this crucial time than to those who merely argue that he is not fit to run because he is not a natural-born Filipino. The foulest thing you can do to someone from a humble background is to exclude him from a contest because of what he is and thereby deny him the chance to show what he is really worth and what he can do.
Let the Comelec and the Supreme Court rule quickly and with finality on the citizenship issue. In the meantime, let us move on and talk about where we are as a nation, where we came from, and where we want to go. Then let our people decide who can best lead us at this time in our nation’s life.
Some say the FPJ citizenship issue stems from a need to enforce the rule of law. That is fine. Let us also do that by enforcing the rules against premature campaigning, undeclared campaign contributions, and illegal expenditures. We may also wish to go beyond that and examine the vision of a nation free from political dynasties that our Constitution so clearly projects but which our legislators have consistently ignored. And deny political dynasties our vote.
Meaningful citizenship is not just about observing the law. More than this, it is about taking an active part in designing the kind of nation we want. Elections provide such an opportunity. That is why the worst thing we can do to ourselves today is to derail the 2004 elections.
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