Who’s afraid of Erap?

The issue of whether former President Joseph ‘Erap” Estrada should be allowed to run again for president is a legal question. Because it touches on a specific provision of the Constitution, it is bound to reach the Supreme Court the moment he files his certificate of candidacy.  The high court will no doubt declare it a “justiciable” issue. It did not hesitate to rule on the legality of Estrada’s departure from Malacanang in January 2001, treating it an act of “constructive resignation,” rather than as the outcome of a political action by the sovereign Filipino people.   The Court will very likely stop Erap’s second presidential bid in 2010 by declaring it unconstitutional.

Yet the issue is also a profoundly political question, for it has everything to do with the people’s right to choose their leaders.  Erap has more right to run in 2010 than Gloria (who succeeded to the presidency in 2001 under dubious circumstances) had in 2004.

Just over two years into his six-year term, the person the Filipino people elected as president in 1998 was ousted by a civilian-military coup.  Under the Constitution, military “withdrawal of support” is not a valid reason for removing a president.  Impeachment, death, and resignation are.  The impeachment case against Erap was unfinished, and there is no clear proof that he ever resigned.  In the absence of such a document, Estrada’s exit from the presidency was conveniently validated as a “constructive resignation.”  This paved the way for the succession of then Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Erap contested the Supreme Court’s ruling, but on two occasions the same Supreme Court that had declared the position vacant affirmed the legality of GMA’s takeover of the highest office.  A few months later, Erap’s supporters attempted to restore him to the presidency through mass actions. They were driven back by the police and the military.  Had they succeeded in returning their idol to Malacanang, one wonders how the magistrates of the high court would have reacted.  They would have called it a political event beyond their authority to judge.  And they would have been right.

For the Supreme Court cannot substitute itself for the sovereign will of the people in strictly political matters.  The ban against the reelection of the president was explicitly crafted to prevent the abuse of presidential powers and the misuse of public funds to ensure the reelection of a sitting president.  That’s a description of Gloria in the 2004 election.  It cannot apply to Erap in 2010.

Therefore, let Erap run in 2010, if that is what he wants.  Giving him that option could stabilize the country politically.  It will significantly put to rest the festering thought that the masses are being prevented from electing the leader of their choice. If the many who voted for him in 1998 are denied a chance to elect him or to reject him in 2010, Erap will continue to bask in the illusion that he is the uncrowned leader of the Filipino masses.  It is time we put that boast to a test.

We should trust our people; they are not stupid.  Yes they loved him, and they felt personally attacked when the police picked him up from his house and treated him like a common criminal.  But they also know that Erap betrayed their trust while he was president. He abused his powers and repeatedly showed his unworthiness as the nation’s highest leader.  In so doing, he insulted not only himself but also the Filipino poor who looked up to him to represent their aspirations.

Erap knows that he let many people down, the millions of our poor who believed in him.  I think he would have accepted his fate if he had been treated decently.  But more than this, he would have humbly accepted his fate if his successor had been a better president.  Gloria’s unpopularity has emboldened him.

Erap is running because he wants to rewrite and correct the past.  But the past can only be reinterpreted; it cannot be erased.  Erap had his chance, and he blew it.  Out of power, he can still quietly serve the poor, doing things his administration could have done for them if he had been more faithful to the responsibilities of his office.  Out of the limelight, Erap would be judged more kindly.  Gloria’s sins against the nation have buried his own a hundred times over.

But his present striving for power brings back to memory those precious two years when he made a fool of himself as president. More than this, it awakens the impulses that brought many angry Filipinos to the Edsa Shrine in January 2001.   I am confident that the Filipino electorate will reject him in 2010 if he decides to run.

Unlike former President Cory Aquino, I feel no need to apologize for Edsa II.  To rise in protest against the perceived abuse of power is a constitutional right and obligation of every citizen.  One does not express remorse for this as though it were a crime or a moral failure. Yes, the impeachment trial of Estrada should have been properly concluded.  But seeing how the pro-Erap senators became willfully blind and deaf to everything that damned Estrada in the eyes of the public, I was sure that a verdict to acquit him would not have stopped the mass actions against his regime.

One wishes the highest of our public officials would spare the nation and have the grace to step down when they have clearly lost the people’s trust.  The sad reality is that they do not, and that in fact they will do everything to remain in power.  It is this that gives birth to extra-constitutional solutions.

Comments to <public.lives@gmail.com>