Jovito Salonga, the scholar-politician

Former Senate president Jovito Salonga, who died on March 10 at the age of 95, was one of those rare scholar-politicians who dazzled my generation with their brilliance, eloquence, and patriotism. The other figure who quickly comes to mind—because he and Salonga almost always appeared on the horizon like a pair of stars—was former senator Jose W. Diokno.

Salonga and Diokno shared first place in the 1944 bar examinations with the identical score of 95.3 percent. They took the exam even before they could complete their formal law studies. Their mastery of the law was legendary, and their speeches at the Senate were pithy literary gems. Well-read and deeply spiritual in their respective ways, they championed genuine independence, basic human rights, and good governance at a time when pragmatic politicians would not hesitate to trade these to advance their careers.

Both detained without charges during martial law by their contemporary, Ferdinand Marcos, Salonga and Diokno took up the cudgels for other political detainees, including Ninoy Aquino, Marcos’ principal nemesis. Ninoy’s widow, Cory, regularly turned to these two exemplary lawyers for advice after Ninoy’s assassination. When she became president in 1986, following the Edsa Revolution, her first official acts were to create the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) to which she appointed Jovito R. Salonga, and the Presidential Committee on Human Rights, to which she named Jose W. Diokno.

These two presidential bodies, which Cory established while she enjoyed revolutionary powers under the Freedom Constitution, are the closest equivalent we have to a truth commission.  Their shared mandate was to bring the Marcoses and their cronies and henchmen to justice.

Diokno, who died of cancer in February 1987, did not live long enough to witness the gradual fading of the Edsa dream. Salonga, who had been maimed by the bomb attack at Plaza Miranda in August 1971, resigned from the PCGG to run in the 1987 senatorial elections, the first to be held under the new Constitution. As in 1965 and 1971, he went on to top the 1987 elections.

The reorganized Senate then chose him to be its president, strategically positioning him as the logical successor to President Cory once her term ended in 1992. This, however, did not happen for a host of reasons.

The Senate under the leadership of Salonga was consistently supportive of Cory in her bid to restore the country’s democratic institutions throughout those turbulent years when her mandate was repeatedly challenged by a rebellious military. But, there was one thing the gentle Salonga could not grant to Cory: a new military bases treaty that would extend the presence of the American bases in the Philippines after the expiration in 1991 of the existing agreement.

Salonga drew the line between him and the much-admired Cory on this single issue. He actively campaigned to ensure the defeat of this new agreement, even as he knew it could cost him the presidency. On Sept. 16, 1991, the Senate rejected the new treaty by a vote of 12-11, with Salonga himself casting the deciding vote. To him, it was the culmination of the long emancipatory struggle begun by our nation’s greatest heroes. Resisting all kinds of pressure from the Americans, who, at the strictly personal level, had been good to him, Salonga was prepared to give up everything just to see the American bases leave.

He paid dearly for this decision. In the 1992 presidential election, President Cory was torn between two loyal allies who both wanted to be president—Speaker Ramon Mitra Jr. and Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos. Endorsing Jovy Salonga was out of the question. The Americans could not forgive him for the humiliation he had dealt them on the bases question. Big business did not like him for the uncompromising stance he had taken against US interests. Like Diokno, he was the best president we could not have.

I had the privilege of moderating the 1992 presidential debate for the Commission on Elections and television station Channel 5. Blind in one eye, his right hand a deformed mass of skin and bones, the 72-year-old statesman beamed like a professor conducting a graduate class. He was the most erudite and most accomplished person in that pack. Speaking in a measured tone in fluent Filipino and English, he never switched from one code to the other to complete a thought.

But, beside the most prominent pre-martial law politicians, there were other stars in that room that had captured the imagination of a fickle public. One of them was the feisty and outspoken Miriam Defensor Santiago, a former judge, Cabinet member, and immigration commissioner. The other was businessman Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, who had fled the country with the Marcos family in 1986. The broad support that this soft-spoken Marcos crony was getting during the campaign, just six years after the overthrow of the dictatorship, showed that the political winds were ominously shifting.

In that crowded race, Ramos, Cory’s anointed successor, emerged the winner with only about 23 percent of the votes. In contrast, Joseph “Erap” Estrada, running as Cojuangco’s vice president, won by a landslide. Jovy Salonga, the Liberal Party candidate, finished sixth, behind Imelda Marcos.

That would have been enough to completely crush any patriot who had worked hard to see his country flourish. But though he retired from electoral politics, Jovito R. Salonga continued the lonely struggle for ethical governance through the civil society organizations he formed, never losing hope in the Filipino people’s capacity to transform themselves.

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