THEN Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo replaced ousted President Joseph Estrada in 2001. But they have more in common than it seems. Both are the heads of their respective political dynasties. And both are running for public office this year–she for the second congressional district of Pampanga, to which she was elected in 2010, and he for Mayor of Manila.
Convicted of plunder in September 2007, but pardoned by Arroyo a month later, Estrada ran for President in 2010, and, among the nine candidates for the post that year, came in as second to Benigno Aquino III. Estrada amassed more than nine million votes out of the 38 million voter turnout, compared to Aquino III’s 15 million votes. There but for Aquino, the Philippines would have had another Estrada Presidency, despite his ouster through direct citizen action in 2001 and subsequent conviction.
In May 2010, when her controversy-haunted Presidency was finally ending, Arroyo, supposedly one of the most unpopular presidents this country has ever had, ran for Congress. Once more validating the charge that most Filipinos are either grossly ignorant of even the most important events in the country, or have extremely short memories, she won by a landslide. Some 170,000 of her province-mates voted for Arroyo, giving her 77 percent of the 220,000 votes cast in Pampanga.
Arroyo’s candidacy and that of Estrada were naturally the subjects of controversy. After all, whoever heard of a President whose term was about to end running for Congress and a deposed one convicted of plunder running again for the same office?
Its impropriety aside, Arroyo’s running for Congress without resigning the Presidency was questioned, but declared lawful by the Commission on Elections.
A provision in the Omnibus Election Code requiring the resignation of anyone running for an office other than the one he or she currently holds had been repealed by the Fair Elections Act of 2001. The Act is supposedly about political ads, but contains that rider, despite the validity of the argument behind the repealed provision: without resigning her current post, the candidate can use it to advance her candidacy by using the resources of her office. Arroyo’s remaining as President while running for a local office indeed gave her an unprecedented advantage over her rivals.
The Commission on Elections ruled in 2010 that Estrada’s right to run for public office, which had been withdrawn in perpetuity by his plunder conviction, had been restored by Arroyo’s pardon. A petition seeking his disqualification from running for office was also filed last year, but was dismissed by the graft court. The Comelec also denied a similar petition last week.
By running for a position below President in 2010, Arroyo had already established a precedent: the unheard-of possibility — prevented only by a sense of propriety rather than law — that someone who had already been President not only would, but could also legally run for a lower office.
Why she did so some observers thought in 2010 could be for either of two reasons: a hunger for power not even her nearly ten-year occupancy of Malacanang could satisfy, or as part of a plan to win the House of Representatives speakership so she could lead a campaign to change the presidential form of government into a parliamentary one in which she would be prime minister.
Why Estrada is running for Mayor of Manila this year he has explained away as based, not on any principle or concept of government, but on nostalgia. Because he was born in Manila, Estrada now says he would like to retire from politics as Mayor of the same city.
No matter what their reasons for running despite the unquestioned disasters their respective terms as President were, because of Arroyo and Estrada’s examples, any former official, no matter how despised during his or her watch; no matter how foul his or her record; and no matter a conviction for any offense so long as he or she is the beneficiary of a Presidential pardon, can run for any office, including the same post.
Arroyo’s nine years in Malacanang seemed so interminable for a number of reasons, among them the vast corruption that characterized her watch, and a record of human rights violations so vile it rivaled that of the martial law period. Additional to that was the ruin, through bribery and other forms of corruption and their being used for narrow political ends, of practically every government institution particularly the police and the military. The Arroyo administration did not spare from its corrosive influence non-government institutions and personalities, among them some bishops of the Catholic Church.
Estrada’s brief Malacanang occupancy was characterized by an approach to governance based on no program except his claim to be for the poor. The Presidency was in the Estrada practice just another means of extracting from government enough means to keep its holder in drink, women and multiple houses.
The Estrada administration ran the country as if the Presidency endowed the holder with the power to do whatever he pleased, including waging war in Mindanao without regard for those political and social consequences about which neither Estrada nor his so-called advisers seemed to have only the foggiest knowledge. The plunder for which he was convicted was only one of his administration’s many infirmities.
The scale of the Arroyo administration’s offenses, particularly its human rights violations and cavalier attitude towards the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, dwarfs those infirmities. But at issue is not which administration was worse, but whether, despite their putrid records, Estrada and Arroyo can keep running for and occupying whatever government posts they covet.
Arroyo has not been convicted of any crime. But she is still accountable to the citizenry for, among others, the spike in enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings that was so much a feature of her unlamented regime, while Estrada, although convicted for the plunder of State resources, has not even apologized for it to the poor he claims as his constituency.
Being elected and re-elected to an office no matter how much lower it is than the Presidency is not accountability for wrongdoing but reward. But that is what Arroyo and Estrada’s continuing to run for office is demonstrating. The disturbing implication is that the accountability of government officials extends no further than the letter of the law, assuming that it has been correctly interpreted, rather than its spirit — and that, as a result, the country can never rid itself of bad government and some of the worst politicians that ever walked the earth.