Just two years ago, when he launched his candidacy for mayor of Manila, former President Joseph Estrada said it would be his “last hurrah” in politics.
“I just want to clean up Manila and put its affairs in order before retiring,” he added.
Manila’s citizens apparently took him up on his word, entrusting him with the huge task of cleaning up their city, which had gone to seedier depths during the incumbency of the tough-talking but remote administrator Alfredo Lim. When Estrada won City Hall, Lim slapped him with a suit questioning his qualifications as mayor on the ground that he was a convicted plunderer barred from holding public office—a condition, Lim said, that was not rehabilitated by the pardon granted him by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
But the Supreme Court has spoken: It junked Lim’s petition by a vote of 11-3, saying that the Commission on Elections was correct in having allowed Estrada to run in 2013. “The majority characterized the pardon extended by Mrs. Arroyo to Mr. Estrada as absolute, thereby restoring Mr. Estrada’s qualifications to stand as candidate in the last mayoralty elections,” explained Theodore Te, the high court’s information chief.
The ruling has had the effect of putting considerably more bounce to Estrada’s step than any of his acknowledged stem-cell procedures could, because suddenly the 77-year-old is hinting again at running for president in 2016. “Everything is now possible,” he crowed. He’d gun for Malacañang the second time if either of the two politicians close to him and seen as viable candidates—Vice President Jejomar Binay and Sen. Grace Poe—ends up bowing out of the race.
And if he does run, only the most naive would think him mad. Estrada’s base of support among a certain percentage of the electorate has remained remarkably consistent throughout his political vicissitudes, enabling him to place second only to President Aquino in the 2010 presidential polls, thrashing even presumptive frontrunner Manny Villar, and handily winning as Manila mayor in 2013.
In other words, the high court’s decision just dealt Philippine politics a game-changer. But if blame is to be apportioned for the fact that the country would now have to grapple with the distinct possibility of a former president convicted of plunder—one of the most heinous crimes in the statute books—reassuming his old job, why not go back to Arroyo and her original decision to pardon Estrada? It has become fashionable to say that harking back to the Arroyo era is beating a dead horse—but here is fresh proof that the ramifications of GMA’s short-sighted, politically blinkered decisions are being felt even now.
In pardoning Estrada of a high crime of which a court of law had determined he was guilty beyond reasonable doubt, GMA was well within her rights as president—but her decision made all the wrong implications. Despite the enormity of his crime, Estrada was to be absolved of punishment because he was an ex-president, making short shrift of the democratic notion that the law applies to everyone, high or low—but especially to the high and mighty who would abuse their office by robbing the public till. She also used her power of pardon as a cynical way to shore up her own shaky hold on the presidency, and perhaps set a precedent for her own lenient treatment once she was out of Malacañang.
The greater damage, as we now see, is in giving Estrada second wind by restoring to him his full civil and political rights—despite his continued refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing. Estrada never learned his lesson from his years in the political wilderness, thanks to Arroyo and other politicians who both feared and coveted his unwavering constituency and were willing to strike a modus vivendi with him whenever it was convenient for all parties.
Thus, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago’s bill seeking the perpetual disqualification from public office of a government official convicted of plunder—even if pardoned by the president—is a timely corrective to the looming threat posed by Estrada running again for the presidency in a never-ending effort to vindicate his name. The bill deserves wide public support and should be passed by Congress, if it knows any better. A crime is a crime—more so if it’s as heinous as plunder. Popularity does not expunge it; otherwise, we can dispense with the justice system altogether and look to the horde, like the old Romans did, for a thumbs up or a thumbs down on a person’s guilt.
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