The enigmatic Joker Arroyo
(First of two parts)
The family of the late former Sen. Joker Arroyo requested the Senate not to hold necrological services in his honor. But the request did not stop his former colleagues and associates from issuing tributes full of platitudes, which, however, failed to capture the full dimension of the man’s impact on the political life of the nation.
For example, nothing could be more superficial than the statement of Senate President Franklin Drilon, who described Arroyo’s demise as the nation’s “collective loss” and who remembered him for his “exceptional humility and simplicity” as a public official. “Today we also celebrate the life and work of a former member of the Senate,” Drilon went on to say, who, in his lifetime, “dazzled the nation not only with his brilliance but also with his high sense of duty and strong commitment to defend the underprivileged.”
Joker Arroyo was all these, but much more.
Many of Arroyo’s Senate colleagues heaped praise on him and remembered him mainly as a champion of human rights and civil liberties in both the legal arena and the parliament of the streets, and who campaigned, at grave risks to himself, against the imposition of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos in September 1972. Thus, his reputation as a freedom fighter is associated largely with his political activities during the martial law years. But this framework does little justice to his record of public service.
Among those who belittled the impact of Arroyo’s political activism is the Aquino administration. In expressing sympathies over his passing, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda offered a left-handed compliment in saying that while Arroyo is known as a freedom fighter and human rights lawyer, he will be remembered by Filipinos for his contribution in toppling the Marcos dictatorship. Malacañang pointed out that Arroyo led the fight against the Marcos regime and was known for being the first lawyer to question at the Supreme Court the legality of the ratification of the Marcos-dictated 1973 Constitution, which, in Amendment No. 6, gave legislative powers to Marcos alongside the single-party National Assembly, and gave military tribunals the power to try civilians.
Arroyo is also known for defending opposition leaders and critical journalists detained in military camps across the country. Despite the fact that he served as counsel of President Corazon Aquino, the incumbent’s mother, and was her first executive secretary, he was not a rabid supporter of the incumbent—and in fact acted as an unpredictable maverick whoever was the president.
He previously criticized the incumbent Aquino administration for “raping [Congress] with consent” in connection with the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program, describing the person who conceived it as an “evil genius.” He also assailed the administration over allegedly misaligned and lopsided allotments in the budget. His broadsides against the administration rattled it, and up until his death, his relationship with it could best be described as uneasy.
In 1992, Joker Arroyo was elected to the House as a representative of Makati. He served three consecutive terms before winning a seat in the Senate, where he served from 2001 to 2013.
It was in Congress where Arroyo’s political career bloomed beyond human rights concerns. It sprouted from a corruption scandal involving President Joseph Estrada, eventually leading to the latter’s impeachment in 2000. For the first time in the history of Philippine democracy, a constitutional crisis triggered an upheaval that came to be known as the Edsa 2 People Power Revolution.
Those of us who closely covered Estrada’s impeachment trial realized that it presented a crucial crossroads in the transformation of Philippine constitutional history. In that trial, corruption was the central issue in toppling an elected official. That trial underlined the leading role of the prosecution arm of the government in impeaching a president. Arroyo’s appointment as the lead prosecutor put him at center stage as a catalyst of political change.
Arroyo fought many legal battles involving causes he sponsored. He lost most of them, but Estrada’s impeachment trial was his most important battle that tested and proved his mettle as a lawyer. (Concluded on Friday)
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