Will Arroyo Step Down in 2010 in Return for Immunity?

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Will Arroyo Step Down in 2010 in Return for Immunity?

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Whenever the political crisis comes up in conversation, the discussion usually turns into a debate over whether President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo wants to serve out the remainder of her term (until 2010), or has greater ambitions. I maintain the opinion that she fully intends to rule beyond the expiration of her present term, for many reasons. Among them: That her immunity from prosecution as president ends when she leaves office, and she cannot afford to relinquish that legal protection; that she has come to view herself as divinely-appointed to rule; that she cannot trust any potential successor to respect her status as ex-president and keep her from being the target of a political and legal witch hunt.

On the other hand, there are those who maintain that Mrs. Arroyo has nothing to fear, so long as the economy remains stable (and they even argue the economy’s doing well); that she will not be the object of a political vendetta because she’s actually supported by the people; and that finally, she has no ambitions to remain in office anyway and should be left alone. Though some do go as far as suggesting the temptation to stay in office to save her hide could be foiled by potential successor pledging to grant her a pardon or even proclaim an amnesty if that’s an issue (never mind how humiliating that would be).

One of the longest and most interesting careers in Philippine political history was that of Arturo Tolentino, who first gained prominence as a young man in the 1930s, and became a senator in the 1950s. During the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos he became a member of parliament and at one point, foreign minister. He also became Marcos’ running mate in 1986. After a ridiculous attempt to seize power from Corazon Aquino, he accomplished a remarkable revival of his political fortunes by being elected to the Senate in 1992. He died in 2004. Tolentino also wrote one of the most interesting autobiographies ever penned by a Filipino politician, titling his book “Voice of Dissent.”

President Arroyo’s dilemma (if it even exists, and I doubt it) of whether she should stay in office only until 2010 or move heaven and earth to be president-for-life, reminds me of an incident in Tolentino’s memoirs.

In 1978, after having amended the 1973 Constitution in 1976 to guarantee himself legislative powers even if a parliament convened, Ferdinand Marcos finally restored the legislature. In 1980, one of his lieutenants, Assemblyman Rodolfo Albano Jr. of Isabela province proposed a constitutional amendment. The amendment would turn the immunity from suit enjoyed by a president during his term of office, into a permanent protection. That is, immunity from suit for life. Tolentino rose in parliament to oppose the amendment.

Parliament set up a committee composed of Justice Minister Ricardo Puno, Solicitor-General Estelito Mendoza, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Minister Leonardo Perez (Marcos’s adviser on political affairs) and assemblymen Emmanuel Pelaez, Juan Liwag, and Tolentino. Tolentino convinced the committee to refuse to tackle the proposal. It was sent to President Marcos and discussed in a meeting.

Tolentino recounts that in the meeting, Marcos was furious. He asked, “Where is it? Where is that provision? What will the military think of me if I will have only my own immunity as president and during my tenure?” He looked at the report and angrily repeated, “What will the military think of me when I will continue to be immune from suit as president but those who are under me and who followed my orders in times of crisis and in an hour of need will not have any immunity?”

Marcos’ table-thumping met with silence. So he went further: “This is the time for us to determine who are with me and who are not with me; and for those who are not with me, the door is open. You can join people who are like you. You have no place here.” An assemblyman immediately chimed in suggesting not only that the proposal for lifetime immunity for the president be presented to parliament, but immunity should be lifetime as well for other officials. Tolentino recounts, “in the face of presidential ire, nobody objected…I did not object.”

The proposed amendment was debated in parliament and Tolentino devoted six pages of his memoir to a transcript of the debate. He claimed he was able to “water down” the amendment through a typically lawyerly definition of terms: “The extended immunity after tenure would not prevent a court from acquiring jurisdiction over the person of the ex-president who had become a private citizen, and as such subject to the judicial process. But the court would have no jurisdiction over the subject matter of the suit if it is a lawful official act…and so the case would be dismissed. The ex-president would not really be immune from suit but cannot be held liable because what is charged is an ‘official act’.” In other words, no president would be exempt from being charged in court; but because every official act’s presumed legal, and thus every official act is lawful, the courts would have had to automatically dismiss any charges against any former president.

Which brings us to Rodolfo Albano Jr. He remains a political player, chairman of the Energy Regulatory Commission (a presidential appointment). His son, Rodolfo Albano III, challenged Speaker Jose de Venecia last year and is a member of Kampi, the president’s pet party in the governing coalition. Certainly there are enough Albanos, for one, around to remind Mrs. Arroyo of one of the benefits of a parliament -and to volunteer to duplicate what they did in 1981, or at least do the legal strategizing to ensure immunity for Mrs. Arroyo.

Which is why, now, there’s a showdown going on the House of Representative, between the Speaker of the House, who heads the Lakas-CMD, and leaders of the president’s pet party, Kampi. They are after two different things. The Lakas wants a parliament for itself and its leader; Kampi is on the side of parliament, too -but with guarantees for its patron, the president, and for its leadership to topple the speaker.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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