Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 22 February 2012


One of the nation’s contemporary leaders is Juan Ponce Enrile who publicly celebrated his 88th birthday on Valentine’s Day while presiding over the 17th day proceeding in the Senate impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.

His brilliance and his measured judgments have been on public display since day one of this historic event in the nation’s democracy. The clarity of his mind and the firmness with which he upholds his decisions as impeachment tribunal chairman are for all to see on television.

When he questions witnesses to help the prosecution, defense, or co-members among tribunal judges, or when he makes a remark as presiding judge, he demonstrates an incisive mind while clarifying the issues at hand.

A lifetime through a changing nation. Born in 1924 outside of wedlock, his young years were spent in poverty. This was during the American colonial era and into the Commonwealth era after 1936. His promise as a hardworking and highly intelligent boy earned him recognition and legitimate support from his lawyer father, a prominent legal personality in his time.

After a bachelor’s degree from Ateneo de Manila, he enrolled in the UP law college where he graduated as class 1953 salutatorian. Though he did not top the 1954 bar results, he received exceptionally high marks. His early career as corporate lawyer gained him early success and financial independence.

He became a full-fledged lawyer just as Ramon Magsaysay became the third president of the country during the Second Philippine Republic (1946 to 1972). (The First Philippine Republic (1899-1901) is the one born in Malolos under Emilio Aguinaldo).

Enrile entered public service in 1966. President Marcos appointed him as undersecretary of Finance. In that post, he would also act as insurance commissioner and as customs commissioner, two very difficult operational agencies under the Finance Department.

He was elevated to secretary of Justice in 1969 but during the major cabinet reshuffle of 1970, President Marcos made him secretary of National Defense.

 Martial law. In September 1972, Marcos invoked the relevant provisions of the 1935 Constitution to declare martial law. With the adoption of the 1973 Constitution, the nation entered the era of the Third Philippine Republic (1973-1981). The new constitution was the handiwork of the Constitutional Convention that former President Diosdado Macapagal had presided toward conclusion.

The new constitution adopted a new legislative structure into a parliamentary system. However, Marcos continued the suspension of the legislature since martial law, also within this new constitution, was still in effect.

Marcos called this dictatorial phase of the nation’s history as “constitutional authoritarianism.” In this framework, the civilian president served as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces and the defense secretary was the martial law administrator. Thus, Enrile was the channel of civilian administrative control of the military.

Parliamentary restoration and end of martial rule. Though Marcos adopted a transitory phase for a parliamentary system in 1978, President Marcos decided in mid-1981 to normalize the government by fully restoring parliamentary rule through the creation of the Batasang Pambansa. The president and the prime minister became distinct offices and the legislative body undertook the passing of the laws of the land. Hence, martial law had been lifted under this act.

President Marcos could have prepared by this time the nation for a contestable presidential succession. Unfortunately, he chose to manage that issue with a tight hand even as he opened the country toward political normalcy.

Enrile – whom Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore had judged to be the most politically astute of the next line of Philippine leaders — would have been at the forefront in an open succession contest. There were, at the time, of course the Prime Minister Cesar Virata, Blas Ople, Jose Aspiras, Jose Rono, Conrado Estrella, and more.

And from the wider opposition of that time who could have contested for that succession, the possibilities were endless, beginning with Benigno Aquino Jr., Salvador Laurel, former vice president Emmanuel Pelaez, Jovito Salonga, Jose Diokno, Gerardo Roxas ….

The assassination of Ninoy Aquino split the nation asunder and plunged the nation into a deep economic crisis.

EDSA: Five days that shook the nation. The nation is all too familiar with Juan Ponce Enrile’s critical role that began on Feb. 21, 1986 when he, together with General Fidel V. Ramos, barricaded themselves in the military camps along EDSA to resist military arrest. Those were the five days that shook the nation and saw the fall of Marcos and the restoration of full democracy.

Enrile’s relegation of the military revolt to the electoral results of 1986 saved the nation from a fratricidal outcome and propped up the assumption of Corazon Aquino to political power.

Soon, however, Enrile’s career suffered a rough and tumble drift after Cory Aquino fired him as defense secretary. She had suspected that he did not control the military challenges to her rule.

The problem with being defense minister was that whatever one did at that post, he had to deal with the military. And the young military colonels and officers became restive during the prolonged martial law period and, then, during the trying period of an inexperienced successor president.

Enrile survived the lowest ebb of this last fall from favor and managed to gain a seat in the Senate. His current term of elective service in the Senate is now on its fourth, making him one of the most long-lived of politicians in that body.

During this term of his Senate career in which he had also assumed the post of Senate President, one of the major issues that he had focused on is to seek a legislative amendment of the Constitutional restrictions on foreign capital. He rightly diagnoses this stumbling block as benefiting only the rich and powerful in the country while preventing many of the country’s poor from finding sufficient employment and productive opportunities.

But the impeachment trial had taken away a major slice of time to undertake this agenda at the moment.

The constitutional restrictions on foreign capital. His understanding of this issue is based on personal experience in commercial and corporate law practice early in his career. As a young practicing lawyer, many of the cases that he handled had to do with facilitating the possibilities for foreign direct investments to do business in the country.

The legal work involved not only the legal verifications and contract work but also the use of substitute mechanisms that enabled foreign direct investors compliance at the cost of new institution building and additional regulatory adjustments.

So, when Enrile opined that the constitutional provisions that have restricted the entry of foreign capital in the country and had benefited only a few of those already with resources and wealth and not many of our countrymen, he knew exactly whereof he spoke.

Having achieved the pinnacle of public service, Juan Ponce Enrile would still be needed for the crafting of wise legislation to promote our economic development.