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An American president of the Philippines?
By Marco Garrido

MANILA - Much is unclear; much is ironic. It is unclear whether Fernando Poe Jr (FPJ), the front-runner in the Philippine presidential race, is even qualified to run. His citizenship at birth, one lawyer contends, was actually American. If this is found to be the case, Poe could be disqualified for not meeting the constitutional requirement of the president being "a natural-born Filipino".

This would be ironic indeed. A revelation of US citizenship would probably bolster FPJ's appeal among an electorate that, by and large, considers tangible ties to the United States an unqualified positive. The perennial presidential candidate Ely Pamatong banks on this allure, campaigning, as he does, on a platform of US statehood for the Philippines.

Contested citizenship
The true facts of Poe's citizenship - as opposed to all the false facts that have been strewn in the way of truth - remain unclear. Lawyer Victorino Fornier claims that Poe was born out of wedlock, the son of Spanish and US citizens. That his mother, Bessie Kelly, was American is incontestable. That his father, Allan Fernando Poe, remained Spanish is arguable. If, in fact, Allan Poe elected to retain his Spanish citizenship, Fernando Poe Jr would inherit this same citizenship at birth (since the Philippines goes by bloodline in determining nationality). The point at issue, however, is whether Poe was born illegitimately, in which case, according to normative jurisprudence, he would assume his mother's citizenship.

As proof, Fornier presented Allan Poe's marriage certificate with a certain Paulita Gomez (in which both parties indicated Spanish citizenship) and a bigamy case filed by Gomez against him. Largely on the strength of Fornier's evidence, Poe Jr was charged with two counts of falsifying public documents and one count of perjury for claiming to be a natural-born Filipino. The complainants pointed out that Poe's birth certificate had been executed on a typewriter model that had not yet been invented in 1939, when the certificate was filed.

This is as far as Fornier gets. His case begins unraveling with Ricardo Manapat, the National Archives director whom he tapped for his evidence. Three National Archives employees alleged that Manapat asked them separately to cut and paste scanned microfilm files in order to produce the documents undermining Poe's candidacy. So if Poe's documents were typewritten, Fornier's were computerized. Now it would appear that both sides have false documents on their hands, documents belied by their anachronism.
Here is where it gets ironic. Fornier still appears to have a case, although not based on his own documents but on Poe's. An apparently authentic marriage contract submitted by Poe dates his parents' marriage in 1940. Poe, however, was born in 1939. This would mean, according to his own documents, that he was born illegitimately, and thus, it follows, would assume the US citizenship of his mother.

To avoid controversy, the Commission on Elections has ruled on as little of the matter as it could, sidestepping the issue of Poe's citizenship altogether and deciding instead that Poe did not "materially misrepresent" himself in filing his candidacy. Hence he should not be disqualified. Now resolving the explosive heart of the matter falls to the Supreme Court.

Ironies
The facts of the case provide for the least of its ironies. It is a greater irony that Poe, a movie star by profession, can run for president without any substantial qualifications and yet face disqualification for failing to meet a technical criterion.

It would surely be a tantalizing irony if the man whose celluloid persona defined a good part of the Filipino male's self-image were to be outed as American. Would a veritable cultural icon be found hollow? Such irony cannot help but beg the question of identity: What, if not citizenship, makes one Filipino? Whatever it is, FPJ surely has it to the hilt, but as a presidential candidate, he may still be found wanting.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) herself has weighed in on the issue - to deflect, perhaps, accusations of conspiring with Fornier - pronouncing FPJ a Filipino "in heart and spirit". One wonders whether she has overstated the obvious in order to imply its obverse: that FPJ may not be Filipino in law and letter, and hence not Filipino enough to be president of the republic. (Even though he would almost certainly make a more nationalist president than GMA, whose slavishness to US policy makes her the more American of the two as far as "heart and spirit" goes.)

Obscurities
Now we return to what is unclear - or what is being obscured: Who is really behind all this? The sum of these ironies shows a discrepancy between law and reality, or at least the reality of public opinion. Fornier is using the law to spite public opinion - he claims he is non-partisan and is doing this simply to uphold the sanctity of the letter of the law - and now public opinion is turning against him. It is hard to believe that he is doing this out of a sense of personal ethics and fastidiousness. It is easy to suspect that he serves other masters, that, in the words of deposed president Joseph Estrada, he is the lackey in an Arroyo administration "hatchet job".

But if GMA is behind this, then - irony of ironies - she is the one getting hatcheted. The controversy has mostly succeeded in portraying Poe sympathetically, as the victim of unscrupulous, politically motivated persecution. The ranks of FPJ supporters stand ready, virtual foot soldiers, to wreak their displeasure if their man is "cheated" of the presidency. To them he cannot lose; much less can he be disqualified for something as academic as citizenship. Most of his supporters don't even have passports. How can a slip of paper tell him what they know he is?

One thing is left unclear, which suggests there may be one final irony in store. What if Poe becomes president and the Supreme Court finds him to be a US citizen? An American, Filipino nationalist president of the Philippines? Or automatic US statehood?

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Jan 29, 2004



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