—Dante Gatmaytan, University of the Philippines, College of Law
There is an issue shadowing the presidential elections in the Philippines in May 2016. The leading candidate is Senator Mary Grace Poe Llamanzares. Senator Poe (she does not use her husband’s name) was the daughter of movie royalty but she stayed out of the limelight for most of her life. She was naturalized as a citizen of the United States in 2001 after being petitioned by her husband who has dual citizenship.
Her father Fernando Poe, Jr. ran for President in 2004, but he lost to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. He died of a heart attack while his electoral protest was pending. Senator Poe returned to the Philippines after her father’s death and joined the public sector. She gave up her US citizenship and served as the chair of the Movie and Television Regulatory and Classification Board, then ran as a Senator in 2010 garnering the highest number of votes.
Senator Poe’s path to the presidency took an interesting turn when it was revealed that she is a foundling. Her status as a foundling raised an important issue because according to the Philippine Constitution, a Senator and the President must be a natural born citizen. Is a foundling a natural born Filipino? If not, then was she illegally elected as a Senator and is she barred from running as President?
Her political rivals were quick to capitalize on her past. Rizalito David, a losing candidate in the 2010 senatorial elections challenged her qualifications as a Senator before the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET). The SET is the sole judge of all contests relating to the election, returns, and qualifications of the Senate. The SET has nine Members, three of whom are Justices of the Supreme Court designated by the Chief Justice, and the remaining six are Senators.
After Poe filed her certificate of candidacy for President, cases challenging her qualifications were filed with the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) all claiming that a foundling is not a natural born citizen.
In the meantime, the SET promulgated its decision dismissing the petition to unseat Senator Poe. The Poe camp is hyping her victory, claiming that the issue of her citizenship has been clearly and convincingly settled.
Poe’s posturing may be an attempt to mask her tenuous victory. The SET voted 5 to 4 in her favor. Her support came from five Senators who apparently closed ranks to protect one of their own. The three Supreme Court Justices who sat in the SET voted against her. One Senator voted against Poe: Senator Nancy Binay, the daughter of the Vice President Jejomar Binay who is also running for President (and running second according to surveys).
Senators voting in her favor also give the impression that their decisions were guided less by the law and more by political considerations. Senator Loren Legarda wrote that “I believe that by denying Senator Poe’s natural-born citizenship, we would be reversing the will of over 20 million voters. And in the process, we would be effectively denying our entire electorate the opportunity to select their President freely and democratically.” Senator Vicente Sotto III wrote that the composition of the SET alone indicated that the Constitution “did not demand a strictly legal viewpoint in deciding disqualification cases against senators…. The fact that six Senators elected by the whole country form part of the Senate Electoral Tribunal would suggest that the judgment of the whole Filipino nation must be taken into consideration also.”
Poe’s popularity has not been affected by the cases questioning her eligibility to run for office. Three days after the SET’s decision was announced, media reported that Poe lead other candidates with 39 percent, up by 13 points from 26 percent in September.
But Poe’s victory is already unraveling: on December 1, the COMELEC’s Second Division voted to disqualify her in the race for the presidency for failing to meet both the residency and citizenship requirements of the Constitution. The COMELEC en banc will still rule on the issue, as will the Supreme Court but without Senators willing to gloss over the law, her chances of staying in the race are dimmer. If she is disqualified by the Supreme Court, this would place Vice-President Binay, already indicted by the Ombudsman for graft, ahead of the pack.
Things could worsen if the decision to disqualify Poe comes after the elections in May. Poe’s supporters are urging authorities to adhere to the popular will instead of the requirements of the law. The Supreme Court has said, however, that when the law requires qualifications to be possessed by persons desiring to serve as elective public officials, those qualifications must be met before one even becomes a candidate and that “[w]hen a person who is not qualified is voted for and eventually garners the highest number of votes, even the will of the electorate expressed through the ballot cannot cure the defect in the qualifications of the candidate.”
If a Poe victory cannot cure the defect in her citizenship, who would become the President if she is disqualified after elections? Recent case law suggests that the candidate who obtains the second highest number of votes will be declared the winner. Things are looking good for the Vice-President.
If the Supreme Court finds reason to disqualify Senator Poe, it must do so quickly and convincingly to assure the public that the decision is not politically motivated. It will not be an easy task convincing Poe’s supporters how the fact that she is a foundling deprives her of the opportunity to run for President.
Suggested Citation: Dante Gatmaytan, Citizenship Issues and the Presidential Elections in the Philippines, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Dec. 1, 2015, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2015/11/citizenship-issues-and-the-presidential-elections-in-the-philippines
 Camille Elemia, Timeline: Grace Poe’s citizenship, residency, RAPPLER, September 4, 2015, http://www.rappler.com/nation/politics/elections/2016/104731-grace-poe-citizenship-residency-timeline-arguments.
 Const., Art. VI, § 3 and Art. VII, § 2.
 Const., Art. VI, § 17.
 Decision of the Senate Electoral Tribunal on SET Case 001-15, November 17, 2015, available at http://www.set.gov.ph/decision-set-case-001-15-david-v-poe-lamanzares/.
 Separate opinion of Senator Legarda on SET Case 001-15, November 17, 2015, available at http://www.set.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/S.-Legarda-SET-CASE-001-15-David-v-Poe-Lamanzares.pdf.
 Separate opinion of Senator Sotto on SET Case 001-15, November 17, 2015, available at http://www.set.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/S.-Sotto-SET-CASE-001-15-David-v-Poe-Lamanzares.pdf.
 Camille Diola, Ombudsman Oks criminal raps vs VP Binay, son, THE PHILIPPINE STAR, October 12, 2015, http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2015/10/12/1509924/ombudsman-oks-criminal-raps-vs-vp-binay-son.
 Maquiling v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 195649, April 16, 2013.