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Sunday, June 16, 2024

A tale of four former presidents

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"This is how it should be."


A world-famous political scientist once wrote that one of the best indications that a country is a functioning democracy is the continued existence and liberty of its former chief executives. The basis for his view was the tendency and inclination of unelected Chief Executives—especially those who are installed in office by extra-constitutional means—to liquidate or imprison the individuals they had replaced. Rarely do overthrown presidents and prime ministers survive revolutions and coups d’etat.

If one goes by the foregoing dictum, the Philippines is a functioning democracy. Four out of the five individuals who have been President of the Philippines since the fall of Ferdinand E. Marcos—Corazon C. Aquino, Fidel V. Ramos. Joseph Ejercito Estrada, Gloria M. Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III—are still in this country, very much alive and enjoying all the rights and benefits granted to Filipinos by their country’s Constitution. Cory Aquino died a natural death in 2010 after a six-year (1986-1992) stay in Malacañang.

Killing a sitting President is not a part of modern Philippine political culture; the sole exception is the attempt to assassinate wartime President Jose P. Laurel at the height of the guerilla campaign against the occupying Japanese forces. But killing a likely future president intruded into Philippine history when former Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. was mercilessly gunned down by government agents on Aug. 21, 1983 upon his return from exile in the US.

Two of the living former chief executives—Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph Ejercito Estrada—are in their eighties, Gloria M. Arroyo is in her seventies and Benigno Aquino III, is in his sixties. Messrs. Ramos and Estrada and Mrs. Arroyo have earned the right to enjoy, and are enjoying, the company of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren; Mr. Aquino is a bachelor and can enjoy only the company of his four sisters’ sons and daughters.

Of the four living former presidents, it is only with regard to Benigno Aquino III that one can speak of post-Malacañang retirement from public life. It is well-known that Noynoy Aquino was highly reluctant to run for President in the 2010 election but eventually filed his certificate of candidacy because of unrelenting pressure from the Liberal Party’s leaders and Cory Aquino’s devoted followers. Noynoy Aquino dutifully performed the presidential functions for six years, but his departure from Malacañang in June 2016 meant a return to life as a private citizen.

The recent events in the political lives—the reaching by Ms. Arroyo of the statutory three-terms limit for members of the House of Representatives and Mr. Estrada’s defeat in the Manila mayoralty contest—would seem to suggest an end to the political lives of the two former chief executives. But this expectation is probably unrealistic. Mrs. Arroyo and Mr. Estrada have politics in their DNAs, and, while they may wish to seek elective office again, they can be counted upon to stay in close touch with political leaders and to stay informed about political developments in this country.

For the nation’s 12th president, there is no such thing as retirement. The word does not appear in his personal dictionary. The cigar-man who is fondly known as Tabako remains physically fit in his late eighties, swimming every day and playing a round of golf regularly. He is one of the Filipinos most respected outside the Philippines, and the prestigious Ramos Foundation for Peace and Development gets its founder invited to address audiences in the leading countries of the world. Former President Ramos has been likened by some observers to the famous Eveready Energizer battery: he just goes on and on.

Except for Gloria Arroyo’s neck-spine problem and Joseph Estrada’s obesity, all four former presidents are in reasonably good health. And, despite the mistakes and unfairness that they may have committed during their incumbencies, they are generally treated with respect and dignity, befitting former chief executives of this country. When he joins the ranks of the former Presidents, Rodrigo Duterte can expect the same treatment from the Filipino people.

That is how it should be. The Philippines is a democratic nation, and democratic nations do not devour their former chief executives when they leave office. Fidel V. Ramos, Joseph Ejercito Estrada, Gloria Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III are living proofs of that.


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