THE poll body on Wednesday morning ruled that former President Joseph "Erap" Estrada can continue his bid for the presidential seat once more in the coming May elections.

Estrada personally appeared in the promulgation hearing and was accompanied by his son, Senator Jinggoy Estrada, senatorial bet Jose de Venecia III, Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile, and FPJ Movement For Peace & Democracy (FPJMTD) President Rez Cortes.

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The ousted leader thanked the Commission on Elections (Comelec) for its decision to junk the disqualification cases filed by lawyer Evillo Pormento, and disqualified presidential candidates Elly Pamatong and Marilou Estrada.

“I want to thank of course the Comelec commissioners for their sense of fairness. I would say that this is not my victory alone but the victory of the Filipino people and our democracy,” said Erap.

In the decision of the poll body's second division, it cited: “In the end, it is the Filipino people who would act as the final arbiter of whether they would have Respondent Estrada sit again as President again. It is the electorate's choice of who their President should be."

“The opportunity to serve has been returned and it seems as if I am being told that I need to complete the mission that my administration started in 1998...Serving the people is my luxury in life and I cannot exchange it for any material thing,” said Estrada of the Comelec ruling, adding that this will pull up his ratings in election-related surveys.

Disqualification cases

The three petitioners alleged that Estrada's bid was unconstitutional because it violates Article VII, Section 4 of the Philippine Constitution which states: “The President and the Vice-President shall be elected by direct vote of the people for a term of six years...The President shall not be eligible for any re-election. No person who has succeeded as President and has served as such for more than four years shall be qualified for election to the same office at any time.”

Erap earlier said the allegation of Pamatong was baseless because he was not able to complete his six-year term and that the law only applies to the incumbent president.

“In the Constitution, only those incumbent presidents and who completed his tenure of office of six years are disqualified,” he argued and was affirmed by Comelec's ruling.

“Our point of view then is that the intent of the presidential election ban is primarily directed against a person who has served as president for more than four years. Since former President Estrada has not served for more than years, but only for two and half years, he should be qualified to run for President in the 2010 election or any future presidential elections,” the decision stated.

Petitioners said Erap is banned from running in the presidential elections due to a constitutional ban on former chief executives from seeking reelection.

Erap’s lawyers, however, argued that the ban applies only to those who have served as president for more than four years or the full term.

Erap served for only two-and-a-half years. He assumed office in June 1998 but was removed from office after Edsa 2, a military-backed revolt in January 2001.

In September 2007, Erap was convicted by the Sandiganbayan, the country's anti-graft court, for plunder, sentenced to a lifetime in jail, and disqualified from seeking public office.

But a month later, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo granted him executive clemency, thus restoring his political and civil rights, including his right to seek public office. He has since reiterated his eligibility to run, saying that he was not covered by the reelection ban under the 1987 Constitution.

Pamatong, who submitted a certificate of candidacy (COC) for the presidential seat, also filed separate disqualification cases against presidential aspirants Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino III, Gilbert Teodoro, and Manny Villar, vice presidentiable Mar Roxas, and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

After Erap's bid got a definite go from the Comelec, voters have 10 presidential candidates to choose from in the upcoming automated polls including Estrada, independent presidential candidate Nicanor Perlas, Kilusang Bagong Lipunan's Vetallano Acosta, Liberal Party’s Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, Ang Kapatiran Party’s JC De Los Reyes, Bagumbayan-Volunteers for a New Philippines’s Richard Gordon, independent candidate Jamby Madrigal, Lakas-Kampi-CMD’s Gilbert Teodoro, Bangon Pilipinas Party Bro. Eddie Villanueva and Nacionalista Party’s Manny Villar.

Meanwhile, the petition filed by Pamatong against President Arroyo was also junked by the second division.

In the second division's resolution, it stated: “The Commission (Second Division) refuses to be a tool for parvenuistic desires of some individuals, whose only intention is to highlight and aggrandize their own personal circumstances of a litigant. It is a waste of our precious time, and will only serve to clog the dockets of this Commission.”

The second division, which came out with the rulings versus Estrada, composes of commissioner Lucenito Tagle, Nicodemo Ferrer, and Elias Yusoph.

Cloud of doubt

The Pwersa ng Masa (PMP) standard bearer said the poll body’s decision has lifted the cloud of doubt hanging on his presidential bid.

“Now the people know that it is all systems go for my candidacy in the May elections,” he added.

He said: “Nothing in this world makes me happier than serving the Filipino people. So I am grateful to the Lord -- and to the Comelec -- for granting me the opportunity to serve the people again. This victory is not mine, but a victory of our people and our democracy. Finally it is settled, as sovereignty emanates from no less than the people, in this matter of choosing our next president.”

“This date of the promulgation of this decision saying that, I, Joseph Estrada, am qualified to run for president is significant to me personally because it was exactly on this day nine years ago, January 20, 2001 when the honor to serve the Filipino people as president was stolen from me. Today the opportunity to serve has been returned and it seems as if I am being told that I need to complete the mission that my administration started in 1998,” he further stated.

Erap’s running mate, Makati mayor Jejomar Binay, also welcomed the Comelec decision even as he said the disqualification petition lacked merit.

“The decision should put to rest all questions on President Erap’s eligibility to run and his determination to serve the masses as the next President of the republic,” Binay said.

“In the past months, President Erap has been the victim of misinformation and intrigues being peddled by those who feel threatened by the growing support for his candidacy. The Comelec ruling, and the decision of the Supreme Court issued last Tuesday, bodes well for the campaign,” he added.

Comelec’s ruling followed a decision by the Supreme Court (SC) order dismissing the motion for reconsideration filed by Eligio Mallari on behalf of the Vanguard of the Philippine Constitution, Inc. (VPCI).

The High Court said the petition was not only premature but also lacked enough legal arguments to back the allegations.

“I firmly believe this SC decision would be indicative of the thinking of the magistrates since the only issue at bar, should a case be filed with the Commission on Elections (Comelec), is whether or not Estrada is succeeding himself,” Binay said.

“Let this decision serve as a fair notice to all parties. You cannot anchor any case on bad arguments or faulty legal precepts. Moreover, the law cannot be bent to suit the desires of the powerful to bar a legitimate aspirant from seeking to hold the country’s highest elective post,” he added.

In its decision, the High Tribunal argued that Mallari’s plea was misplaced “since the proper body to resolve the matter was the Comelec... Only after the matter has been resolved could Mallari and VPCI elevate the matter to the SC.”

Binay, a graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Law and a human rights lawyer before, during and after Martial Law, said the High Tribunal should be spared from cases like the one Mallari had filed.

According to him, Mallari’s recourse was not a motion for reconsideration with the High Court.

The vice presidential aspirant said that since the motion for reconsideration could not marshal the legal theory and jurisprudence to buttress its allegations, the SC had no other recourse but to dismiss it with finality.

Mallari, however, argued that since Estrada was elected president in 1998, he could not be eligible for reelection.

Binay also explained that Estrada was not running for reelection since the term itself means the incumbent Chief Executive is on the ballot and is seeking to succeed himself.

He stressed that Estrada was unjustly removed in January 2001 and then Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took over Malacanang, thus he is not running for a second consecutive term. (AH/Kathrina Alvarez/Sunnex)