At 90, Enrile a bundle of contradictions

Will Juan Ponce Enrile survive the latest controversy associated to his name?

BETTER TIMES. Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile reached a record high in his popularity during the Corona impeachment trial, only to be embroiled in a corruption scandal two years later. File photo by Voltaire Domingo

MANILA, Philippines – In 2012, Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile was the toast of the town. As presiding judge of the Corona impeachment trial, he was a superstar for the Inquirer, a rock star for legal buffs, and one of the country’s most popular officials. 

Two years later, Enrile reaches another milestone as he turned 90 on Friday, February 14, but under a starkly different political climate. He is again front and center of the news, this time for his alleged involvement in the worst corruption scandal in recent Philippine history.

The plunder complaint over the pork barrel scam derailed what pundits called Enrile’s political resurrection as a brilliant, astute judge in the impeachment. Two years before retirement, he faces allegations of pocketing millions of pesos in taxpayers’ money meant for infrastructure and development projects. (READ: Pork Tales: A story of corruption

Ironically, his age and experience – for which he was praised during the trial – are now ridiculed in a derisive nickname: Tanda. (READ: 10 things you may not know about JPE)

The scam is the latest chapter in the colorful life of a man who lived through 6 presidents, 4 Senate terms, 19 election campaigns, 48 years in government in a cycle of rise-fall-reinvention. Will he survive the latest controversy associated with his name?

To colleagues, observers and critics, the pork barrel scam shows that Enrile’s political life remains a bundle of contradictions. 

LOSING POLLS. Enrile's political heir, former Cagayan Rep Jack Enrile (right), became a casualty of his father's unpopularity at the height of the Senate fund controversy. File photo by Joe Arazas/Senate PRIB

Hubris, opening old wounds

Reviled for being martial law administrator, the top legal adviser of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and architect of alleged poll fraud, Enrile reached a record high in satisfaction ratings during the Corona trial. In the March 2012 Social Weather Stations survey, he even bested President Benigno Aquino III’s score.

Yet his political fortune again changed even pre-Napoles.

Former Senator Rene Saguisag, who was in the Cory Aquino Cabinet and post-EDSA Senate with Enrile, told Rappler that the slump started with the controversial memoirs Enrile released shortly after the impeachment.

Aba eh, ano ba itong sinasabi ni Manong? Kasi ang alam natin noong February 22, 1986, sinabi niyang peke ang ambuscade. Aba, pagdating doon ay totoo raw!”

(What is Manong saying? Because we all know that on February 22, 1986, he said his ambush was faked. Then in his book, he said it’s true!)

Saguisag is referring to the former defense minister’s recantation of his statement that his September 1972 ambush was staged. Marcos cited the ambush to justify declaring martial law. Enrile revealed the fake ambush when he and then Constabulary chief Fidel V. Ramos led a revolt against Marcos that triggered the 1986 People Power revolution.

Like Saguisag, others who lived through the 70s and 80s took exception to Enrile’s book and called it “revisionist history.” 

Pwede nating sabihing sinungaling o pwede ring gamitin ang ginamit ni Winston Churchill, ‘You have committed terminological inexactitudes,” Saguisag quipped. (We can say he is lying or use the euphemism of Winston Churchill.)

Just months later, Enrile again drew flak for giving P1.6 million in Senate funds each to 18 allies but only P250,000 to 4 critics. Known as the Senate fund controversy, the episode culminated in an ugly exchange with Senator Alan Peter Cayetano where Enrile infamously brought up the supposed debts of Cayetano’s late father.

From impeachment highs, Enrile suffered the biggest decline in surveys. The fallout contributed to the loss of his son and political heir, former Cagayan Representative Jack Enrile, in the 2013 senatorial polls. Only 3 candidates of Enrile’s opposition slate made it to the chamber, and he eventually resigned the Senate leadership.

The younger Enrile has his own controversial past, having been linked to the mysterious death of celebrity Alfie Anido in 1981.

Saguisag said, “’Yung kay Alfie Anido at sa libro, that hurt the campaign of Jackie. Maybe kung wala ang libro, wala ang isyu, baka hindi nabuhay. Hinukay ang old issues na ganoon eh. The book started it. Talagang shall we say hubris, nakarma?”

(The death of Alfie Andio and the book, those hurt the campaign of Jackie. Maybe without the book and all these issues, that wouldn’t have been brought up. The book revived these issues. Maybe it’s hubris, karma?)

START OF DECLINE. Enrile timed the release of his memoirs after his popularity post-Corona trial. Yet observers say the old wounds the book opened triggered his political downfall. File photo by Joe Arazas/Senate PRIB

Gigi Reyes and ‘Super Typhoon Miriam’

Now a respondent in the pork barrel scam case, Enrile again stirs contradiction, particularly about the role of his co-accused and chief of staff of 25 years, lawyer Jessica Lucila “Gigi” Reyes. (READ: ‘The Boss’ and Gigi Reyes)

Enrile’s lawyer Enrique dela Cruz stopped short of blaming Reyes for endorsing fake NGOs, only for his client to later vouch for her innocence. Amid questions about Reyes’ authority to sign documents on her boss’ behalf, netizens pointed to Enrile’s own words following her resignation in January 2013.

“I delegate my powers to people that I trusted. They can sign checks for me. They can decide for me because they know more or less how I think,” Enrile said then.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, the woman Enrile calls his “obsessive, bitter hater,” used the scam not just to revive rumors of an affair between Enrile and Reyes.

Edna Co, dean of the UP National College of Public Administration and Governance, said the scam also became an opportunity for Santiago to remind the public of old issues against Enrile like his alleged ties to smuggling and anomalous deals in his home province of Cagayan.

“Prior to that, there were murmurs. These were not really something exactly new but it will take only Senator Miriam Santiago to be able to speak it out openly and against him. They’re the nemesis of each other. It’s the perfect time for her to say something about Senator Enrile,” Co told Rappler.

Saguisag joked that Enrile must now regret exposing Santiago’s low bar exam grade of 76 in their early years at the Senate. Enrile placed 11th in the bar, and had a perfect score in commercial law.

“Ayaw lubayan ni Miriam, parang ang dating ay Super Typhoon Miriam eh!” (Miriam won’t stop attacking him, it’s like she is Super Typhoon Miriam!)

 'LOYAL AIDE.' Enrile shares a moment with Gigi Reyes, now his co-accused in the pork barrel scam. Enrile's camp initially distanced him from Reyes, only for him to clear her name. Facebook photo obtained by Rappler

Will Enrile strategy work?

Throughout all the attacks, Enrile often chose to keep quiet and said he will face his accusers in the courtroom. His strategy differs from co-accused Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr, who have been responding through bombastic press conferences and dramatic privilege speeches.

Co said this is quintessential Enrile. “He knows how to make use of his brilliance. He knows where to play his game. He knows how to find his own court where he can best play his game. The legal field is his home ground.”

True enough, the Senate testimony of potential state witness Ruby Tuason showed a persisting challenge for the prosecution: finding a direct link to Enrile. (READ: Enrile lawyer: No direct link to scam)

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, another Enrile enemy, said the former Senate president has a game plan.

“Being a seasoned politician, he knows the turnover of news is quite fast and he’s hoping at some point, this thing will die down and with a new president, especially if he’s an ally, most probably he would be out on bail or this case will be set aside,” he told Rappler. 

It was an obvious reference to Enrile’s partymate, Vice President Jejomar Binay, considered the leading contender in the 2016 presidential polls. This early, Binay already made statements that the justice department saw as discrediting the prosecution.

Yet Trillanes believes Enrile will not recover from the scam.

“This thing is different from all those he faced before. He would be aligned with the incumbent president so that was his secret. But right now, he won’t be able to do that with President Aquino and since he won’t be able to run anymore in 2016, he won’t have that opportunity to claw his way back into power.”

“By 2016, he would be 92. At that advanced stage, I think mortality will take over,” added Trillanes.

LEGAL STRATEGY. Instead of waging a media war, Enrile says he is focusing on his legal strategy in the scam. Scam witness Ruby Tuason was unable to directly link him to the controversy. File photo by Joseph Vidal/Senate PRIB

Hero or villain?

When Enrile steps down in 2016, he will become the oldest Filipino to be senator.

Despite the controversies, Saguisag has a kind view of the nonagenarian. He recalled Enrile’s “crucial defection” from Marcos during the EDSA Revolution, and their vote against retaining the US bases.

“I’d rather judge him by his best so February 22, 1986 and September 16, 1991, when he really was on the right side of history. I flatter myself na kami rin, nasa right side ng ating kasaysayan.” (We, too, were on the right side of our history.)

For Co, Enrile’s reaching the age of 90 as a sitting senator reflects more on Philippine politics and society than on the man.

“We easily forget what other people did. We easily forget history. We don’t have a sense of what went wrong and we’re such a forgiving people,” she said. “But my sense is with the emotions and clamor of the people regarding the scam, the clamor for a transparent and accountable government, this is a positive development.”

Enrile though is confident history will absolve him “in a calmer and kinder social climate.” The man who has become synonymous to political longevity and survival believes he can weather his latest crisis.

The verdict is out on Enrile’s prediction, his fate in the pork barrel scam case, and his place in history. 

“Will you look at him with rose-colored glasses or with a dark shade? If you judge him by his best, he’s really a hero but if you look at the dark side, he’s a villain. He may remain controversial forever or for a long, long time,” Saguisag said. – Rappler.com