MANILA,  February 19, 2004 (STAR) Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire in this rumor-mad town. Which is why many people tend to believe the rumor that the disqualification of Fernando Poe Jr. from the presidential race has boiled down to a question of when. Before or after the elections?

Even before the Supreme Court ruling is known, the nation is already seeing the effects of a likely disqualification. Today Poe’s supporters are forming a "human chain" that will stop at the gates of the Supreme Court, which is deliberating on three petitions to disqualify the actor. All camps are calling for calm and sobriety, but it is a combustible situation.

The question is a constitutional one: Is Poe a natural-born Filipino and therefore qualified to become president? The answer, however, will inevitably be seen as tinged with politics, handed down by a court that has long been perceived as a key reason Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is in Malacañang instead of Joseph Estrada. A ruling against Poe will inevitably be seen as a political response to a constitutional question, particularly because the so-called king of Philippine movies is the front-runner in the presidential race, ahead of closest rival Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Both sides in this controversy have compelling arguments, supported by some of the nation’s brightest legal minds. The jurisprudence that will emerge from this landmark case will be debated long after the elections are over, just as the reasons cited by the Supreme Court for upholding the legitimacy of the Arroyo administration continue to be debated.

In the meantime, the overriding concern of every Filipino is whether the nation can handle the turbulence that is sure to be generated by the disqualification of a candidate who is even more popular than Estrada. The administration must also have an overriding concern: whether Poe’s disqualification will mean votes for President Arroyo, or whether it will arouse so much loathing among his followers that they will make sure she is trounced by whoever becomes the opposition standard-bearer.

Even if the President wins in May, it is reasonable to expect that she won’t get the stability she needs to become a good Chief Executive for six more years, if her victory is due in large part to the disqualification of her strongest rival. The only way she can hope for that stability is if she wins the elections fair and square, with Poe in the race.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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