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SC: People’s welfare is the supreme law

Citing the universal dictum Salus populi suprema est lex (The welfare of the people is the supreme law), the Supreme Court yesterday declared the presidency vacant, paving the way for the transfer of power from Joseph Estrada to Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.


The High Tribunal, voting en banc, declared the president’s office vacant yesterday morning, citing Paragraph 2, Section 11 of Article VII of the Constitution, which provides for a transfer of power when the president is unable to perform his duties.


"This was an extraordinary action in an extraordinary situation," Associate Justice Artemio Panganiban said of the High Court’s unprecedented decision.


Although questioning the legality of Arroyo’s assumption of the presidency, Estrada and members of his family left the Palace about one hour after she was sworn into office by Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. in hastily prepared inaugural rites at the Our Lady of EDSA Shrine in Mandalu-yong City.


During the uncertain hours before the swearing-in, it was Davide who took it upon himself to break the stalemate in the negotiations between the Estrada and Arroyo camps.


Panganiban said Davide called him up at daybreak yesterday authorizing him to announce on radio and television that the Chief Justice was ready to administer the oath of office to the Vice President.


Other justices who heard the announcement promptly reported to the SC to resolve the issue. They were Justices Reynato Puno, Bernardo Pardo, Jose Melo, Jose Vitug, Minerva Gonzaga-Reyes, Arturo Buena, Leonardo Quisumbing, Sabin de Leon Jr., Jose Bellosillo and Vicente Mendoza.


Shortly before the end of their meeting, Associate Justices Angelina Gutierrez, Consuelo Ynares Santiago and Santiago Kapunan, who were out of town, telephoned to give their concurrence to the decision to swear in Arroyo.


The 12 justices then proceeded to EDSA for Arroyo’s oathtaking. The magistrates unanimously ruled that there was legal basis for an immediate turnover of governance under Paragraph 2, Section 11, Article VII of the Constitution.


The paragraph reads: "Whenever a majority of all the members of the Cabinet transmit to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as acting President."


"It is now, as the good book says, a time to heal and a time to build," Arroyo told masses of screaming supporters in her inaugural speech.


Anti-Estrada demonstrators, who kept the flame of their protest burning at the shrine that served as the center stage for a nationwide spontaneous movement to topple the Estrada presidency, cheered wildly and waved flags as she recited her oath.


Legal observers expressed belief that the fallen leader’s reluctance to formally yield his seat to Arroyo was a deliberate move to keep the debates on the legality of her taking over the presidency.


Such suspicions were bolstered when Mr. Estrada issued a press statement a few minutes before he left the Palace, saying he had "strong and serious doubts about the legality and constitutional of her proclamation as president."


He added, however, that he was giving up his post to avoid being an obstacle to the national healing process.


"It is for this reason that I now leave Malacañang Palace for the sake of peace and in order to begin the healing process of our nation," Estrada said.


He called on his supporters to "join me in the promotion of a constructive national spirit of reconciliation and solidarity."


Trying to hide their sadness by smiling and waving to their supporters and cameramen as they left the Palace, Estrada and former First Lady Dr. Luisa Ejercito, along with their children San Juan Mayor Jinggoy Estrada, Jackie Ejercito-Lopez, and Joseph Victor "JV", shook hands with a handful of his Cabinet secretaries who stood by him up to the last hour.


The Cabinet officials who saw the fallen president and his family off were Health Secretary Alberto Romualdez, Labor Secretary Bienvenido Laguesma, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Antonio Cerilles, Public Works and Highways Secretary Gregorio Vigilar and Energy Secretary Mario Tiaoqui.


Palawan City Mayor Edward Hagedorn was also by his side.


Carmelo Santiago, one of Estrada’s close friends, said the former First Family watched Arroyo’s oath-taking on television.


Santiago said Estrada urged those around him to support Arroyo.


Executive Secretary Edgardo Angara, who was appointed to the post barely two weeks ago, said he had drafted a resignation letter for Estrada’s signature, but events had overtaken its signing.


Davide, who sat as presiding officer of the aborted impeachment trial of Estrada, administered the oath on Arroyo, a 53-year-old economist, shortly after noontime at the EDSA Shrine.


Angara, who led Estrada’s negotiating panel, said his boss bargained for a grace period of at least five more days to tie up some loose ends and to allow for a peaceful transition of governance.


He said Arroyo’s emissaries, consisting of her chief of staff lawyer Renato Corona, former Sen. Alberto Romulo, former Batangas Rep. Hernando Perez and former Defense Secretary Renato de Villa, agreed to the five-day "transition period."


But Arroyo would later say in a press conference the negotiations "broke down."


Angara said the SC decision rendered the agreement "moot and academic," and charged that Estrada was not given the chance to give his side on the issue.


Earlier yesterday, four MG-520 Air Force helicopters and fighter jets made "persuasion flights" over Malacañang.


Armed Forces chief Gen. Angelo Reyes and his first deputy, Lt. Gen. Jose Calimlim whose withdrawal of support to the government became the final blow to the Estrada administration, fetched the Estradas and escorted them to a Navy boat moored at the Pasig River.


Brig. Gen. Rodolfo Diaz, commander of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) who has served as Estrada’s security aide over the past 10 years, cried unabashedly at their parting of ways.


As the boat pulled off the wharf, Jinggoy parted the curtains to enable his parents to wave one last goodbye to their supporters. The former leader also saluted members of the PSG.


The vessel took them across the river to the PSG headquarters at the other side where the party boarded a silver van.


Meanwhile, a huge crowd of anti-Estrada protesters who marched all the way from the EDSA Shrine to Mendiola were already dangerously close to the Palace after knocking down the first phalanx of defense set up by the police.

Estrada desperately tried to hang on to power

The opposition camp led by Arroyo charged that Estrada desperately tried to cling to power by asking to be given five to seven more days at the Palace.


"He was definitely a lost cause. So we asked ourselves; ‘Why is he asking for five days to seven days’?" House Minority Leader Feliciano Belmonte Jr. noted.


Belmonte said the united opposition rejected Estrada’s request for being unconstitutional.


Other allies of Estrada who were reportedly at Malacañang as the curtain was being drawn on his leadership were Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Gregorio Honasan, Caloocan City Rep. Luis "Baby" Asistio, former Cavite Gov. Juanito Remulla and Nueva Ecija Gov. Eduardo Joson.


Enrile denied having been at Malacañang since the start of "people power II" Tuesday night.


Belmonte said these people have been encouraging Estrada to stay on as they predicted that the protests would fizzle out in a few days.


He added that the opposition camp also received reports that Estrada was phoning military and police officers to persuade them to restore their support of his leadership.


The opposition leaders concluded that Estrada was stonewalling and marshaling some forces that could confront the burgeoning anti-Estrada crowd at EDSA.


Two other previous proposals of Estrada, made Friday night, were viewed as attempts to stonewall.


The first offer involved the opening of the second sealed envelope containing records of his rich bank deposits under the fictitious name "Jose Velarde," while the second covered his bid to step down effective June 30 this year to pave the way for the takeover of a new president elected in snap presidential poll on May 14.


The opposition rejected both proposals, saying they would not return to the impeachment trial which they branded as "farcical," and that the proposed snap election was unconstitutional.

Estrada goes full circle

"Dito ako sa San Juan nagsimula, dito rin ako babalik (It was here in San Juan where I started, this is where I will return)," Estrada said at the town hall where his colorful political career as a mayor began.


Estrada dropped by the municipal building at 2:45 p.m. on the way to his home on Polk street in the posh Greenhills subdivision in San Juan, from Malacañang, which he may never visit again in his lifetime.


For one reason or another, Estrada die-hard fans got wind of his visit and were on hand to give him a raucous welcome, with placards stating their unwavering support.


"Para sa amin, si
Estrada pa rin ang presidente, hindi si Gloria (For us, Estrada is still the president, not Gloria)," his ardent supporters shouted.


After staying about 20 minutes inside the town hall, Estrada went out to the street to shake hands with his former constituents before boarding his car for the second and final leg of his short journey back home on Polk street.


He entered the house first, followed by Jude and the former First Lady.

Jinggoy said his father had handled the worst crisis in his lifetime quite well.


"He is okay," Jinggoy assured their callers and welcomers.


He recalled that his father spent his final moments at the Palace admiring the things he loved but would have to leave behind, and thanking the household staff for their services, and wishing them the best.


Jinggoy also hinted at the illegitimacy of the Arroyo presidency, saying his father has not officially resigned.


On possible charges that may be lodged against his father, Jinggoy said he was willing to face the music.


The younger Estrada said he may run against his father’s former executive secretary, Ronaldo Zamora, for the congressional seat of San Juan.


On the other hand, JV would vie for the mayoral post of San Juan which Jinggoy would vacate. – With reports from Marichu Villanueva, Jess Diaz, Non Alquitran

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