Lessons from Bamban

By James Jimenez

In a revelation that surprised no one, the National Bureau of Investigation confirmed that, Alice Guo – the mayor of Bamban, Tarlac – is, in fact, a Chinese citizen. This revelation has led to some on social media asking why foreign nationals are prohibited from holding elective positions in the Philippines, as in most democratic nations. While a lot of these questions are probably coming from agents provocateur, there nevertheless exists the possibility that the under-informed among us might be seduced by the faulty logic, and end up questioning the wisdom of prohibiting foreigners from participating in elections – not just as external influencers but also as candidates themselves.

The Legal Framework

Foreign nationals are barred from holding elective positions to ensure that the country and its people have the undivided loyalty of the elected official. As is often said, a person cannot serve two masters. Thus, our Constitution explicitly requires the President, the Vice-President, Senators, and Members of the House of Representatives to be natural-born citizens of the Philippines. Lower level officials, on the other hand, are also required to be citizens but may merely be naturalized Filipinos. In either case, the rules stipulate rather strictly that dual citizens – that is, individuals who hold citizenships of two countries concurrently – are required to renounce their other citizenship before they are allowed to run for office.

The Dangers of Foreign Intervention

As a matter of first principles, foreign intervention in elections is a significant threat to a country’s sovereignty. This intervention can take many forms, including giving financial support to a candidate, conducting propaganda campaigns for or against a candidate, or – as seen in Bamban, Tarlac – foreigners masquerading as Filipinos. Failing to protect against any of these vectors of intervention opens the door to numerous risks, foremost of which is conflict of interest.

Foreign nationals may have divided loyalties, and once ensconced in power, are likely to use that power to benefit their compatriots, to the detriment of the interests of their Filipino constituents. As we are seeing in the case of Bamban, Tarlac, having a Chinese national as a mayor has allowed gambling operations, mostly run by Chinese to operate unchecked in the area. While in some cases, these gambling operations are technically legal, it cannot be denied that their presence has led to the spiking of crime rates – including the proliferation of illegal gambling operations.

Equally insidious is the possibility that foreign nationals holding elected office in the Philippines could be beholden to the economic interests of their country. Apart from gambling, these interests are known to include prostitution, the drug trade, and the exploitation of natural resources like logging, quarrying, and mining. Not to put too fine a point on it, allowing foreign interests to dominate in these fields excludes Filipinos economically and puts the natural resources of the country at considerable jeopardy.

And of course, as we have seen in the fall out of Alice Guo’s exposure, the presence of foreign nationals in elective positions erodes the integrity of the electoral process. Because it was unable to prevent Guo from running for office, the Commission on Elections has been thrust into the position of having to defend the legitimacy of its actions and of Philippine elections in general. This has led some to unfairly question the ability of the COMELEC to administer orderly elections, and contributed to the disillusionment of many voters.

The Case of Alice Guo

Alice Guo’s tenure as mayor of Bamban has brought these issues into sharp focus. Her recently confirmed Chinese citizenship is a stark reminder of the importance of thorough vetting processes for candidates running for public office, while exposing a massive vulnerability in a legal system that has not empowered the COMELEC to perform such vetting.

Clearly, the time is ripe for the nation’s officialdom to stop all the hand-wringing they’ve been doing since Alice Guo’s case came to light.

First thing’s first: remove Guo from office, via a quo warranto proceeding. All the officials wanting to get a soundbite on the evening news should just stop telegraphing that move in the media and just go ahead and do it.

Second, start the conversation about legislating out the vulnerabilities baked into our election laws. They can start with Section 76 of the Omnibus Election Code which provides for the ministerial duty of the COMELEC to receive Certificates of Candidacy. The Supreme Court, in Cipriano v. COMELEC (10 August 2004) ensured that this would be the entry point for all sorts of undesirables: “The duty of the COMELEC to give due course to certificates of candidacy filed in due form is ministerial in character. While the Commission may look into the patent defects in the certificates. It may not go into matters not appearing on their face. The question of eligibility or ineligibility of a candidate is thus beyond the usual and proper cognizance of said body.”

And third, the COMELEC should take steps to more aggressively educating the public about the importance of vigilance and of taking action when they see something amiss. There are far too many instances of people complaining about ineligible persons wanting to run for office, and far too few attempts to actually hold these people to account.

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