News: Puno launches Moral Force Movement

abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak: Early last year, Chief Justice Reynato Puno was chosen as chairman of the Council for Moral Revolution, a brainchild of former Arroyo ally Jose de Venecia Jr.. Puno eschewed De Venecia’s proposition as he did not want the independence of his office compromised.

“I wish to thank you and the others for electing me in absentia as Chairman of the Council for Moral Revolution…While I agree with the need for moral transformation of all of us, I regret to decline the position in view of the inhibitions of my office as Chief Justice,” Puno wrote the former speaker of the House of Representatives.

However, on Monday, Puno launched the “Moral Force Movement” (MFM) to a cheering crowd of students, religious organizations, and members of the judiciary.

One reason for his sudden turnabout is the fact that the MFM has no politician in the group. Puno tapped civic and religious leaders instead to be the convenors of the movement.

The MFM core group is composed of the following personalities:

  • Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) chair Henrietta de Villa;
  • Far Eastern University (FEU) Law school Dean Andres Bautista;
  • retired Brigadier General Jaime Echeverria, president and chair of the Association of Generals and Flag Officers (AGFO);
  • Dr. Milwida Guevara, one of the leaders of the Movement for Good Governance (MGG);
  • Emerito Nacpil, retired bishop of the United Methodist Church of the Philippines from 1980-2000;
  • Marixi Prieto, chair of the Philippine Daily Inquirer;
  • Noorain Sabdula, one of the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines in 2008;
  • Monsignor Gerardo Santos, president of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP) and executive secretary of the Episcopal Commission on Catechesis and Catholic Education of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

Puno for president?

But with only three months left before the deadline for the filing of the certificate of candidacy for the 2010 elections, speculations will inevitably crop up that Puno’s moral force is actually a vehicle for his impending presidential campaign.

De Villa, however, belied the MFM would support eventually support Puno for president. “It’s (MFM) not pushing for Chief Justice Puno. We’re pushing for moral values,” she told abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak in an earlier phone interview.

De Villa added that the MFM, while open to support from other groups, is cautious in engaging other organizations openly endorsing candidates in next year’s elections.

FEU’s Bautista said that if Puno decides to throw his hat into the political ring, he will have to disengage from the MFM.

Puno has sought to convince the public that he has no political ambition. He said in his speech on Monday that a “social movement, not a political movement” is the panacea to the country’s problems.

MFM not apolitical

The MFM describes itself as “neither pro- nor anti- administration, but it is not apolitical and neutral since it will stand up for political righteousness.”

Its objective is to see “transformational leadership” in 2010 through a voter’s education program. MGG’s Guevara said that their main benchmark for the credibility of candidates is their track record – how many promises they kept, how many they broke.

The focus will not be on specific issues, such as the debate on the reproductive health (RH) bill, for instance, or charter change. The MFM core group and its members have their own views about these.

Santos, in particular, led the CEAP in an interfaith rally against charter change in 2008. He also signed an ad on CEAP’s objection to the RH bill.

With limited funds, the MFM will bank on the strength of volunteerism to achieve its goals and implement its programs.

PDI’s Prieto said that in case they have to seek help from other organizations, it will not be in exchange for anything since they do not want to be “indebted” to anybody.

The MFM has started to gather possible volunteers. On Monday, it made the attendees during the launch sign a “commitment slip” to MFM.

They were asked what help they could offer, from something as specific as becoming a PPCRV, MGG, or NAMFREL (National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections) volunteer to something as general as not electing anyone “who bribes, cheats, lies, nor tolerate anyone who does.”

Impropriety

An incumbent chief justice’s involvement with a movement is not without potential controversy since it could raise questions of impropriety.

However, Atty. Marlon Manuel, coordinator of the Alternative Law Group, believes there is nothing wrong with having a chief justice mobilize people to push for better governance.

“He also heads a branch of the government,” Manuel said, which means it’s also his duty to push for reforms.

A Court of Appeals (CA) justice, who asked not to be named, said that it is unlikely that judges will see something wrong with the chief justice’s work with the MFM, including the involvement of religious organizations in the movement.

He said there is nothing wrong if Puno cites the need for a moral force. Religious organizations are also free to back him up.

FEU’s Bautista said Puno is merely exercising his duties as a citizen.

“First, you have to look at Chief Justice Reynato Puno…He is also a citizen like you and me,” he said.

The MFM has emphasized that “Chief Justice Reynato Puno convened the Moral Force Movement as a private citizen concerned about the deterioration of Philippine society.”

Puno should inhibit?

If the leaders and members of the MFM are involved in cases that are before or are brought to the SC, one query that could come is: should Puno inhibit himself?

This issue could come up in the case of PDI’s Prieto. Her family’s company, the Sunvar Realty Development Corp., was recently sued by the Office of the Solicitor General for allegedly using the land formerly owned by the National Power Corp. (NPC) in Makati City.

The case is pending at the Makati Regional Trial Court. In case it reaches the SC, Prieto believes that it would not raise questions of impropriety on Puno.

“The MFM is a movement, it’s not about personalities,” she told abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Dean Antonio La Viña, head of the MFM secretariat, told abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak that everything has to be done by the rules. He said there is really no clear cut rule on inhibition. He said “the strategy is to stay away from issues that could come to the court or to stay above the fray.”

Bautista believes Puno will do the right thing if and when these issues come up before the Supreme Court. “If and when such an occasion arises, he will know what to do,” he said.

But Vincent Lazatin, convenor of the Supreme Court Appointments Watch, took a different viewpoint.

“It is wise for the chief justice to inhibit,” he said, as his “special relationship” with the group amounts to identifiable ties.

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