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Poe must settle qualification issues before court, Comelec –legal experts

No matter how many times she dominates preferential surveys, it's still Sen. Grace Poe's residency and citizenship qualifications that would make or break her possible 2016 presidential bid, according to two law experts.

Former UP law dean Pacifico Agabin and litigation expert Raymond Fortun agree that Poe first has to prove—either before the courts or the Commission on Elections (Comelec)—that she is a natural-born Filipino citizen and has been a resident of the Philippines for at least 10 years before the 2016 polls.

They stressed that Poe, a neophyte senator, must first hurdle probable disqualification cases before the Comelec and the Supreme Court before her popularity could translate into valid votes.

Fortun said popularity in preferential surveys is not enough to ensure Poe's victory in case she decides to run for higher office next May.

Poe topped the latest presidential contenders surveys of both Pulse Asia and the Social Weather Stations, in which she was ahead of her closest rival, Vice President Jejomar Binay, both by eight percentage points.

"Qualifications to run for the presidency is enshrined in the Constitution. I am certain that the courts will not be moved to favor an unqualified candidate regardless of competence, integrity or popularity," he said.

The qualifications Fortun was referring to are specified under Article VII, Section 2 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which requires a presidential candidate to be natural-born citizen and a resident of the Philippines for at least 10 years immediately preceding such election.

Agabin, for his part, believed that Poe's popularity in the surveys would be rendered "useless" if she eventually gets disqualified over her residency or citizenship qualifications.

"So those issues still need to be settled if she intends to file her certificate of candidacy in October," Agabin said.

Like Fortun, Agabin said questions on Poe's qualifications are best threshed out in the proper forum. For Fortun, it's before the courts, but for Agabin, it's before the Comelec after she filed her certificate of candidacy (COC).

Agabin, however, lamented that when it comes down to filling out their ballots, voters are most likely to overlook the issues plaguing Poe's residency and citizenship. "They are not interested in legal technicalities," he said.

In a separate radio interview over the weekend, Agabin, who is also the general counsel of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, stressed that Poe should have renounced her US citizenship at least 10 years before seeking higher office.

Poe, a foundling adopted by movies stars Fernando Poe Jr and Susan Roces, grew up in the Philippines but later pursued college in the US, where she later found a job and acquired dual citizenship.

Poe has insisted she has met the 10-year residency rule because she returned to the country in 2004 after her father passed away.  She, however, did not renounce her US citizenship until 2010, when she was appointed to the Movie and Television Review Classification Board.

As late as 2009, she was still using her US passport to travel to and from the Philippines, according to Immigration records. Some legal experts have earlier said the count of her residency should begin in 2010 when she renounced her US citizenship.

Poe, however, insisted her residency count should begin in April 2006, when she was finally able to sell their family's house in the US and buy another one in the Philippines. It was this date that was in her mind when Poe filled out in October 2012 her certificate of candidacy for the 2013 senatorial race.

But Fortun emphasized the need for Poe to still prove that she had made an "equivocal act" to re-acquire her roots in the Philippines.

"Whether that equivocal act needs to be a renouncing of her US citizenship or the purchase of land in the Philippines is for the courts to decide," said Fortun.

"But definitely, she herself knew that her residency was interrupted - otherwise, she would not have written '6 years, 6 months' as her years of residency when she filed her candidacy in October 2012," he added.

This was the part in Poe's COC that United Nationalist Alliance spokesman Toby Tiangco cited as reason for Poe's automatic non-qualification in the May 2016 presidential polls. —KBK, GMA News