Longevity not immortality: At 95, Enrile fights for last political comeback

Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 29 2019 09:34 AM | Updated as of Apr 25 2019 05:15 PM

Senatorial candidate Juan Ponce Enrile waves during a motorcade in Antipolo City on March 14, 2019. The 95-year-old former senator is seeking to return to the political limelight this year. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA - At 95, former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile grips the rails of a mini pick-up truck, climbs a 3-step flight of stairs, and boards the vehicle with almost little assistance.

He straightens his orange shirt—emblazoned with his surname—and stretches his shoulders before starting a nearly 2-hour motorcade in Antipolo, the most populous city in the Southern Tagalog region, on March 14.

“I no longer attend rallies anymore and I don't go on a caravan. What I do is I go on a motorcade when there's an opportunity,” Enrile told ABS-CBN News.

“The only difference is I have lessened my posturing,” he added.

What may seem like a physically tolling activity for the elderly is common for the country’s oldest senatorial candidate, whose political career has spanned 7 Philippine presidents.

Enrile is eyeing to return this year to the Senate—a chamber he twice led—but this time he says, only to “ask questions, raise issues, and craft legislation.”

“I’m just going to help and maybe help my colleagues because they are younger,” he said.

Senatorial candidate Juan Ponce Enrile at the Rizal Provincial Capitol, March 14, 2019. The 95-year-old former senator is seeking to return to the political limelight this year. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News


Enrile walked around the Rizal Provincial Capitol grounds in his leather shoes ahead of his motorcade, greeting employees with his trademark spiel “Gusto ko happy ka,” a slogan that secured him his 2010 reelection bid.

Unmindful of the heat, the former defense chief posed for photos and chatted with workers, urging them to send their concerns via social media.

“He’s always on the computer answering questions from people on Facebook,” Sally Moneda, who has served as Enrile's house help for over 3 decades, said in Filipino.

"And when he gets tired, he shifts to his tablet and plays Bejeweled,” she said of the tile-matching game which Enrile used to play during tedious hearings and sessions while he was still senator.

Senatorial candidate Juan Ponce Enrile speaks to a local at the Rizal Provincial Capitol on March 14, 2019. The 95-year-old former senator is seeking to return to the political limelight this year. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

The 95-year-old has no problem standing for hours and only encounters little trouble when coming down a flight of stairs, occasionally gripping on the shoulder of his aide for balance.

“I am fortunate to have received from my Creator a longer time here on earth. That's longevity, not immortality,” he said. “I am not particular about my food, my schedules, I just move on.”

Among the usual items on Enrile’s breakfast spread are pandesal, oatmeal, and sometimes sausages, said Maerivic Gonzales, a member of the former senator’s household for 18 years now.

“He’s not a picky eater. He eats all kinds of food,” she added in Filipino.

For lunch and dinner, the former senator loves to eat vegetables, particularly leafy ones.

“I eat a lot of vegetables—saluyot, malunggay, kangkong, dahon ng sili, dahon ng kamote,” Enrile said, noting that saluyot or jute has helped him best to fight aging.

And the meal that tops the veteran politician’s choices? “My favorite is the Dinengdeng of the Ilocanos.”

He was referring to a bagoong-based soup dish usually made with malunggay and saluyot, and topped with fried or grilled fish.

Aside from a diet heavy on vegetables, Enrile also exercises religiously.

“I work out. I walk. I do my regular exercises everyday, sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes 1 hour,” he said. “I used to walk long distances, I used to jog, I used to swim, I used to play taekwondo, I used to play golf but no more this time.”

His house help added that the nonagenarian does breathing exercises regularly before taking a bath.

“Sir Enrile is very disciplined. He always exercises when he wakes up,” Gonzales said. “I don’t really have to care for him, I only look after him.”

Senatorial candidate Juan Ponce Enrile holds a campaign motorcade in Antipolo City on March 14, 2019. The 95-year-old former senator is seeking to return to the political limelight this year. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

While the campaign trail may take a toll on one’s health, Enrile seems to bask in the business of it all, including the scorching heat of the sun.

“I don't apply anything. I'm used to the heat, exposure to the sun,” he said.

Moneda added that Enrile doesn’t take naps during trips while on the campaign trail.

“Sometimes we tell him to take a nap first during the trip but he always refuses,” she said. “He is the only man I’ve seen that, at 95, remains so sharp.”

Senatorial candidate Juan Ponce Enrile answers questions from the media ahead of a campaign motorcade on March 14, 2019. The 95-year-old former senator is seeking to return to the political limelight this year. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News


Even though he was branded as the architect of martial law—the darkest chapter of Philippine history—Enrile has always managed to stay in the political consciousness of the public, said University of Santo Tomas political analyst Dennis Coronacion.

“That guy is capable of resurrecting. His political career can somehow be described as successful but if you’re already 95, you should have already retired,” Coronacion told ABS-CBN News.

Enrile, who served as defense minister for late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., was first elected to the Senate in 1987. 

He was reelected for a second term in 1995, and in 2004, made a comeback bid for his third Senate term and was reelected for a fourth term in 2010.

He led the legislative chamber twice—first under the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from 2008 to 2010, and again under Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III from 2010 to 2013.

It was under Enrile’s leadership when the Senate first ousted a chief justice, the late Renato Corona, in 2013. Enrile was the 20th senator to convict Corona over the latter's failure to declare his wealth.

Enrile’s time at the Senate wasn’t always smooth-sailing as he faced plunder charges for his alleged role in the multibillion-peso Priority Development Assistance Fund scam along with former Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla.

Then 91, Enrile in 2015 was released on bail for humanitarian reasons, with the Supreme Court citing his poor health in ruling in his favor.

Estrada was also released on bail in September 2017, while Revilla was acquitted in December 2018 on plunder charges and is out on bail on separate graft charges. 

All three are seeking a return to the Senate in the midterm elections. 

Despite being pork-tainted, Enrile was in the 16th to 18th bracket in a February Pulse Asia survey on senatorial preferences which also saw Revilla in the 8th to 13th bracket, and Estrada in the 10th to 15th bracket.

“It just goes to show that Filipino voters don’t give high regard for corruption-related issues. It shows that we are still personality-based voters,” Coronacion said.

A recent Social Weather Stations survey, meanwhile, showed that resistance to corruption was the top trait that Filipino voters were looking for in senatorial candidates. 

Coronacion said Enrile should have deferred from seeking a political comeback, a move he described as an “insult to our intelligence” since the veteran politician could have passed on the reins of lawmaking to younger ones.

“The only reason why he will run again at 95 is because of an unfinished business. Probably, he just wants to die a powerful man. Once you’ve been accustomed to power, you won’t be willing to give it up,” he said.

Enrile downplayed his chances of winning again, posturing himself as a neophyte seeking his first elective post. This despite the fact that winning on May 13 would mean a fifth Senate term and, as he claims, his last.

“I was never confident in anything. I just do the best I can and I pray. If I don’t win, I'll go to my province and spend my time in my beach house there,” he said.

Winning again would mean serving a 6-year term, one he would finish at 101. 

“This is my last. I will not run again. This is the last.”