Feisty Philippine politician who almost won presidency dies

Former Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago passed away on Thursday morning after battling lung cancer. She was 71.
Former Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago passed away on Thursday morning after battling lung cancer. She was 71. PHOTO: PHILIPPINES DAILY INQUIRER/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

MANILA - A prominent Filipino politician who ran twice for president and was known for saucy quotes as “I eat death threats for breakfast” died on Thursday (Sept 29) morning.  She was 71.

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a three-term senator, died of lung cancer at 8.52am, her husband, lawyer Narciso Santiago, announced. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in 2014.

“She died peacefully in her sleep this morning,” said Mr Santiago. 

President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a news briefing: “She was a shining light in Philippine political annals for her sharp legal mind and uncompromising stand and acid humour.:

“Her passing also signals the passing of an era of politicians with wide-ranging intelligence and the courage to express their true convictions,” said Mr Abella.

Ms Santiago first ran for president in 1992, but she lost to former defence minister Fidel Ramos, amid allegations of fraud.

Her supporters would later keep repeating the quote, “Miriam won in the elections, but lost in the counting.”

She ran again for president this year.  But obvious signs of her deteriorating health hampered her campaign.  She ended last in a field of five candidates that former mayor Rodrigo Duterte topped.

Ms Santiago, a former judge and a gun enthusiast, had been known for her acerbic tongue that inspired both fear and loathing from her political opponents.

She has called congressmen who opposed her “moral retardates” and “fungus-faced”, and had a congressional witness ejected simply because “he was looking at me in a provocative way”.

Her other colourful derisions: “political cockroaches”, “miserable intellectual amoebas”, and “men of monumental littleness”.

She has declared: “Yes, I am intellectually arrogant. All intellectuals are entitled to be arrogant. That’s the only way they can educate the non-intellectual.”

Ms Santiago’s rise to political prominence began after then President Corazon Aquino appointed her head of the graft-ridden immigrations commission in 1988.

She quickly took on criminal syndicates preying on overstaying foreigners and running passport scams and paedophile rings, including the Yakuza.

When asked if she was not afraid of threats to her life, she said in an interview, “I eat death threats for breakfast.”

She then called a congressman who challenged her anti-crime drive “fungus-faced”.

In 1991, she formed her own party and ran for president. She led canvassing for the first five days, but a string of power outages struck the country. When the tabulation ended, Mr Ramos had come up on top.

Ms Santiago won a seat at the Senate in 1995, her first of three terms.

She authored the most number of laws in Philippine history during her stint.

Ms Santiago weathered criticism when she ran for president this year (2016) with former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son and namesake of the late dictator who ruled the Philippines for over two decades.

She had stood with prominent anti-Marcos protesters when she was a judge in 1985, declaring: “Even under martial law, when the judge steps in, the president steps out.”