ONE can’t help comparing lately the performance of Presidents Trump and Duterte. The US economy in the second quarter is doing great with its 4.1 percent growth and 3.9 percent employment rate. And some manufacturing jobs benefiting Trump’s political base have been coming back.

On the other hand, Philippine economic growth projected for 2018 is relatively steady at 6.7 percent and employment rates have gone down to 5.4 percent in the second quarter. Inflation, though high, is manageable. According to Cielito Habito (PDI, September 11, 2018) these are solid numbers that should give relief.

But Trump and DU30 have been fixated by matters that distract both from what are important and could have been passed on as “feel-good” narratives, driving positive news cycles in the two countries.

Trump, besieged by the investigation into the collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia that undermined the 2016 election and his legitimacy, can’t seem to extract himself from his daily tweets on the subject. And lately an op-ed article in the New York Times written by an anonymous top government official, possibly within his coterie, claiming a “resistance group” in the White House, has driven him to paranoia. His state of mind has impelled him to make careless decisions on government policies.

Meanwhile in Manila, a series of episodes has triggered a media firestorm displacing both dire and good economic news from the headlines. Senator Trillanes baited the President by calling for a Senate investigation into two of his ardent and loyal functionaries: the alleged unethical anomalous government contracts of a security company owned by Solicitor General Calida; and the alleged preferential treatment of the family of Davao billionaire Bong Go with government construction contracts. Both reek of possible corruption. The President, who puts a premium on loyalty, responded in character and took the bait.

SolGen Calida, perhaps to pre-empt the Senate investigations, dug some dirt on the senator and found evidence alleging that the senator, who was imprisoned for years for fomenting a failed coup d’état, was anomalously absolved and freed by his patron, former president PNoy. Amnesty Proclamation 75 in 2010 was defective ab initio, the SolGen claimed. It will be recalled that the same strategy was successfully used by Calida to boot out Chief Justice Sereno, on somewhat similar grounds.

Subsequently, DU30’s Proclamation 572 revoking PNoy’s Proclamation 75 was signed. Trillanes was to be arrested while the President was conveniently abroad, confident perhaps that the execution would be flawless without the proverbial “s**t hitting the fan.” But as it turned out, indeed, it did!

The Deegong was singularly impulsive in confronting his bete noire, Trillanes, in a zero-sum game, when the prudent strategy would have been to emulate President Cory’s class act against her VP Doy Laurel in 1987 — brush him off like an irritant fly. Instead, the Deegong had to indulge Trillanes who was more than happy to regain the limelight, revitalized the yellow army and newly gained adherents. In trying to reverse an amnesty on a whim, a precedent was established that could produce a chilling effect on ex-military coup plotters and rebels who came back to the fold of the law.

Both the Donald and the Deegong are faced with mid-term elections that are traditionally a referendum on their watch and could alter the power dynamics that could be noxious for both. In the US, the Democrats could capture the majority in Congress, endangering the Republicans’ hold on the Senate. This could lead to the impeachment of Trump.

Ordinary citizens can’t help but wonder, why President Duterte had to act impetuously. He needs to refocus on the challenges confronting the country today in a more circumspect and sensible manner. And problems are piling up. For one, it is not too late for the President to mitigate the high inflation rates with the help of Congress and the recalibration of his economic policies. We also have a dangerously depleted rice buffer to feed the population during anticipated destructive typhoons that could wipe out our palay granaries in the north, not to mention the displacement of large segments of population along the path of these recurring disasters. These are immediate problems demanding immediate solutions.

There is however one single issue to be addressed before the mid-term elections that could change the profile of the second half of his administration.

His cherished agenda to revise the 1987 Cory Constitution rests on the whims of a recalcitrant Senate to dance to his Cha-cha tune. A two-thirds vote of the Senate is needed to reconstitute Congress into a constituent assembly to revise the Constitution. This mid-term election presents an opportunity for him to alter the incoming Senate profile. The usual method which DU30 is wont to do is to put up his own candidates to do his bidding. However, those in his initial stable of candidates for the Senate, while true loyalists, are mostly dull personalities, in contrast to what the Filipino voters have been used to — traditional politicians with branded names, actors, comedians and celebrities.

He may have to rely on the experienced, winnable, second-termer senators brazenly allied with PDP Laban, his party that he allowed to fragment. But this could turn out to be a pact with the devil. These traditional politicians are not that dependable, and the President may find himself and his agenda hostage to their whims.

But applying his vaunted powers now and the billions of pork at his disposable, he may yet creatively buy his way to Charter revisions by changing drastically the profile of the incoming Senate. He may have to apply the old Marcosian formula: “…use persuasion as the default mode, buy them off, if the first approach is ineffective, add intimidation as a clencher. If all fails, terminate….” The last alternative of course is totally unacceptable in a democratic and morally driven society.

Often, the second step is enough. Under this dysfunctional unitary presidential system and traditional political practices, these people are cheap before election. And expensive after they sit in office.

Thus, a fallback position for the Deegong must be negotiated. Short of Charter revision, he can opt for real political reforms. Among the most critical: a) the political party and government subsidy; b) passage of freedom of information act, both still pending in both chambers; c) real electoral reforms to address vote-buying and the perversion of the electoral process; and d) an iron-clad guarantee to pass an anti-political dynasty act. (TMT column, August 8, 2018)

Charter revisions and the shift to a federal-parliamentary system inexorably dislodged from the priority of importance by the myopic exigencies of the election cycle should now be relegated as long-term targets, awaiting the second half of DU30’s term and beyond.

But his success on this medium-term endeavor will mark DU30 as a true stateman while he bides his time shaping and clearing the way for his avatar and heir apparent Sara. All these are on the assumption, of course, that no drastic alternative revolutionary ideas will intervene before midterm.
The Senate President crowed yesterday that the party he nominally coheads, PDP-Laban, has a “pleasant problem” — too many potential senatorial candidates. Koko Pimentel’s estimate is they have up to 20 possible choices for the 12-person slate for the 2019 senatorial race. But his list includes the five administration-affiliated senatorial incumbents up for reelection next year. This is a group that has made noises that, much as it prefers to remain in the administration camp, it is unhappy with the way PDP-Laban has been designating its local leaders and candidates, and therefore prefers to strike out on its own, perhaps in alliance with the other administration (regional) party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago, headed by the President’s daughter and current Davao City mayor, Sara Duterte.

Setting aside, then, the five-person “Force,” the administration-oriented but not PDP-friendly reelectionists (Nancy Binay, Sonny Angara, Cynthia Villar, Grace Poe, and JV Ejercito), what Koko’s crowing over is a mixed bag. Some of them have been floated by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez (with whom Mayor Duterte clashed in recent months): six representatives (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who is in her last term in the House of Representatives; Albee Benitez, Karlo Nograles, Rey Umali, Geraldine Roman, and Zajid Mangudadatu), three Cabinet members (Bong Go, Harry Roque, and Francis Tolentino), and two other officials (Mocha Uson and Ronald dela Rosa), which still only adds up to 11 possible candidates (who are the missing three?).

Of all of these, the “Force” reelectionists are only fair-weather allies of the present dispensation; their setting themselves apart is about much more than the mess PDP-Laban made in, say, San Juan where support for the Zamoras makes it extremely unattractive for JV Ejercito to consider being in the same slate. Their cohesion is about thinking ahead: Creating the nucleus for the main coalition to beat in the 2022 presidential election. The contingent of congressmen and congresswomen who could become candidates for the Senate, however, seems more a means to kick the Speaker’s rivals upstairs (at least in the case of Benitez and Arroyo) and pad the candidates’ list with token but sacrificial candidates, a similar situation to the executive officials being mentioned as possible candidates (of the executive officials, only Go seems viable, but making him run would deprive the President of the man who actually runs the executive department, and would be a clear signal that the administration is shifting to a post-term protection attitude instead of the more ambitious system-change mode it’s been on, so far).

Vice President Leni Robredo has been more circumspect, saying she’s not sure the Liberal Party can even muster a full slate. The party chair, Kiko Pangilinan, denied that a list circulating online (incumbent Bam Aquino, former senators Mar Roxas, Jun Magsaysay, TG Guingona, current and former representatives Jose Christopher Belmonte, Kaka Bag-ao, Edcel Lagman, Raul Daza, Gary Alejano and Erin Tañada, former governor Eddie Panlilio and Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña) had any basis in fact.

What both lists have in common is they could be surveys-on-the-cheap, trial balloons to get the public pulse. Until the 17th Congress reconvenes briefly from May 14 to June 1 for the tail end of its second regular session (only to adjourn sine die until the third regular session begins on July 23), it has nothing much to do. Except, that is, for the barangay elections in May, after a last-ditch effort by the House to postpone them yet again to October failed.

Names can be floated but the real signal will come in July, when the President mounts the rostrum and calls for the big push for a new constitution—or not. Connected to this would be whether the Supreme Court disposes of its own chief, which would spare the Senate—and thus, free up the legislative calendar—to consider Charter change instead of an impeachment trial. In the meantime, what congressmen do seem abuzz over is an unrefusable invitation to the Palace tomorrow — to mark Arroyo’s birthday. An event possibly pregnant with meaning.
In politics there’s no such thing as being too big to fail. Ruling coalitions become ruling parties, at which point being bloated often results in a party split, as factions lose out in the jockeying and sense an opportunity to strike out — and strike back — by forming rival coalitions to contest the next election. In regional terms, the Visayas (Cebu in particular, with Pusyon Bisaya) and Mindanao (with the Mindanao Alliance) have their own tradition of regional parties standing up to Marcos’ KBL: even PDP-Laban traces its origins to that era. Regional barons don’t take well to being bossed around, and if a boss gets too big for his britches, a revolt is inevitable. This is why everyone seems to be expecting Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez to fall, the beneficiary of his toppling being Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but the cause being widely attributed to Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio’s sharp-tongued confrontation with him.

The clash between the mayor of Davao and the representative from the first district of Davao del Norte has been framed as a battle royale between the Speaker’s machinery and everyone else, under the umbrella of the President’s daughter. The Speaker’s take-no-prisoners approach most famously took on the President’s former patron, Antonio Floirendo Jr., with the President weighing in on the Speaker’s side after Floirendo supposedly was too uppity in response to the President’s efforts to smooth things over. But if it was necessary to teach Floirendo a lesson, it seems the time has come to teach Alvarez one, too, not least because a Floirendo-led effort to defeat the Speaker in 2019 is widely expected to succeed. But it is bigger than that as the presence of Sen. JV Ejercito at the launching of Duterte-Carpio’s regional party demonstrated. The Estrada home turf of San Juan has been rocked by a confrontation between the Zamoras and Mayor Guia Gomez, yet PDP-Laban took in the Zamoras despite JV Ejercito’s support for the President. What sort of treatment is that? And so, for every ally denied the blessings of the ruling party, there now glitters the opportunity to be associated with Hugpong ng Pagbabago.

In the meantime, aside from publicly being humiliated by Duterte-Carpio, the Speaker came under attack within his own party from members unhappy with his recruitment methods and for supposedly giving the cold shoulder to party veterans. Creating the impression of a civil war within a party is a tried-and-tested method for taking down party bigwigs a peg or two, and what matters most here is the hands-off announcement from the Palace when it comes to party matters. Those with sensitive political antennae will take it as the absence of a ringing endorsement for the Speaker, at a time when he has been accused by no less than the President’s fiercely outspoken daughter for being disloyal and disruptive.

PDP-Laban and Hugpong ng Pagbabago trying to outdo each other in being more “Dutertista” than the other only increases the chances of keeping the overall ruling coalition intact, and tying all factions to the Palace’s apron strings. It’s also a pointed reminder to the Speaker, even if he survives, not to be too piggish in the company of piglets. It does not do well for a runt to act too convinced that he’s an undefeatable wild boar. While he leads a big chunk of last-term congressmen, he has been too pushy with his no-election-in-2019 agenda, leaving no room for those looking forward to replacing last-termers, and bruising the feelings of so many players — and the public, too, which otherwise might give the President’s Charter change scheme the benefit of the doubt if only it weren’t so obviously stacking the odds in favor of people like Alvarez. Now the Speaker’s scheme is running out of steam, just when the President’s collection of consultative commission mummies are showing signs of life.

Still, all the factions could reunite by the State of the Nation Address in July, where the President could make a pitch for a plebiscite on a new constitution by October — the deadline for filing candidacies for the 2019 midterms. It will be the
balancing act of a lifetime.