IN the wake of the shabu controversy at the Bureau of Customs (BoC) and the promotion of Commissioner Lapeña to cabinet rank and the military takeover of the BoC, I can’t help but do a cursory review of the Deegong’s responses on similar cases these past two years — within Customs and other agencies of government.

In August last year, during the watch of Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon, broker/fixer Mark Taguba testified at the Senate blue ribbon committee hearing on the entry of P6.4 billion worth of methamphetamine hydrochloride, or shabu, from China. Taguba linked the Deegong’s son, Paulo “Polong,” son-in-law, Mans Carpio and the then Manila International Port district collector Vincent Philip Maronilla to the smuggling, accusing the latter of being among officials of the bureau taking bribes to facilitate such transactions.

Faeldon was subsequently “taken out” of Customs and appointed deputy administrator of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD). Maronilla was later appointed assistant commissioner at the BoC. I don’t know the whereabouts or the status of Taguba or that of Deegong’s family members. Regarding the latest shabu controversy, there is an ongoing investigation by the NBI, Senate and the House of Representatives and could reveal the extent of the culpability of the former BOC Commissioner Lapeña.

I don’t question the prerogative of the President to promote Lapeña to cabinet rank and to appoint Faeldon and Maronilla to other posts in the bureaucracy. I just don’t think this computes.

Jose Gabriel “Pompei” La Vina was not reappointed as SSS commissioner because of some unexplained anomaly. There was no investigation. After an interval of a few days, he was appointed undersecretary of tourism. La Vina was DU30’s social media consultant when he was a candidate for the presidency. This does not compute.

In May of last year, Duterte fired Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) chairman Benjamin Reyes for supposedly contradicting the government’s official data on drug addicts in the country.

In April, 2017, he sacked Cabinet undersecretary Maia Chiara Halmen Reina Valdez for overruling National Food Authority Administrator Jason Aquino’s decision to suspend rice importation as it was still harvest season in the Philippines. Valdez denied the allegations.

The President also fired Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) chief Anna Rosario Paner for hiring consultants who earn as much as P200,000 monthly.

These selected cases illustrate the varied responses of the President. And there are many more examples where the President acted oftentimes seemingly contradictory to the facts presented. And these are arbitrary — not deserving of a president whom 70 percent of the citizenry support.

Central to the legitimacy of government is the consistency of policies that are applied to the body politic. These policies have to be thought out carefully and must reflect the values of civilized behavior. And the leadership must adhere to these with at least a minimum of fairness with justice overarching these decisions. The President above all, must be the exemplar, subordinating his biases, always with an eye for the greater good.

Thus, his declared policy at the start of his rule needs to be revisited. The cases of former Interior Secretary Ismael ‘Mike’ Sueno and Peter Laviña, head of the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), are a milestone in this regime as these cases were the prime examples of the Duterte Doctrine of the “whiff of corruption.” It states simply that DU30 will “…not tolerate any corruption in his administration and he will dismiss from office any of his men (women) who are tainted even by a ‘whiff of corruption’; and he is ready to sack any public officials even on a basis of false allegations of corruption.” (Inquirer.net, March 30, 2017)

After the Cabinet meeting, PRRD fired DILG Ismael Sueno on the spot due to “loss of trust and confidence”. This dismissal was precipitated by a joint report of his 3 Undersecretaries through a letter sent to the President alleging among other things the anomalous purchase of fire trucks from Austria. (The Manila Times, April 27, 2017)

The irony of it all is that the transaction was found later to be aboveboard and the trucks were eventually purchased and delivered. But the reputation of Sueno was irreparably damaged.

Peter Laviña’s sacking as NIA head was precipitated by a report personally given to the President by NIA directors on February 23, which claimed that Laviña had ” …allegedly called them and pointed out projects the regional office had and told them, ‘Kayo nang bahala sa akin’.” (Rappler).

The President sealed Laviña’s fate and left his reputation shattered with PRRD’s statement: “When I said there will be no corruption, there will be no corruption…even a whiff of corruption, talagang tatangalin kita (I will fire you) …”. No investigation was ever conducted.

The handling of these cases by the President is a reflection not of the justice system of this country but of his very subjective and capricious ways. This too is not a deficiency of the libertarian ideals of our government but the failure in the structure of the office of the presidency and therefore of the President to discriminate between what is good for the public against his personal interests.

I will rephrase what I wrote years ago: “There is no question that the President has the power to terminate from government bureaucracy anyone who fails to serve at his pleasure. But the President must be subject to the minimums of fairness and the etiquette of dismissal, for no apparent reason than that the process is widely regarded as civilized behaviour. But more importantly, there is a greater overarching principle that covers the conduct of the mighty, the powerful and the humble — the rule of law.

In a democracy under which we claim we practice, prudent laws are the foundation and the glue that must bind a civilized society. It is imperative that the laws laid down by government must be followed by all its citizens. The simplicity of the concept of the rule of law is oftentimes made complicated by those authorized to uphold it.”

President Duterte is not exempt from civilized behavior. What endeared him to people compared to other presidents before him was his penchant to tell it like it is, and in a manner that projects decisiveness. It was refreshing at first, but repetition has blunted the sharp edges – “If you will destroy my country, I will kill you!” And what passes for the application of political will in this fashion becomes merely an inelegant display of bravado.

True, the heavy load of governance and the welfare of the Filipinos rest on the President. But the presidency as an institution is fully armed with mechanisms to lighten the burden and share the same with his alter egos and departments which are constitutionally mandated. He is not therefore expected to arrogate upon himself the full burden of solely carrying out this responsibility.

And he needs to listen very carefully and discern the voice of his constituency, not only that of those who voted him to power.

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.