Last of a 3-part series

THE Philippine presidency consists of the President, his immediate staff and the collective units, principally the Cabinet, reporting directly to the President. Handed down by the US colonial administration, our presidential system hews closely to the American model, although there are dissimilarities. Traditionally, the Philippine presidency encompasses the whole Executive Department, following the cherished republican ideal of “checks and balances” among the three major branches of government.

President Duterte’s official acts, and those of his Cabinet and advisers are what constitute the collective decisions of the Office of the President (OP). The Cabinet is the primary bureaucracy from where the levers of presidential powers are exercised, and monitoring and feedback mechanisms are coursed. In organizational parlance, the Cabinet is a line function. Advisory bodies develop around the presidency complementing the Cabinet, and have staff functions along with the President’s personal coterie. There is a distinction between the two sets of bodies within the OP: the preeminent Cabinet secretaries whose appointments are confirmed by the congressional Commission on Appointments, and the appointed presidential personal staff and advisers that are not answerable to Congress and therefore owe personal loyalty to the President.

Like an impresario, the President conducts the country’s affairs through these disparate groups of people who by the very nature of their jobs are required to possess political skills aside from the particular expertise for which the President have chosen them. The integral element in running effectively the executive offices is their proximity to the President. By definition too, this proximity is equated with power; and power is the main currency in the political dynamics.

This is the contemporary structure of the presidency in a republican framework. Its precedents go back to the “royal court” of a monarchy where the occupants were solely answerable to the sovereign. The monarchical structure no longer exists but the vestiges of the archaic interactions and presidential largesse are still ritually dispensed upon the select; but also, the immediate and deadly retribution upon the disfavored. The current President almost solely determines the fate of his subordinates, giving the premium for their survival in the bureaucracy the trait of telling him only what he wants to hear.

Alpha male PresidentThe President’s strongman demeanor is a real one and has been honed through the cauldron of his political experience in a city once controlled by criminal and ideologically unacceptable elements. These problems were often solved, by his own admission, by disregarding some “niceties of the rule of law”. His no-nonsense approach to political governance was effective locally and he is now applying the formula on a larger scale, for the whole country. PRRD is a self-directed public manager always setting his own goals, pushing the boundaries of discretion. And here is where it becomes complicated.

How do his subalterns relate with an alpha male of a President? In this particular case, President Duterte’s presence is the dominating specter hovering over the OP; and with his propensity to act decisively on a mere “whiff of corruption,” this, I submit, strikes fear in the hearts of even the virtuous. Add to that his propensity to act and decide without proper consultation with his Cabinet. Indeed, a dominant and domineering personality will intimidate the people around him. As a counter-measure, the participation of alpha males/females in the Cabinet is an imperative. Strong Presidents should have strong-minded advisers. The absence of an ardent “imperial court of advisers” to the presidency is a disservice to an office where policy discourse on good governance is primarily fueled by healthy debate and a clash of ideas.

Echoing Schlesinger’s hypothesis on the making of an imperial presidency, all of the above contribute to the weakness of a presidency in a republican state that allows the appearance of an imperial President with “strongman” attributes. President Rodrigo Duterte fits this description.

Weak checking mechanism

Two other elements contribute to the making of an imperial presidency; a weak, or the absence of a, checking mechanism of Congress and the Constitution itself. Part 1 of this series (“Self-castration of Congress”) described how both houses of the legislative branch surrendered their prerogatives in checking the executive branch.

As to the Constitution, the President has not yet been proven to have breached any of its dictates but his constant threats against its ultimate arbiter and interpreter, the Supreme Court, comes close to a transgression.

Pimentel reacts to Duterte defying SC, Congress:“Alarmed, but no need to act”(May 29, 2017 @inquirerdotnet)

“Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel 3rd on Monday defended President Rodrigo Duterte from critics, saying he did not violate the law by making remarks about defying the Supreme Court (SC) and Congress on martial law.”

Duterte defies Supreme Court (@inquirerdotnet, August 10, 2016)

“I’m giving you a warning. Don’t create a crisis because I will order everybody in the executive department not to honor you,” Mr. Duterte told (Supreme Court Chief Justice) Sereno, in his remarks before the military in Cagayan de Oro City.

“You want me to be frank? You’re interfering (with my job)… Please, don’t order me. I’m not a fool. If this continues, (that) you’re trying to stop me, I might lose my cool. Or would you rather I declare martial law?”

The proposition that now shapes the national conversation is whether President Duterte, with all his flaws, is what this country needs. In Part 1 & 2 of this series, a case was being developed that the frustrations of the Filipino—stark poverty and corruption in all levels of government; the downward spiral toward stasis from the early days of the Republic— precipitated the seething anger that found relief from an outsider whose message and personality resonated with the voters. Duterte the foul-mouth visionary whose claim to fame is the deliverance of a city from the political abyss of centralized government neglect, carpeted his governance with the corpses of the “dregs of society”. He openly declared as his platform that he will do the same for the whole country if elected President. We elected him President.

His current 75 percent support from the populace reinforced its clarion call for such a man and certainly put to rest the question that the Filipino needs this imperial President Rodrigo Duterte.
IN my previous column, I posited the need to redefine the political spectrum from “left-right” to “area-sector” wherein Area represents the direct interests of local communities and their geography/territory or area, including its physical environment, and Sector represents the specific interests of specific institutions, mostly corporations and enterprises represented by their owners.

Since Area is “community + environment” and Sector is essentially “capital invested in a specific corporation or enterprise,” we can take any economic sector and determine which politics, Area or Sector, is dominant. Dominance is a political expression which ideally would have been articulated as a political platform understood by voters and then executed upon its assumption of political power or governance. But because the political spectrum is still cast in the old “left-right” narrative and the unitary (centralized) structure of the colonial Philippines has been retained in its independence, what we get is a mishmash of policies (mixed left-right as well as mixed area-sector) but with an overall slant towards Sectorism to the detriment of Areaism. The sad part though is that the unitary structure amplifies the weakness of Areaism in the country and necessarily strengthens the Sectorism no matter what political propaganda was used to win the election (thus the need for federalism).

Over the next columns, let us take a cursory look at the important sectors of the Philippine economy and see which politics, Area or Sector, is dominant. Let us start with the energy sector:

Energy policy

Energy is big business in that it requires humongous capital to put up, say, a 600MW plant (billions of pesos). Recently, President Duterte signed EO 30 on June 28, 2017, vouched for by the power oligarchs and Energy SecretaryAlfonso Cusi (the sector leader) who used to work for some of them so that new power plants can set up without any delays from the local and national bureaucracies. The EO will reduce permit-getting time from three years to just 30 days for projects of national significance.

Ostensibly, this long period was specifically mandated by law (can an EO change a law?) so that social and environmental impacts (minor concessions to areaism) could be determined and vetted and even mitigated prior to the operation of the plant. With big money for big projects comes a budget to grease the process along, from the barangay all the way to DENR and to Malacañang, if needed. What a fantastic bonanza this EO will be to the power oligarchs and to the further concentration of Sectorism in the country in the energy sector. The proponents no longer need to go through what was just a little accommodation to “arearism”. Sectorism in the power sector just got more powerful. Will this EO primarily serve the interest of the owners of the powerplants or the communities that purchase its output?

Time and time again it has been shown that the Filipino has been very ill-served by energy oligarchs as shown by the excessive prices paid for this energy and the many environmental and health issues posed to local communities. The only positive thing (for the few) are the humongous profits (higher GDP) ensnared from the tiny pockets of the majority and concentrated with the few owners. Just three family/corporate groups control about 70 percent of all energy generation in the country. Furthermore, these power corporations (many previously were state enterprises, now privatized) and systems leave many peripheral areas with the lousiest of services.

Yet, how would “areaism” energy policies be effected by a government that espoused Area politics? If Areas had even just half the political power of the power oligarchs you would see a better balance between new renewables and climate-changing fossil fuels like coal. Through their controlled media, bureaucrats and politicians, mostly fossil fuel sources are being fast-tracked and helped by this new EO 30 while lip service is paid to renewables. Considering that renewables like solar and wind and biomass sources are safe and non-pollutive, why are new projects given such a difficult time by the law, by the Department of Energy, even by the Supreme Court in certain recent rulings?

Therefore, in a clean slate, government policies would be reformed to dramatically increase renewables to easily make up even up to 75 percent of our power generation, most of which can be produced at the local level for local consumption.

Roof-installed solar panels installed under an incentive program with built-in, government-supported financing could easily generate massive amounts of megawatts of power that can reduce the need for very pollutive coal-fired power plants from existing rooftops of warehouses, factories, malls, schools, community centers like basketball courts etc. DOST and DTI policies would support this thrust by encouraging local manufacture of solar panels, ancillary technologies like power storage (batteries) and attracting and facilitating small and medium investments in this field.

For every hectare of surface area (mined-out land or warehouse rooftops) 1MW of power can be capacitated. This power currently can be generated at a profit when sold for about P5/kwh. With batteries, the cost goes up to about P8. However, there are new technologies in power storage (liquid salt) that may result in even lower costs than this. Already, this is better than diesel and suitable coal (low mercury and sulphur that cause acid rain and agricultural land degradation) but the whole ecosystem of coal power plants (continuous buying and burning of coal, shipping, trade finance, etc.) and the dominance of Sectorism in the energy sector means that we will not have pro-renewable policies even if that were a major benefit to all Filipinos.

What does this say about the Duterte administration? The politician who came in the name of fixing a previously bad area (Davao City) and turned it into a vibrant city-area and who espoused federalism to align the government structure with the basics of Areaism made this columnist feel that Areaism had a chance.

Alas, just one year into his term (and just like what happened to all previous Philippine Presidents) the Duterte administration, as shown in the energy sector, has been re-captured by the Sectorism policies that fail the ordinary Juan in the street. See, they can’t even restore power after major areas were simply hit by an earthquake in the Visayas a week ago. Why do we rely on massive national grids when we are an archipelago that can generate massive amounts of energy locally from biomass and solar? Decentralized and locally owned systems can respond much better in the future where disasters are becoming more common. But that would only happen when a political party founded on Areaism takes power. For now, we can only weep and bemoan the capture of the energy policies by Sectorists from a posturing Areaist President.