When the Executive Secretary basically accuses a colleague of estafa, you know something’s afoot. Speaking before a Senate budget hearing, Executive Secretary Ermita let slip -and an old pro like he he does not slip unless the slip is politically expedient- that National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales has millions of pesos in advances for which he’s failed to account. Gonzales is widely viewed as a cabinet member to whom recently-resigned Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz, Jr. was close. And if Cruz’s departure signals that the cabinet will increasingly put a premium on fanaticism and scorched-earth governance, then Ermita’s Senate testimony can be viewed as an attempt to finally accomplish a purge that has been taking place since July, 2005. First to go were the Hyatt 10 (who were fired, lest anyone forget), and then the easing out of the group represented by Rigoberto Tiglao, and then the departure of Cruz. While no one considers Gonzales a moderate, he represents the non-Lakas functionaries in the President’s administration. If Gonzales is sinking, also in the line of fire is Michael Defensor. That these two -Gonzales and Defensor- are now openly being sniped at, shows how extremist the instincts of the ascendant Ermita-Gonzalez-Claudio cabal have become.
The head of the Philippine National Oil Company has also let loose he quit to prevent being turned into a Joc-Joc Bolante. The administration naturally denies it. But more interesting is the split in the cabinet over funds for the Ethanol program, which, if anyone’s forgotten, stands to benefit not just the sugar industry but a family that remains a player in it -the President’s own family which has resisted land reform to preserve its sugar plantations. Money, of course, is power, and fighting for power becomes particularly vicious when livelihoods are at stake.
We can view it this way: three factions in the cabinet: the Lakas camp (Ermita, Claudio); the Kampi camp (Puno, Gonzalez); the “independents” not known for their fondness for the First Gentleman (who is the grey eminence behind Kampi as a blocking force to Lakas domination of the administration) but who maintain an influence and loyalty to the President herself (formerly, Cruz; Gonzales, who is up and down but always in, to my mind because of Fr. Intengan; and Defensor who, like Yap, is a non-threatening presidential loyalist). Both Lakas and Kampi have decided to go in for the kill with regards to the third faction (take a look at Manuel Buencamino’s whimsical look at what I mean); but the other two, as shown by intramurals in the House, have their daggers drawn (Lakas vs. Kampi) and might start slaughtering each other which means the window of congressional opportunity is closing. Otherwise, it’s Plan C.
Neither Lakas nor Kampi have been able to fully deliver in terms of expanding her options between now and 2010, and Lakas’ leadership has shown too much of an inclination to think of its own options between now and 2010 -and a future without the President at the helm. The reformists (Tiglao was kicked upstairs, the minor parties such as the Liberals represented by Defensor and Atienza haven’t been able to blunt Lakas’ strength and provide the President with an alternative machinery), that is, people like Cruz or her own pocket hard-liners like Gonzales who speaks toughly but isn’t as eager an attack dog as Gonzalez, have been a thorn in her husband’s side in engineering a less frightening outcome in 2006.
Cannibalism, then is the name of the game, and we have to consider a fourth, semi-independent force, the generals, whether in active service or retired, who didn’t like Cruz, either, and who also have extremist instincts.
As with all things, the President is the mediator between factions and where she decides to shift her support is the faction that will be ascendant. She has tried to evenly distribute her chips but if the people being pushed forward for the defense portfolio suggests, the President’s instincts have markedly taken a turn for the extremist, too. The short list is overhwelmingly militarist: Arturo Lomibao, Leandro Mendoza, and Hermogenes Ebdane, with Norberto Gonzales as the token civilian candidate.
Add to this the continuing vendetta against provincial leaders (even in sacred Cebu: wasn’t Garcia the one who argued against the so-called “people’s initative” before the Supreme Court? And when I was in Santa Rosa, Laguna,I met the mayor who was suspended by the Palace, and a vice-governor complaining he was left with no choice but to bolt Lakas, which isn’t as bad as the guy I voted for for veep, poor Hermie Aquino whose having his taxes looked into) and high-profile opposition members in the House.
We have to back to 2001 for the genesis of her militaristic mentality: in May 2001, Civil Society and the reformists didn’t save her government, the generals did. That was the beginning of the tensions between the Hyatt 10 and herself. In July, 2005, it was reformists like Cruz and Tiglao who helped steel her to stick it out, aided by the Lakas leadership, but they weren’t of any help to her when things continued to deteriorate in late 2005 and early 2006: again, it was the military brass that kept her in office.
So we can view things as an ongoing realignment among factions: civilian loyalists like Defensor and Gonzales are being frozen out; militarists are now the main force (which is why Ermita can approach Lacson), in alliance with some Lakas leaders and Kampi and others who are pushing the President’s agenda for constitutional change in Congress; and there’s the rest of Lakas which continues to insist there is political life beyond President Arroyo.
Overseas, I have to say I’m delighted by the victory of the Democrats in the House of Representatives and hope they’ll take over the U.S. Senate, too. Recount in Richmond, Virginia to decide control of the US Senate. But recount process actually begins November 27 and could take until late December to resolve. The news, this early, isn’t flattering:
Complicating the picture still further, the FBI opened an investigation into alleged fraud and intimidation involving phone calls made to Democratic voters in Virginia falsely claiming their names were not on the electoral rolls or giving false information about the location of polling stations.
Philippine officials are junketing to observe poll automation in America, but the news has been pretty bad as far as the supposed blessings of poll automation are concerned. The Guardian calls them “glitches”, TCS Daily said the whole thing was ominous.
My Arab News column for this week is A History of Plebiscites in the Philippines.
The Inquirer editorial compares Avelino Cruz, Jr. to Ramon Magsaysay -and says his resignation could be as politically ominous for the present administration as Magsaysay’s was to the Quirino administration.
Gerry Geronimo speaks up for Justice Carpio.
Ang Pinoy Nga Naman reflects on my misgivings with a movement he supports.