Philippines Free Press: A perfect plan

Philippines Free Press, July 11, 2009

A perfect plan

By Manuel L. Quezon III

PERCEPTION, some say, trumps reality in politics. For that reason, when a politician told me a couple of weeks ago, that large billboards had begun to adorn the second district of Pampanga, bearing the photos of former President Diosdado Macapagal, his daughter President Macapagal-Arroyo, and her son, incumbent Rep. Mikey Arroyo, together with the acronym “PM: Pamlyang Maasahan,” I thought to myself it matters less if any such billboard even exists, and more that people say such billboards have been erected.

Onofre Corpuz, in his book “The Roots of the Filipino Nation,” observed that “It is still a truism in modern-day Philippine politics that no President of the Republic gains anything by interfering in contests between provincial political ‘chieftains’. Nothing romantic in that; but then the legacies of great events are often found in the mundane and in the pragmatic considerations of leadership.” But other observers have pointed out that one of the great levers of power for presidents, is the ability to referee local contests; but it is a risky undertaking, only for the most daring chief executives.

Mrs. Arroyo has never been one to reflect – in public, anyway- on her philosophy of power, if she has one at all. All we have to gage her approach to the presidency -and power in general- is how she’s actually wielded that power. Her approach has been described as “transactional leadership,” and as far as that goes she isn’t particularly different from her predecessors in leaving local politics alone so long as local leaders toe the party line, which is to support her presidency. Inducements to toe the party line are offered in cash and kind, and again, this is not remarkable departure from past administrations, except, perhaps, in her attention to detail, which admirers and detractors alike concede can be breathtaking.

What is different, though again, not unprecedented, in that it harks back to the national divisions over the question of the continuation in power of President Marcos in 1972 and 1986, is how national politics and politicians have been pitted against local politics and politicians on the question of the survival of the present dispensation.

The President made good use of the argument that the rise and fall of administrations shouldn’t be decided by rallies in Manila, which is a flawed argument. In the first place, national capitals are a microcosm of the nation; and second of all, it usually only in the more liberal atmosphere of a national capital that the public can more often than not, fully express itself in opposition to the powers that be (try holding a rally under the noses of a provincial warlord!). Flawed as it was, the argument was a powerful one, and played up the President’s strength – she knew how to take care of the provincial leaders.

The limits of that strength, however, were demonstrated in 2007 when Lakas-CMD and Kampi proceeded to compete with each other, locally, which limited their opportunity to compete, as a ruling coalition, against the President’s critics, particularly in the national arena. In which case, while Lakas and Kampi both edged out opposition rivals locally, they were left where they’d been prior to 2007: controlling local governments, the House, and the Presidency, but bogged down in the Senate and lacking a firm hold on the Supreme Court.

The 2010 elections could, conceivably, end the battle of attrition in which all sides have been bogged down since 2005. In the first place, the Supreme Court will be dominated by appointees of Mrs. Arroyo. In the second place, with the President’s term about to end, the ruling coalition could, conceivably, recapture the Senate, while maintaining its dominance in local politics and the House. It would be, in 2010, where it’d hoped to be, in 2007. Except for one thing: the President, precisely, would be out of office, and she, for one, besides being at the mercy of a potentially vindictive successor, by being out of the presidency, might provoke the typical realignment of forces that accompanies the election of a new president, regardless of where the former ruling coalition actually stands.

But if the ruling coalition were to go into 2010 with a plan that would maintain the cozy local and House arrangements in place since 2001; if that was fortified by recapturing the Senate; and with an obliging Supreme Court in place – and finally, with former President Arroyo still in a position of power, say, as Speaker Arroyo in the 15th Congress, the possibilities would be delightful, indeed, for everybody concerned – in the current ruling coalition, at least.

The President could, of course, run for the Senate, but it might galvanize her opponents and besides, deprive the coalition of a senatorial slot with which to repay past favors to supporters; on the other hand, a congressional race would be much more manageable. It would also solve a pesky problem, in local Pampanga politics.

In 2007, “Among Ed” Panlilio was elected Governor of Pampanga because the Lapids and the Pinedas fought each other, and the President couldn’t – or wouldn’t- broker unity among her local allies. In 2010, there’s the possibility that the President’s son, Rep. Mikey Arroyo, might be persuaded to run for governor of Pampanga, allowing the Lapids and Pinedas to coalesce and reclaim political control of the governorship. This would also enable the President to run for the position currently held by her son.

Governor Panlilio, so far, has played, perfectly, into the hands of those who want him out of office so business can go back, to shall we say, “normal.” When Randy David announced he might contest the congressional seat if the President runs for it, Panlilio then made noises about some sort of “search committee” to find a suitable candidate – and then suggested if one can’t be found, he’d consider running for congressman. The inevitable result of this sort of talk would be to alienate a reform constituency already galvanized by the idea of a David vs. Arroyo showdown.

Besides which, if Panlilio – who was already previously flirting with the idea of running for senator or even president- decides to run for congressman, he has no potential successor for governor, and so control of the capitol would return, almost certainly, to either the Lapids or Pinedas or both, under Mikey Arroyo. And Panlilio could still face a debacle at the polls, going head-to-head against Mrs. Arroyo.

But then again – if Panlilio seeks a new mandate as governor, and David runs for congressman, challenging the President, could she possibly lose?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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