The congressional photo-finish in which the House of Representatives adopted the Senate bill — which itself adopted the House bill — postponing the barangay polls from October this year to May next year, means the bill can go straight to President Duterte for his signature. Congress has handed the President a capon disguised as a victory. He gets a second postponement of barangay polls, but with the presidential proposal to appoint OICs for the barangays excised from it.
Senator Foghorn Gordon, who’s committee report had originally backed the President’s scheme to appoint replacement barangay chairmen on the basis of the President’s purported drug matrix, ended up outvoted. But these allies can see the President at tonight’s scheduled Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council meeting and still hand him a bill to sign and crow about.
A year and a half have passed, but the administration’s extravagant agenda of achieving permanent control has so far, proven a dud. The plan had been to proceed along three, interrelated fronts. The first was to pass a law to reorganize the entire executive department. The second was to create an independent political movement to rid the President of dependence on the temporary loyalty of fellow local leaders and their mercenary political machines. The third was to mobilize the bureaucracy and this new movement — and coopt the political establishment—by abolishing national, direct elections of the chief executive, fuse the legislature and Cabinet, and neutralize the nationally-elected senate (an irritating foil to executive overreach) by means of a unicameral parliament with some sort of Federalist decoration.
As I’ve been tracking in this column, the effort to create an independent movement has failed. The President’s (rejected) proposal to appoint barangay OICs was thus a last-ditch effort to displace uncooperative local machines, something that was supposed to happen in tandem with the formation of an alternative national movement to push his agenda independent of local barons.
This failure has consequences as far as the jockeying for influence within the Palace is concerned. On Sept. 15, the President signed Executive Order No. 40, which restored to Special Assistant to the President and PMS head Bong Go’s control, offices (Public Concerns Office, Cabinet Support Office, Directives Monitoring Office) that had been taken away from him and awarded to Secretary of the Cabinet Leoncio Evasco Jr. early in the President’s term. While the order reiterates that the Secretary of the Cabinet will still enjoy support from the PMS, it reduces Evasco to a clerk who prepares agendas but is dependent on resources coming from Go, and staffwork by offices now under Go’s authority. Changes in departments — like social welfare and development, and agrarian reform — formerly headed by people similarly-minded to Evasco, means their new heads will likely be more dependent on Go than Evasco to get access to the President. Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea also remains the weakest in living memory.
Why do these intramurals matter? As Amang Rodriguez famously observed, “politics is addition.” What is being added to is the ranks of those opposed to the present dispensation—even the hitherto pliable Senate had senators crossing factional lines yesterday, with 16 signing a resolution calling for an investigation into the killing of children, and only seven senators holding the administration line.
Without a movement, the administration will also be hard-pressed to mobilize in terms of its remaining schemes: to purge the executive through a reorganization law and some sort of constitutional change, both still in play. Not only has a lot of time been lost, but warm bodies will have to be mobilized sooner or later, either to reassure congressmen that Charter change remains viable, and to obtain a victory in a plebiscite.
Over the past year and a half, the numbers of administration supporters prepared to go out and stand up to show support is relatively small. This explains what seems a mystery: The polls consistently provide snapshots of overwhelming public support, but that support is nowhere to be seen aside from the internet. But of course. Having campaigned on a rejection of People Power, it derived its mandate from a plurality that believes the presidency is a one-man show, which means he sinks or swims on his own.
If the constitution remains unamended by the 2019 mid-terms, then the political class and the public will start being drawn, inexorably, to planning and speculating about the 2022 presidential derby. To continue raising the possibility of martial law or revolutionary governments at that point will only aid, not hinder, the President’s slide toward lame-duck status. At best, he could still produce a parliamentary system — for which Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is uniquely poised to be the best – equipped as the first prime minister.