Administration in embryo
Through sheer political longevity, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. hoped to accomplish, and greatly achieved, the erasure of the institutional past. Put another way, he could then afford to be selective about precedents, relying on his own rather than, as most democratic administrations do, deriving legitimacy from past practice. He did this in small and big ways (someone familiar with his style once told me, “What he would do was orate, ‘As a wise man once said…’ and promptly quote himself”).
The Marcos Restoration under his son continues to benefit from this not least because Marcos Sr.’ output of decrees was so vast (and useful to his successors) that much of it remains in force; and more to the point, civic ignorance under the Fifth Republic has been close to nonexistent: we lack that communal awareness of past practices being a limit on individual overreach that makes societies resistant to the siren call of populists or dictators. And so, though the Fifth Republic has almost existed as long as the Commonwealth and the Third combined (because they were only really one regime), it has hardly managed to create a popular expectation of what is acceptable—or to be expected. Add to this the weight of the crushing majority, and there is little left to foster any kind of questioning of things.
We are going into the second week in office of the new president, and there remains an incomplete Cabinet. Perhaps because it has never happened before, it raises fewer eyebrows when it should raise everyone’s eyebrows for precisely that reason. Not least when combined with the massiveness of the mandate obtained. At least two of the still-undesignated portfolios, health and energy, are critical; one sign of this is that the President himself has developed COVID for the second time and had to go into seclusion; another is that the names floated for another department, energy, suggested competing factions in the ruling coalition: Mikey Arroyo and Rodante Marcoleta. The former belonged to a cohort of names floated early on, suggesting the eagerness—or preparedness—of the Arroyos to collect, while the other sent a signal of political potency for the Iglesia ni Cristo and a shot across the bows to Meralco. Yet neither came to pass. What did happen on July 11 was the return of Raphael Lotilla to the portfolio he held under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. This points to a kind of return of the coalition to an even keel, a return in the balance of power.
Aside from the formation of a Cabinet, it’s in the first executive issuances that presidents are expected to begin the process of making a mark by fostering strong first impressions. The impression so far is of an administration far more conservative in its self-organization. The first two issuances weren’t by the President but issued under his authority: two memorandum circulars that immediately cleared the decks, vacating all appointive positions, and another reiterating the need for complete staff work in all submissions to the Executive Office. When the time came for the President to issue his first executive orders, they demonstrated his priorities: They were essentially a reversal of the political and therefore, messy, administrative adjustments made by the previous two administrations. The position of Cabinet secretary made independent by President Benigno Aquino III to accommodate Rene Almendras was abolished and its functions returned to the Presidential Management Staff (PMS); the preeminence of the executive secretary and the firm subordination of the traditional head of the Private Office (the Special Assistant to the President), and the head of the PMS, was reasserted, reversing and in a sense, tidying-up, the battle for the soul of the Duterte administration waged between Evasco and Go. The anticorruption commission, created to give legal cover to the VACC as attack dogs of the Duterte administration, was also eliminated. On the other hand, the interesting position of presidential adviser for military and police affairs, under the ambit of the special assistant to the president, points to a concern for the new President who prefers to keep it on the political side of things (Lagdameo) than the administrative side of the fence (Rodriguez).
The President’s second issuance also tidied up matters in terms of communications. The position of presidential spokesperson was abolished, and in a kind of official joke, the position of press secretary was restored to preside over the consistent, thorough, and we can assume, effective because relentless, humiliation of the once-proud press. It is a patently Trump-like agenda to deliberately demean the traditional media which anyway has its fair share, as always, of boosters for the new dispensation, while elevating its own communications infrastructure to being on par, from an institutional point of view, with the media. What this tightening-up will not do, however, is give an inroad to the now ex-comms of the Duterte administration. Nor will there be any room for accommodating different factions under the communications umbrella as happened under Aquino. This will be purely Marcos comms.
If the weeks leading up to the inaugural revealed an aggressive vice-president-elect who found out she was in no position to make demands of a president-elect, and the first days of being president proved to the new president he couldn’t easily edge out the third partner in his coalition, then the only surprise the past two weeks have revealed is that the new president is not beyond being a second-time COVID victim, which serves as a memento mori of a sort. But now with only a few vacancies left, we might see them filled by the time he meets the next test of a new president: the State of the Nation Address.