In his prime, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was associated with the term “jujitsu” and it was often used to describe his ability to get out of being cornered, politically, and get the better of his opponents. Recent events almost justify reviving the use of the term when it comes to the manner in which a demanding vice president was put in her place, implicating her quarrelsome father, only to end up making him look powerless. Let’s have a look at how it all happened.
When he was still mayor of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte reacted to senators making inquiries by basically telling them to shut up because confidential funds were Davao’s business and nobody else’s. Basically, he was right, and the senators had to shut up. This knowledge was the foundation of what passed for governance once Duterte became president. One calculation went like this: under his predecessor, the presidency had P517 million in confidential, extraordinary, and intelligence expenses. In his first full year of office (2017), this was increased to P2.5 billion a year for Duterte until the midterms: 2017-2019. After his historic midterm victory, it nearly doubled to P4.5 billion a year, from 2020-2022.
The extraordinary control exercised by the former president during his time in office is easily explained by some who point to his having had all these many billions of reasons behind him. Machiavelli might have said it is better to be feared than to be loved, but Duterte could argue that if people fear you enough, if you are also “galante,” then you will be feared and also loved. But even if this were so, once out of office, the sad reality is that Duterte would either lack a war chest or be “abonado,” as they say. Someone else would have billions of reasons to be loved.
The presidential daughter didn’t fall far from the ex-presidential tree in asking for similarly lavish intelligence and other funds; what is surprising is how she was outmaneuvered in terms of allocating those funds—it didn’t happen.
But not before an entertaining congressional shell game got played. The Vice President demanded her funds, and the President’s eldest son gallantly proposed waiving aside all objections, which meant he played good cop until the bad cops stepped in—and moved her proposed funds to the military and the coast guard. The Veep erupted in anger and the Speaker, having so far been absent from the fight, purred that he absolutely agreed—which is why the funds were allocated elsewhere. The President for his part, also stood above the fray, and so the Veep couldn’t complain, because she knows as well as everybody else, that when a Veep targets the Prexy, the Veep loses in the court of public opinion.
This left dear old dad to grumble in public that the Speaker should be audited should he decide to run for president—causing an indignant chorus of party leaders in the House of Representatives to erupt: “For shame!” they said, bravely criticizing the ex-president for using the Speaker’s name in vain. And so, there was the shell game, involving both money and power for the Dutertes—now you see it, now you don’t. It’s magic!
For provincial and even urban barons, where single families control both the executive and legislative, it’s a basic fact that if your rubberstamp provincial board or city council grants you an enormous intelligence or confidential fund, no one, not even the national government, can hold you to account for it. The same actually applies to the national government: but you have to control the presidency first. Once upon a time, an American vice president from Texas got the job after being a powerful Speaker of the House. He complained about his new job by saying, “It wasn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.” Our very own Veep might be tempted to say that soon unless she can convince Congress to change its mind.
The thing is if you recall how the whole thing played out, another aspect of the Marcos-Romualdez method emerges. They would take a step, wait and see (and measure) the public reaction, then take another step if warranted, or postpone or even backtrack, if there was too much opposition. Calibrated, in response to the Duterte method of using a sledgehammer to drive in a nail. So far, so good—for those putting the Veep and her father, in their proper, subordinate, place.