Lito Monico Lorenzana

Lito Monico Lorenzana

Friday, 13 October 2017 14:54

Digong’s controversial alter egos

Part One
IN the light of recent events in the country that have merited glaring headlines, this column, A View from the Center, will attempt at elucidation using as a backdrop the author’s paper on political management while working on a postgraduate course at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in the 1980s (access
This will draw heavily too from personal experience as both an observer and a participant in political dynamics in the two decades serving under four administrations in various capacities from Presidents Cory, to FVR to Erap and with GMA. I was not in any way involved with PNoy’s regime. I too am not currently involved with the Dee-gong administration in any capacity. My observations on his presidency however will form a substantial part of this three-part article.


I don’t claim any intimacy with these past Presidents as most people privileged to work along the periphery of the high and mighty are wont to insinuate. I will not fall into the temptation of bloating my minor role, but will present my views as a student and practitioner of “political technocracy”.


The past few weeks’ headlines screamed for the heads of Trade Secretary Art Tugade and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre. Both Cabinet members are victims of expectations—very high expectations—mainly the public’s. We are not privy to the presidential expectations but can only assume that their appointments were for the most part the result of PRRD’s assessment of their capabilities, experiences and competencies; and as classmates or alumni from the President’s university–-a not-so-light qualification given the Filipino culture of patronage.


The latter is critical as they have been designated as the President’s alter egos, and as such have the complete trust of the President and are expected to speak for and in his behalf in their areas of expertise. Such responsibility is a privileged one and both must understand the nature of the relationship.


For one, this bond is no longer a personal one, as in classmates, schoolmates or “tsokaran”. It has transcended the familiar and morphed into one containing the majesty of the office of the presidency. By this precept, both are custodians of presidential prerogatives, prestige and power; and adding their own to it to enable the President and them to do their task well. The sum of all these is the vaunted fragile political capital of the President with a sustainability dependent largely on a fickle citizenry.


All Cabinet members are by inference the President’s alter egos and must understand their roles perfectly well.


Cabinet members are heat shields and political lightning rods of the presidency. As such, part of their job is to deflect serious criticism from their respective publics and clientele of the presidency as a result of their official functions. As an efficient conductor of political heat, these honorable secretaries must prevent damage or serious erosion to the political capital of the presidency.


The high expectations of the riding public to solve the oppressive traffic situation in Metro Manila, which includes the unsafe and unreliable train system, has eaten into the perception of incompetence of the department head, hence the call for his dismissal.


Paradoxically by the above measures, the good Secretary Tugade has done well deflecting the harm to his principal, considering the enormity of the problems inherited from the immediate past regime and having occupied his office for only half a year.


The same is true with the Justice Secretary who acted to deflect from the presidency the failings of the justice system (the drug proliferation in the prisons); and more particularly the perceived anomalies perpetrated by the two alumni of their law school who very early in this administration had begun to put their dirty little fingers in the Office of Immigration.


Both Cabinet members did their job as political heat shield, but still have to prove their mettle by serving the public by doing the job they were meant to do; but the long-suffering public has understandably short patience.


The third case is the curious actuations of the head of the Philippine National Police (PNP) on the alleged murder of a Korean national within the confines of his office. He claimed that a massive manhunt had been ordered personally by him to apprehend the perpetrators, only to find out from the media that the main suspect has been assigned all along at an office a stone’s throw from his. His claim once that a police rub-out suspect was freed upon the instructions of someone “higher in authority” was so inane and tragically comical as, in his job description, there is no person higher in authority than the President himself.


This series of incidents reflect his mis-appreciation of a job that catapulted him from a local provincial sinecure to the head of a critical agency in the national government. The general was utterly clueless reinforcing an elementary rule in political management that is the first duty of a presidential appointee: discovering what one’s job is. Job description at most higher levels, and in this case the top police general, is neither defined for you exactly nor “announced in the newspapers”. It is more or less the ability to “grab” authority and responsibility and incorporating the same into your own little rectangle (in the organization chart).


Calls for the resignation of these three presidential subalterns could be premature considering the short time spent at their jobs; they simply need to be on top of the learning curve. But along with the perks accorded top presidential appointees should be their readiness to prevent damage to the presidency and the country even at the risk of their own.


Such is the essence of their function as presidential alter ego; a duty to give all in the service of the President and the Filipino—and to discern well the sequence of that duty.


The phrase that they hold office upon the “pleasure of the President” is an absurd one reflecting indecisiveness. This puts the onus on the President and a wasteful withdrawal from his political capital.
Thursday, 12 October 2017 09:53

One hell of a chief of staff

Part 3 – The Gatekeepers


Ronald Reagan and James Baker 3rd


VIEWED as one of the great post-war American Presidents, Ronald Reagan realigned US policies toward conservatism. His presidency saw the decline of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. It also saw the stint of the longest serving White House Chief of Staff (COS), James Baker 3rd. Theirs is the exemplar of a working relationship between a president and the primary alter ego. This is the last archetypical US president/chief of staff team (including those in the Part 1 and 2 of this series) that I will draw lessons from that could be applied in local presidential governance. (Most of these are extracted from Whipple’s book, and quotations are therefore attributed to the him.)


One important element in selecting the COS is his knowledge of how the center of power, Washington D.C., works. Baker was an ‘insider’ who had had extensive experience in the White House and Capitol Hill (US Senate and Congress), having been a bureaucrat, served in sub-cabinet and cabinet posts in various Republican administrations, and worked as a topnotch lawyer in the capital. Shunned by Reagan’s campaign staff from California, mostly “outsiders” from the Washington scene, Baker co-opted them by forming a ‘troika’ (with Edward Meese and Mike Deaver) serving the Oval Office, with him as the ‘first among equals’. The other members of the troika supervised the formulation of domestic policies, National Security Council and cabinet meetings while Baker had the handle on paperwork, speechwriting and WH staff. More importantly, he controlled information to and from the president and the execution of policies.


The Philippine context


As the COS position is non-existent in Malacañang,the Executive Secretary (ES) could be the primary gatekeeper. But there are similarities with US practices that are applicable to the local scene. For one, the COS/ES needs to be the dispenser of the president’s time, the most valuable asset in presidential governance. This works only if PRRD empowers his alter ego to assume that function. With the Deegong’s strong and rough personalityand degree of volatility, the COS/ES could find himself in constant stress-filled situations that could test their fragile bond of trust.


The problems confronting the Deegong could have been averted if his alter egos were the “face of the issues” responding to the public as first line of defense. The needless exposure of DU30 to political heat, even of his own making, had to be endured by the cabinet member concerned. The COS/ES responsibility is to distribute to the respective cabinet members their specific roles as political heat shields or lightning rods;deflecting from DU30 whatever fallout occurs. The COS/ES is the “bastonero,” one who enforces these sordid assignments.


“As an efficient conductor of political heat, these honorable secretaries must prevent damage or serious erosion to the political capital of the presidency.”(Lorenzana, The Manila Times, January 26, 2017)


A case in point is a critical one played by the spokesman of the presidentwho strives almost daily to scrub DU30’s rough edges with his own outer sheen; modulating presidential language in palatable bite sizes served to the public. But by doing so SecretaryAbella continues to expend his own meager political capital and credibility, absorbing heat directed at the president.He becomes the “face of the issue”and could be magnificently consumed by it.


In retrospect, the fallout from the “war on drugs” could have been managed by the justice system and police structure of the state. But the president overlaid by his ‘strongman persona’ couldn’t tame his mischievous side, giving in to the temptation of such pronouncements as “fattening the fish” with the carcasses of the drug lords and addicts. What many suspected to be campaign bluster crept into the deadly political conversation, one that transformed the concept and treatment of human rights with international complications. What could have been a legitimate war against “narco-politics” instead became a transgression against human dignity.


These concerns are attributable to the structural defects of the Office of the President on one hand, and PRRD himself, a singularly overwhelming presence, on the other. The COS/ES, if streamlined well could have alleviated the former; but the latter is exclusively the president’s to moderate.Under these circumstances, you need a COS/ES who can communicate matters to the president, whether he likes to hear them or not. He has to be “willing to speak the truth to power”.


The persona of the Deegong has been extensively discussed and analyzed. What has surfaced are the two aspects of the man and the president; two faces of the same coin. In private he is amiable and oftentimes soft-spoken, the proverbial “humble man carrying a big stick”. In our rare encounters, he was the fine “gentleman of the old school,” knowledgeable on a plethora of subjects. But the conversation always ends up with his bête noire, the drug menace, a recurring theme of his public pronouncements that borders on being monotonous, losing its effective message. But on center stage, an altogether different persona emerges, triggered perhaps by an adoring audience but constantly falling forthe baiting of a confrontational press. Clearly, he needs to read his speeches, curtail his media appearances to a minimum, and use more of his alter egos to carry the burden of the public face of governance.


As discussed in the previous articles, proximity and access to the presidency are paramount concerns for the COS/ES. He traffics who gets to see the president. The COS/ES has to be brutal in scheduling decisions and must enforce the same with discipline and order.


Tapestry of policy


Most problems in government are interconnected, none solely within the jurisdiction of one department.


Presidential decisions more often than not have implications that may involve the justice system, congressional liaisons and budget considerations, etc. The COS/ES’ job is to connect them, weaving disparate viewpoints into one whole tapestry of policy.


The spokesman and cabinet members must have priority access but as to the latter, the COS/ES and his staff must decide who adds value to a presidential face time, and the flow of papers need to be staffed out. (During Ramos’ time, we had his famous CSW, complete staff work).


It is in dealing with the cabinet members, a motley high-power group with their own fiefdoms and legitimate agenda to protect, when tensions arise. They can’t be permitted to unduly burden the president. Thus, the COS/ES and his staff must resolve disputes before they reach the president; be an “honest broker” and not inject his own personal agenda; and all must understand that the COS/ES office is where policy and politics converge.


After 15 months, PRRD has already paid his campaign debts with sinecures distributed around. “Historically, the people who got most presidents in trouble are their old pals from home.”(Whipple) It is high time DU30 changes gears and enhances his coterie of “true believers” with pragmatic political technocrats, to precipitate creative tension producing the kind of intellectual and political energy to get things done. And this should be personified by a new class of presidential operatives under the trusted COS/ES. As Whipple wrote in his book, quoting James Fallows: “…maybe that’s the strength of presidents like Ronald Reagan – who don’t think they’re the smartest person around”.


The most successful leaders“are those that are secure enough to surround themselves with extremely strong-willed, talented people”.
Thursday, 05 October 2017 08:24

A ruthless little bastard

Part 2 – The Gatekeepers
Gerald Ford and Donald Rumsfeld
FORD came into the presidency at the nadir of American global prestige. The US was losing the Vietnam war and Nixon resigned rather than be impeached due to the “Watergate Scandal”. An “accidental president,” Ford retained Nixon’s appointees. Gen. Al Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff who replaced Haldeman, continued in that capacity. This was a disaster in the making as Haig “acted as though he was president, and Ford his understudy”. Ford’s style of management added to this cauldron of complexity as he would govern with a mix of the old Nixon cabinet and some senior aides reporting to him directly—the spokes of the wheel—with him at the center. This free-for-all proved to be disastrous as cabinet members came in and out of the Oval Office with senior aides claiming access time.


It was not long before this configuration collapsed and the whole Oval Office along with it, when Ford, nine months into his presidency, pardoned the former President Nixon “for all offenses against the United States”. His popularity went on a freefall. His office was in disarray. Haig, the holdover, was ineffective as COS. Ford needed his own chief of staff.


Enter the “ruthless little bastard”. This was the description by Nixon of Donald ‘Rummy’ Rumsfeld, Ford’s handpicked COS and erstwhile Ford transition point man. Rummy was one of the more experienced and accomplished bureaucrats in the GOP (Republican Party) firmament. He was “known for his organizational skill and his ‘suffer-no-fools discipline’”(Whipple). He was a Washington insider and understood well the workings of the White House. His appreciation of his job was simple and succinct: “…governing without a chief is the quickest way (for the president) to lose credibility…once credibility (is lost), you can’t govern, so there has to be order, and…I would consider it my job to see that there was order” (Whipple).


The new COS moved in and begun cutting the heads of Ford’s old campaign staff who had sinecures at the White House. Haig was exiled with a new assignment away from Washington as NATO Supreme Commander based in Brussels. Two holdovers from Nixon’s cabinet with great reputation and even greater egos, Kissinger, Secretary of State and Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, were the only cabinet members permitted to see Ford alone.


Rummy with his deputy, Richard ‘Dick’ Cheney ran the Oval Office with discipline but it was not enough to arrest the slide of Ford’s popularity brought about by the Nixon pardon. He lost the presidency to Gov. Jimmy Carter, the “peanut farmer” from Georgia.


Jimmy Carter and Hamilton Jordan
The 39th President, Jimmy Carter, came into the White House as the “new kid” on the block. The obvious choice for his COS was Jack Watson, a Washington D.C. insider who could “reach out to the doyennes of Georgetown and mandarins of Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill”(Whipple). But in the struggle between the presidential transition team headed by Watson and Carter’s campaign staff, all from Georgia, the latter won, with the “primus inter pares” Hamilton Jordan, becoming Carter’s first COS. The architect of Carter’s winning strategy, he was brilliant in catapulting Carter from the “peanut-farmer governor” to the Oval Office. But he was way over his head as COS. He and his team took over the Oval Office “in profound ignorance of their jobs”. His personal life was tattered by scandal (the ‘amaretto and cream’ incident where he spits this drink at a young woman in a bar). The Oval Office was run like a campaign HQ allowing advisers and cabinet members equal access to Carter. The end for Jordan as COS came a few months after the infamous siege on the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, where 66 hostages were seized and kept for 444 days – up to the time Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, in the election of 1980.


The Philippine context
Malacañang does not have the classic American concept of chief of staff (COS). The closest to the office could perhaps be the Executive Secretary, the highest-ranking official in the Office of the President.


Both Philippine ES and American COS claim pre-eminence in the hierarchy of their respective executive offices. This is based on a political reality: access to the president. It imbues the person who occupies the office with a fragment of that imperium exclusive only to the presidency.


In our political life, especially in the highest echelons of governance, power is the main currency; and the president has copious amounts of it to dispense, but frugally. The ES/COS must see to it that it is done so.


This is why in the Philippines the Executive Secretary is known as the “little president”. By definition, his mandate is “to directly assist the President in the management of affairs of the government as well as to direct the operations of the Executive Office”. But the reality on the ground seems to be different. Titles and mandates are of little consequence to the Deegong.


From the beginning of his term, the President has apparently been acting as his own chief of staff with his Special Assistant to the President (SAP) Christopher ‘Bong’ Go, ever constantly at his beck and call, seldom leaving his side. If as the saying goes, “access to the presidency is power itself,” Bong Go could be the most powerful bureaucrat in government. But, with the propensity of the populist president to be accessible to all, and Go’s own admission that he receives from 500 to 1,000 texts daily and numerous calls, he could be the most harassed bureaucrat in government. We doubt that the SAP has the time or the inclination to pre-process policies that need DU30’s attention—a prime duty of a COS.


An internal mechanism may have been arrived at that includes the ES, ‘Bingbong’ Medialdea as the chiefpraetorian that guards the portals to the presidency.


The Deegong has been described as an alpha male, a superb local politician, trustful only of old friends, classmates and a coterie of bureaucrats in the uniformed services. He tends to dominate and intimidate. This is the nature of the beast, and perhaps these are the alter egos he is comfortable with in running this government. Or perhaps, the models described by Whipple in his book may not work in the Philippine context. The Deegong may not need to hire his own bastard. He already is one!


But this government could collapse given that the greater burden of responsibilities lie almost solely on the shoulder of this “73-year old millennial” passionately driven to offer the coming generations of Filipinos a shot at a better future by being the chief architect of a systemic and structural change.


And with all his magnificent faults and scarce virtues, this is the type of leader that this country needs today. His 80 percent approval rating is his constituents’ imprimatur.


(Next week: Part 3 – “One hell of a chief of staff”: Ronald Reagan and James Baker III; lessons from the gatekeepers that are universally applicable)
Thursday, 10 August 2017 13:41

All-out war

IN PRRD’s July 24 SONA, he made it clear that the talks with the CPP-NDF have been aborted. Cancelled. “Peace is elusive,” he declared, with a tinge of exasperation. When Duterte invited the New People’s Army (NPA) in a sincere effort for a dialogue at the start of his administration, he took a great risk, in light of the grumblings of the military, to free some of their prize catch and entice the left with Cabinet posts. Blood and treasure were spent to capture these dissidents over the years and the burden fell on the soldiers, their families and the military institution itself.

Last July 15 to 17, another round of discussions was conducted in the Netherlands on the provisions on agrarian reform and rural development (ARRD). Positive advances were achieved as 60 to 70 percent of the common draft on the reforms stipulated in the comprehensive agreement on social and economic reform (Caser) were being agreed to. Another round of talks had been set for August to discuss the other remaining issues in the Caser. All of these discussions were aimed at finally ending the armed conflict.

Then the NPA ambushed a Presidential Security Group (PSG) team on July 19, on the Davao-Bukidnon highway, in Arakan, North Cotabato – five days before the SONA. This was the immediate trigger for the peace talks’ cancellation.

Prior to this, the NPA had been sporadically conducting skirmishes in the countryside and threatening businesses and public transportation plying the provinces, requiring owners to pay “revolutionary taxes”. Some of these extortionate practices have been reluctantly reported to authorities for fear of reprisal. But the economic effect and the cost of doing business had to be passed on to the customers and the riding public. But lately the ambushes and attacks on the ground have been bold—burning trucks and equipment of mining firms in the hinterlands. Lapanday Foods Corp. (LFC) is a case in point where hundreds of millions of pesos worth of property were burned and destroyed. And this was within the city limits of Davao.

“Simula ngayon, no more talks. I will prepare government. Lahat ng pera, gagastusin ko muna sa military, wala na muna iyang ano-ano. Sila ang unahin ko (From now on, no more talks. I will prepare government. I will spend the money first for the military. We will set aside the talks; I will prioritize the military) .”

Behind this bluster and moves and counter-moves by PRRD and the NPA are some salient points. Foremost of these is the heterogeneous nature of the current CPP/NDF/NPA. Most of the founders and original leaders of the communist movement in the country that spawned the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), its National Democratic Front (NDF) and its armed group (NPA) – are no longer in positions of authority. Most have been killed or have died off or have retired after stints in prison. The main personalities in exile in the Netherlands have been out of the country for decades and the face of this “leftist ideology” has changed. In one sense, Jose Maria Sison (Joma), the “primus interpares” of the left is no longer “in control”. The new breed of NPA no longer listens to these old leaders and operate under their own younger chain of command in the countryside. And the “open and legitimized” democratic front (NDF) is now populated by a younger generation with some of its elderly known leadership and icons co-opted into the Deegong administration with juicy cabinet and sub-cabinet level positions. Thus, DU30 has arrived at the conclusion that the current leadership and the whole cabal of the “communist group” no longer have the handle on their side to conduct the “peace process” with the DU30 regime. He has been speaking to the wrong set of leaders.

A minor distraction in the peace process is that the citizenry too, and a growing number of people in the military, have become wary of government spending for these talks held outside Philippines and for personal side trips after the sessions of delegates gallivanting all over Europe.

If ever the peace process is to resume, back-door talks will have to be re-started. And more importantly, with the right personalities in the CPP/NDF/NPA camp who are in “control of the guns”. It would help to provide stricter rules that ensure greater accountability in both sides for those who fail to observe ceasefire agreements. Giving peace a chance should not just come from the government, but from the CPP-NDF-NPA as well. Peace is not just something that is agreed upon by a couple of delegates, not even by a mere signed document from both panels.

The alternative that PRRD has presented in the SONA is not a solution and in fact is scary. In a pique, Duterte ordered PNP Chief Ronaldo dela Rosa to get rid of the NPA “whatever it takes”. After pacifying the Marawi situation, Duterte wanted Dela Rosa to focus on pulverizing the NPA. With the state of our police forces under incompetent leadership, and its hands full in the elimination of drug-related crimes and problems, the police forces as they are now structured are simply a formula for disaster. PRRD of course is aware of this and understands that professionalizing the police forces is an imperative before they can carry the brunt of the fight against insurgency.

But the Deegong must realize too that the solution to this decades-old insurgency is basically the application of social justice for all, the rooting out of the causes of poverty, and simply good governance, not exclusively through the barrel of a gun. And this requires the whole government with the backing of the citizenry to “own the peace process”.
Part 2

COINED by the eminent author and chronicler of the Kennedy years, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in his book of the same title, The Imperial Presidency, the phrase has entered into the lexicon of political conversation. Writers have since used this expression to describe dictators, tyrants and despots. Even our own bloggers in social media, some critical of the Deegong, have equated him with this catchphrase. They are just partly right. A few writers, however, have avoided this “name-calling,” and refer correctly to the original intent of Schlesinger in writing his book. The book, which reviewed the US presidency from George Washington’s time to the Nixon period, traces the transformation of the office from its faithful adherence to the American Constitution to the seeping deviations that have ruptured its constitutional limits, sometimes leading to unintended consequences – the impeachment and a resignation of the most powerful man in America.

My take on this book is that the evolution of the American presidency has been impacted and eventually distorted by a combination of the acts of the occupant of the office himself, the non-vigilance of the Congress and the realities and exigencies of geopolitics; thus, giving rise to the imperial presidency.

One or two interesting cases pointed out by Schlesinger is that of the 16th American President, Abraham Lincoln, and the 37th, Richard Nixon:

“During the American Civil War, Lincoln assumed war powers as commander in chief of the military but made no claim that the Constitution allowed him these powers. Without congressional authorization, Lincoln unilaterally expanded the military, suspended habeas corpus, arrested citizens, proclaimed martial law, seized property, censored newspapers, and emancipated slaves. Lincoln justified the actions as necessary to preserve the country rather than by the Constitution. However, he stated that the presidential war powers would cease to exist once the national emergency, the Civil War, ended.”(Schlesinger, Wikipedia)

The profile of the presidency was altered in ways not anticipated by the US Constitution: the arbitrary but courageous act by the sitting President; the non-interference by the US Congress; and more importantly, the realities at the time that called for such drastic measures. After the deed was done, the slaves were freed and the war ended. the Supreme Court belatedly stated, “…the President must carry out the law and may not break the law. Presidential power was deflated following the Civil War.” (Schlesinger, Wikipedia). It was just the proverbial “slap in the wrist” but the onslaught on the US Constitution continued, eroding a “constitutional presidency” towards one with imperial character. Lincoln had to eventually pay for his act (the freeing of slaves) with his assassination by John Wilkes Booth and a Southern Confederate cabal.

The 37th President, Richard Nixon, caused the bombing of Cambodia and Laos without the knowledge and consent of Congress at the height of the Vietnam war, that already had made a casualty of Lyndon Johnson, his predecessor. On top of this, Nixon entered into defense agreements with Thailand and funded the Ethiopian Army, again in secrecy, keeping this from Congress. In effect, Nixon unilaterally hammered out a treaty with these two countries without Congress’ approval through a law approving the same. This was clearly a violation of the Constitution, underpinning in effect the imperial attributes of the US presidency.

In America, the impetus for the creation of the imperial presidency was its involvement in geopolitics, concomitant with the role the US carved for itself as the “world’s policeman”. In Nixon’s particular case, his foreign policy initiatives shut out and disregarded his authorizing environment: the Constitution, Congress, the press and the public. “Once established, the imperial Presidency then expanded into domestic issues”. (Schlesinger, Wikipedia)

Oddly enough, Nixon was impeached for his role in obstructing justice in the infamous “Watergate scandal,” not for his Vietnam war transgressions.

This is where I take off from the American experience described by Schlesinger and situate the Philippine presidency within a similar context.

Ferdinand Marcos personified both the “strongman” President and the apex of the Philippine imperial presidency. There was no question about the personality of the President as a singular “strongman”. His charisma and force of character were overwhelming, intimidating his peers and allowing him to fashion a personal following analogous to a “cult of personality” like Mao Zedong of China and Kim Il-sung of North Korea.

Marcos’ method was to create a series of scenarios that gave him “legal cover” for the policies and acts of the presidency. Employing deceit as a trigger (an assassination attempt on a Cabinet member), Proclamation 1081 was set into motion. What came next and over the next decade was the triumph of the Philippine version of the imperial presidency – a regime that did away with any pretense to the traditional democratic checks and balances by the abolition of the two houses of Congress, the emasculation of the Supreme Court and the supplanting of the Charter by a new “Marcos Constitution”.

The People Power Revolution of 1986 extinguished both the strongman President and the imperial presidency.

The governments of Ramos, to the lamented and short-lived Erap, to the corruption-beleaguered Arroyo administration to the incompetent Aquino regime, generated political developments that in the definition of Schlesinger could constitute the re-creation of an imperial presidency.

In last Thursday’s article (“The imperial presidency, or the self-castration of Congress, June 22), a hypothesis was proposed that the Deegong was inevitable; that what was needed by the country was a strongman President in “a weak state populated by weak leaders”.

Next week, we will examine the second part of the hypothesis: that the presidency is institutionally weak, allowing a strongman President to emerge and dominate. Thus, the imperial President Rodrigo Duterte.

(Next Thursday, Part 3 – The imperial presidency of DU30)
Part 1

THIS column will attempt to interpret and understand President Duterte’s martial law declaration and his comportment after the fact and compare it to similar assertions by past Presidents—as seen from a combination of several points of view.

First, as an observer of presidential politics spanning five administrations with particular emphasis on Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Arroyo (GMA) who likewise declared martial law during their administrations; second, as a student of politics learning through experience from within government and extracting such lessons and concepts that could modestly add to the growing literature of Philippine political technocracy; and third, as an amateur historian drawing comparable features that are common to both the Philippine and American presidency, spotlighting the latter’s evolution from its creation in 1776 to the Nixon period. To this end, some reference therefore is made to the American author, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. in his book Imperial Presidency published in 1974.

Also, this exercise could reinforce a hypothesis that the Deegong’s role as a “strongman” President is inevitable given a weak state populated by weak leaders. If a Duterte failed to appear in the political scene, it would have been imperative to create one like him. The declaration of martial rule, the constitutional mandated “last resort” is the matrix upon which a “strongman” President is examined. I differentiate the “strongman” President from the strong presidency. The former simply describes the sheer tough personality of the President; the latter is a component of the majesty and institution of the presidency. I am making a case therefore of a “strongman” President, the Deegong, within an institutionally weak presidency.

Martial law comparisons

On May 23, 2017, the Deegong declared martial law covering the whole of Mindanao, triggered by the attack of the Maute/IS/Abu Sayyaf terrorists on the Muslim-majority city of Marawi. This elicited comparisons the December 5, 2009 declaration of martial law in Maguindanao province by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, which was precipitated by the Ampatuan massacre. This only lasted for a week and was lifted upon the recommendation of GMA’s cabinet. There is not much to be discussed of GMA’s Proclamation 1959.

Proclamation 1081 of President Marcos on September 21, 1972 was a much more convoluted decision, ushering in martial rule lasting for nine years and formally lifted in January of 1981. The residual consequences of martial law were felt up to the overthrow of Marcos in 1986, but its reverberations on the political culture of the Filipinos is felt even up to now.

Historians and political pundits will continue to opine over the advantages and disadvantages of martial law, but the facts are now clearer: Marcos’ immediate trigger was the so-called attempted assassination of his defense chief (later declared as untrue by the defense chief himself). The declaration was likewise to stop in its tracks the drive towards the so-called leftist-communist conspiracy. The legitimate opposition was incarcerated; the writ of habeas corpus was suspended; newspapers were closed; both houses of Congress were padlocked; the Supreme Court was eviscerated; military tribunals were constituted; and the whole Philippines was placed under martial rule, among others.

Nothing of this sort happened under Proclamation 216 of the Deegong.

Section 18, Article VII of the Constitution empowers PRRD to declare martial law in any part of the country not exceeding 60 days within which the two houses of Congress have the responsibility and authority to review the declaration. PRRD also has the duty to report to Congress within 48 hours after the proclamation and Congress in turn has to convene within 24 hours to deliberate on the proclamation. Congress may then subsequently decide on whether to revoke or not the proclamation and lift martial law. This also did not happen.

The DU30 presidency may well be defined by his comportment on what transpired after his martial law declaration. He disregarded Congress and initially threatened to defy the Supreme Court. While it is true and justifiable that the President holds vital information about what is happening on the ground, it is still the primary role of the legislative body to check the constitutionality of the action taken by the President in this crucial situation. Despite this clear constitutional mandate, leaders of both houses of the legislature advanced the lame excuse that since the majority of members of each House anyway already supported the President’s declaration, then the constitutional protocols could be set aside. It is suspected by many however that perhaps the build-up and hype towards the “strongman” image of the President, his undisciplined language, his volatile temper and the “damn the torpedoes” attitude are intimidating to leaders of this co-equal branch. Some in the opposition likened this act by the legislative body as political self-castration by Congress.

Contradictory statements

And the Deegong went on to declare that he might extend martial law to encompass the whole country after the 60-day period; taunting the Supreme Court to determine otherwise. Some of the major assertions from the President himself are now known not to have been pre-processed by his Cabinet or his close advisers. In short, there is no “complete staff work,” the famed “CSW” that became the hallmark of the Ramos presidency.

Speaking to his troops, Duterte said: “During martial law, your commanders and you can arrest any person, search any house. There is no more warrant needed”. This contradicts what was earlier stated by the government information agency that warrants of arrest and search warrants should be issued and that “no person may be arrested and detained without orders coming from these civil courts”. It is simply alarming how PRRD blurts out unstudied statements with his communications officers trying to fix the damage subsequently. One from the military is its prediction contradicted by the civilian leadership that hostilities will end by the Philippine Independence Day, June 12.

This cacophony of contradictory statements emanating from the center of power suggests a core in conflict with itself reflecting negatively on a “strongman” President. It is a symptom of disarray in the office of the President when each subaltern, with good intentions no doubt, discerns or second-guesses the President’s body language and passes along these conjectures as official statements. The presidency is not served well if the President’s men are held back, perhaps driven by fear of the wrath of the President or much worse, there are no dissenting voices to counter the President’s. These are the circumstances that are the breeding grounds of an emerging anomaly in high political leadership – the imperial presidency.

(Next Thursday, Part 2 – The imperial presidency)
Thursday, 01 June 2017 12:04

Shooting the messenger

“You’re fired today. Get out of the service. You do not contradict your own government.”

–President Duterte to DDB Chairman Benjamin Reyes (GMA News)

AND with that unceremonious public shaming, another one “bites the dust”. What brought this about was the bureaucrat openly contradicting his boss in public, pegging the number of illegal drug users in the Philippines to a mere 1.8 million—in contrast to the 4 million used by the Deegong in justifying his war on drugs.

The first ever on record on a similar scenario ended too in tragedy circa 70 B.C. A messenger was sent to Tigranes, King of Armenia, warning him of the coming of Roman General Lucullus. Tigranes didn’t like the message and had the messenger’s head cut off. No right information was ever given Tigranes again. He eventually lost the war.

The analogy ends here but the lesson portrayed may wreak havoc with the way the President’s men will communicate with him and with the public henceforth. This incident opens a plethora of questions that puts under scrutiny the way the Office of the President is run and even how the personality of the President shapes the culture of his bureaucracy. The limitation of the length of this article prevents the writer from discussing the issue thoroughly. But let me refer the readers to a 3-part series that I wrote in this column on January 26, February, 2 and February 9, 2017 on “Controversial Alter-Egos”.

Bureaucrats and members of the Cabinet may now be very careful about double -checking their data when presenting them to the big boss or to the public. Public policy when proclaimed by vested authority impacts on the lives of the citizenry. As an instrument for government to better the lives of its people, its principal purpose, it demands no less than precise data upon which a strategy is shaped.

This is where the confusion started. In December last year, Rappler’s Maria Ressa asked the President on his use of 3 million to 4 million drug addicts in his speeches rather than the 1.8 million DDB estimate. PRRD only said that most of drug addiction cases are not reported anyway. Another reason is that he trusts the estimates from PDEA rather than from the DDB. Perhaps, this is to give flesh to his claim of the wide extent of drug use and abuse in the country.

A parallel issue is what is the role of the Dangerous Drug Board (DDB) in contrast with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). Under its mandate, the DDB “…makes policies, strategies and programs on drug prevention and control”, under the office of the President. The PDEA “…is the lead anti-drug law enforcement agency, responsible for preventing, investigation, and combating any dangerous drugs…”. Further to this, “PDEA is the implementing arm of the DDB”. Both are under the Office of the President.

If it is the task of DDB to shape strategies and policies that will curtail drug usage in the country, it is only appropriate that they make use of accurate and timely data in every assumption and future projections. What is unfortunate is that the President himself has already been using data contradictory to one proclaimed by the DDB. Right or wrong, the President’s pronouncement has precedence and a subaltern has no business contradicting the President in public. If he stands by his figures, then it is the alter-ego’s duty to tell the facts even if it contravenes presidential directives, but a private approach could have been prudent on Reyes’ part.

But a nagging issue hovers in the periphery and it is not about the 1.8 million or 4.7 million drug addicts. How did they come up with such statistics? Data are essential in planning as it gives policy makers a grasp of the context and extent of the problems; fashioning solutions through timely and sustainable programs; allowing the implementers to carry out their responsibilities and achieve their goals properly and effectively. Inaccurate or unavailable information are prone to gloss over strategic gaps that could be fatal to programs on the ground.

The conflicting number of drug addicts espoused by the two agencies under the Office of the President is further complicated by definition of terms. Both have failed to differentiate between drug addiction, drug usage and drug pushing, thereby distorting the numbers submitted to the President and the public. In the process, the lower number belies the oft-repeated position of PRRD that the country is in the grip of unnamed drug lords and on the way to becoming some South American type of narco-state. This resulted in a fatal consequence to the DDB chairman, the bearer of bad numbers.

This whole sordid episode on the dismissal from office of the bearer of bad news; tantamount to the proverbial “killing of the messenger,” could have, I’m afraid, an unintended result, a chilling effect on bureaucrats tasked to gather and proffer data to the presidency. Will they in future willingly stand by their facts and risk public shaming or will they trim them to the liking of the Deegong?
Friday, 26 May 2017 10:41


To all CDP dues paying members of good standing; volunteer members; Young Centrist Union (YCU); Centrist Democratic Sectors; and Centrist Democrats all over the country.

MANILA IS NOT OUR ENEMY! We have allies in Metro-Manila, Luzon and Visayas as we have enemies in Mindanao.

Our main enemy is the oppressive perverted Unitary System we are trying to replace with a new governance paradigm Parliamentary-Federal through the revision of the 1987 Constitution.

THE DEEGONG'S Martial Law declaration is not the problem. In his best lights as our President, Martial Law is his solution in his appreciation of the recent dangerous events in Marawi. And the incident in Marawi is not even the main issue. It is just the trigger to contain the growing threat of ISIS and other terrorist groups. The DEEGONG understands he has to contain this in Mindanao before it spreads to Visayas and Manila. God help us if the malls in Manila are hit. Then Manila may want Martial Law declared too!


Lito Monico C. Lorenzana Chairman, CDP
Thursday, 25 May 2017 08:50

Political chameleons

IN May 2016, the Deegong ran with just a handful of PDP-Laban stalwarts; the current Senate President, the House Speaker and one or two nondescript candidates for Congress. But three weeks prior to the President-elect’s assumption to power, the LP and some members of mother political parties jumped ship to the PDP- Laban’s “super-majority”. Perhaps there was nothing wrong with this from the standpoint of Filipino politicians and their brand of traditional politics. But it is stretching credulity to a shameful level when one particular politician paraphrased President Quezon and proclaimed: “My loyalty to my party ends when my loyalty to my country begins…” Sheer hypocrisy!

He would have salvaged a shred of self-respect if he just simply declared that “I want to be with the winning brand for self-interest”. This “political butterfly” phenomenon has been the norm in modern Philippine politics. In this context, changing political parties is akin to chameleons changing their skin color perfunctorily, and politicians possessed with the temerity to stay affiliated to a political party out of ideology and values are rare. They are an endangered species.

In 1986, when Cory won, the Marcos KBL was decimated, and though Cory did not believe in a political party – which was tragic – they gravitated to her. In 1992, Fidel Ramos whose Lakas-Tao party reportedly “could all get into one taxi” built a “rainbow coalition” of NUCD-CMD-Lakas and remained in power up to GMA’s administration. That party was dominant until PNoy took power in 2010 and decimated the NUCD-CMD-Lakas, giving rise to the new Liberal Party. Today, we have a “not so new kid in the block”— PDP Laban—with more than 100 LP members swearing allegiance to the principles and ideology of this “left-of-center” party.

Last May 10, Ansaruddin Adiong of Lanao del Sur’s 1st district, Winston Castelo of Quezon City’s 2nd district, Geraldine Roman of Bataan 1st district, Nancy Catamco of North Cotabato’s 2nd district and Alfred Vargas of Quezon City’s 5th district took their oath before Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, the PDP-Laban secretary general.

Along with them were Rodolfo Albano III of Isabela 1st district, Abdulmunir Arbison of Sulu 2nd district, Scott Davies Lanete of Masbate 3rd district, Xavier Jesus Romualdo of Camiguin and Divina Grace Yu of Zamboanga del Sur 1st district. Last Wednesday, two former LP members Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte of Quezon City and Councilor Gian Sotto took their oaths before the PDP-Laban president, Senate President Koko Pimentel.

With this recent defection, the emasculation of the once mighty Liberal Party and its minor cohorts is complete, reducing the remnants to a pathetic few and leaving their political carcasses strewn all over the place.

I bring these episodes and names up not to disparage these politicians but to emphasize that the political party system in the Philippines as the backbone of a truly democratic governance is severely defective, leaving the elected leaders perhaps with very little choice but to defect for personal survival.

Almost all of the political parties in the Philippines are structured in a manner that hew closely to the centuries-old patronage system. The patrons who provide the funds make almost all of the political party decisions, especially with regard to those slated to run for elective positions; the central/executive committees are usually manned by their allies and subalterns; and there are no real offices and party activities year-round except during election periods.

Invariably, political parties do not have a uniquely consistent set of beliefs that distinguishes one from the other; at most they proffer slogans and motherhood statements that pass for political doctrines. Their political agenda are predictably directed towards the preservation of elective members’ prerogatives, ensuring the continued accumulation of pelf and privileges for themselves and their families. Individual programs and family interest, perforce, have precedence over that of a political party’s collective appreciation of society’s needs. And once they are gifted the privilege to govern, public policies are instituted on the fly emanating from the framework of traditional political practices, their comprehension of national issues seen subjectively through the prism of personal and family interests, thus perpetuating the existing flawed political institutions.

We need immediate reforms in our political party system even prior to PRRD’s plans to shift to a federal parliamentary system. This can be achieved through the passing of the proposed Political Party Development and Financing Act (a bill that has been pending in Congress for several years) which will:

1) Penalize “turncoatism” (or the switching of political parties, “balimbing”, “political butterfly”);

2) Enforce transparent mechanisms providing and regulating campaign financing to eliminate graft, corruption, and patronage (corporate & individual contributions); and

3) Institute strict state subsidy that will professionalize political parties by supporting their political education and campaign initiatives.

In more modern developed countries, political parties are the “sine qua non” of a vibrant democracy. They are not vessels for personal electoral survival and perpetuation in power of political families. They exist because the citizenry, the wellspring and final arbiter of political power, have diverse issues and aspirations that need to be articulated and amplified to a wider political domain. Political parties must provide them real choices.
Thursday, 18 May 2017 08:40

I simply love Mocha!

MY Mocha is just a little bit faultless; well, almost perfect. My wife Sylvia hates it when I show interest for Mocha. Last week, we celebrated our 44th wedding anniversary. On our way home from dinner, I had this urge to bring my Mocha home with us. She surprisingly agreed.

The closest from home where I can get my Mocha, also called mochachi or mocaccino, is the Blugre Café at the MTS, not Starbucks. My wife hates it when I sip this chocolate-flavored variant of a caffè latte. She says I’m already fat and recommends just plain Americano.

This column however is about the other Mocha. She has been raked over the coals lately that I thought I’d dive right in and try to put things in perspective.

I have never met Mocha Uson. I don’t have any personal knowledge of what she is other than what I read in social media. I don’t follow her in Facebook or twitter. I don’t even have a twitter account. So, this column is not a paean to her.

But I just hate it when the so-called literati and educated look down on people’s newfound status. I find certain commonalities with the young lady. We are both children of murdered fathers—both public servants whose assailants were never brought to justice. In some ways, I sympathize with this hardworking girl.

Mocha Uson’s stint early this year as a member of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) drew a lot of reactions from netizens, fellow celebrities, and even from some government officials. But her appointment this week as assistant secretary really stirred a hornet’s nest. Offhand, there is no question as to the President’s prerogative to choose his people. The Deegong has already gone on record that he did it “…in payment of his debt of gratitude for her earlier support for his presidential bid…”; and by now we should know that PRRD gives premium to such loyalty.

PRRD appreciates the kind of expertise Mocha possesses which, by the way, no one among the President’s people can provide. The former “sexy dancer” as she is disparagingly referred to by the snooty, has broken through the traditional choices made by past presidents and that made her entry to the PRRD government blunt and unwelcomed. But she is closer to the female version of the Deegong, a person with common sense who understands the language of the masses, and all in all a political outsider with potential for public service.

The accusation of her lack of education is hogwash. She graduated from a leading Manila university and has a bachelor’s degree. We have a lot of highly educated public servants who have been caught with their sticky fingers in the government coffers. Enough of high-class education!

Political blogging draws networks together in a community that tackles as many diverse societal issues as there are bloggers. They can be very idiosyncratic and unavoidably readers are influenced by the partisanship of some very articulate ones. But this is the whole point of blogging where the readership is allowed instant intimacies fundamental to social media interaction in contrast to traditional media where interface with readers is staid and confined to “letters to the editor”. Bloggers like Mocha Uson inject subjectivity into the political conversation shaping arguments condensed from opinions of the readers.

Her political blog has been a popular online hub mainly because she speaks and writes the language not only of the millennials but of the ordinary person on the street. She is astute enough to strategically position herself on an issue extracting every ounce of advantage. When petitions demanded to close down her Facebook page, she plastered online her photo, gagged with a silver masking tape. She defiantly telegraphed the message that she will not be silenced defending the persona and the interests of the Deegong.

Her Palace appointment, however, is a double-edged one. As a high official of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) she has been entrusted the sensitive job of communicating government programs and official presidential messages to the citizenry and even beyond through social media. Along with it, of course, comes the privileges, honors and recognition. Therein lies her difficulty. As a private blogger, she was free to say and print what was in her mind. She has been accused of concocting fake news in defense of the Deegong and like her sponsor, was also liberal with language often considered inappropriate.

There is a code of conduct that covers government officials (RA 6713) and she could be made liable for transgressions now that she has morphed from a private person to an official government employee. Her strength as a private blogger could be a bane as a government-paid publicist. Henceforth, she will be put under a microscope of severe political scrutiny not only by the detractors of the Deegong but even his own allies perhaps resentful of the ascendancy of one who was once a member of the “dancing entourage” of the presidential campaign.

And she could be vulnerable defending the President’s programs from the predictable attacks by traditional media. She can no longer label print media as “presstitutes” when they become critical of DU30s policies, especially in matters which the Deegong considers his very own personal advocacy—human rights and illegal drugs. But with reportedly about 5 million followers in her Facebook page, she has her back covered. So, let Mocha be Mocha!
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