PRESIDENTS are bestowed political powers by virtue of the legitimacy of their election. This makes President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (PRRD) the most powerful person in government. Those wrapped with the penumbra of power are suffused by it not so much by proximity, but by people’s perception thereof. Sen. Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go (SBG), the most loyal of the presidential coterie and erstwhile photo-bomber, has complete insider privileged access, making him the most influential functionary. Since his Davao salad days, he was Duterte’s executive assistant, a faithful friend, one who will do the President’s bidding without question and will take a bullet for him. As SBG himself admitted, he owes everything to the President and in return Duterte has reciprocated by showering him with pelf and prestige, causing his elevation to senator of the Republic — the ultimate in presidential “bayad sa utang na loob.”

The President’s singular act simply mirrors the peculiar state of our governance — the preponderance of patronage over meritocracy. PRRD demonstrated his dominance over the Filipino voter’s psyche, particularly of his fist-pumping DDS — Diehard Duterte Supporters — base. The 2018 to 2019 electoral campaign was a bizarre tutorial on the regime’s wanton use of government machinery in combination with social media trolls to select unqualified nonentities as candidates, trusting only the say-so of the patron.

A creature of circumstance, SBG’s politics and accomplishment are not his, even those crafted motherhood statements labeling broadsheet pictorials depicting his preferential treatment for the poor victims of countless fires and calamities; distributing food, goodies and running shoes; all of these dreadfully orchestrated undoubtedly by an expensive team of media handlers.

But the ascendant quality which is exclusively SBG’s is a canine devotion to the patron — the senator cum glorified executive assistant — making a mockery of the constitutional separation of the independent branches of government. Nevertheless, such devotion is endearing to countless Filipino parents as the ultimate in filial piety — one Duterte reciprocates with warmth toward SBG. Such display transcends blood — save for daughter Sara’s — causing perhaps a veiled animosity toward each other, analogous to sibling rivalry. Cynics may look at Bong Go as the son the Deegong never had.

Little presidents
Never has there been such an intimate bonding phenomenon in Philippine politics as far as anyone can remember. There are equivalent relationships particularly with executive secretaries nicknamed “Little Presidents,” the most senior ranking official of the Office of the President — but never approaching filial intimacy. Current Executive Secretary Salvador “Bingbong” Medialdea, Duterte’s childhood friend and former personal lawyer, has a self-effacing personality, a gentle giant who likewise has the total trust and confidence of the President, projecting a low profile from the start of this regime. He speaks for and on behalf of the President and technically, in terms of formal functions should be the most powerful man next to the President — but is not. He is never seen as a permanent fixture around the presidential presence akin to a caregiver hovering over a patient. But he strikes one as a person who plays safe, keeps his nose clean and avoids controversies, yet holds influence and exercises authority discreetly.

In the past, notable personages served the country in other capacities after their stint as “little presidents”: Fred Ruiz Castro, President Ramon Magsaysay’s executive secretary, appointed later as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; probably the trajectory of Bingbong Medialdea, whose father was himself a Supreme Court Associate Justice during Cory Aquino’s administration.

Others parlayed their Malacañang stint into electoral prominence. Among them are Ernesto Maceda, 1996-1998, Ferdinand Marcos’ executive secretary; Joker Arroyo, 1986-1987 and Franklin Drilon, 1991-1992, Cory Aquino’s; Teofisto Guingona, 1993-1995 Fidel V. Ramos’; Edgardo Angara, 2002, Joseph Estrada’s; and Alberto Romulo, 2002-2004, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s. These executive secretaries, powerful men, served their president’s well before moving on; attaining greater heights; giants of their time serving the country with distinction – elected senators of the Republic — having proven themselves first as professional bureaucrats.

One notable name could be that of Manuel Roxas who went on to become the fifth President of the Philippines. Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon designated him executive secretary and successor to the presidency in case Quezon or Vice President Sergio Osmena was captured or killed by the Japanese.

Many Filipinos now speculate that this could be the path that the Deegong has laid out for Sen. Bong Go as the next president; jokingly as it turned out, as he also mentioned — not endorsed — Pacquaio, Bongbong Marcos and other personalities.

The realities
This is not to disparage the man. But Sen. Bong Go will not be president. “…alam naman po ng Pangulo na hindi talaga ako interesado. Biro lang ng Pangulo iyon” (Duterte’s just joking). SBG was astute and humble enough to see through the President. And he could have just ended there. But he ventured on, “…magbabago lang siguro ang isip ko kung tatakbong Vice President si Pangulong Duterte.” This statement defines Bong Go — a pregnant declaration that can give birth to a trove of arguments and ridicule pointing toward why he does not deserve the presidency.

The “presidency is destiny” that one must salivate for, according to a tired old cliché. The Deegong as a vice president cannot be a sine qua non for another man’s presidency. Even PRRD sees this as a shamefully idiotic arrangement – that only the ignorant zealotry adheres to. And Duterte is not an idiot!

SBG’s assertion reveals a naiveté, unable to grasp the majesty of the office. The president is not a collective. He is on top of the totem pole where the fates of men and mice are decided.

The Philippine president must have a vision to where he leads his people, embodying qualities of greatness even a pretense thereof to inspire his people to follow. “I will run for president only if Duterte is my vice-president,” does not inspire. The role of caregiver for one man ends when one is caregiver for all Filipinos!

A danger to SBG winning the presidency by proxy is that inevitably he will be co-opted by sycophants much brighter than he. What an irony for this reversal of roles reducing Bong Go’s presidency into a grand sycophancy while VP Duterte continues to rule. The tragedy is this parody escapes the good senator.

Learning process
The Deegong, steeped in the arcana of traditional politics understand this only too well. True, he needs to finish what he set out to do and mindful of his mortality, must frantically pass on his political legacy to someone who embodies his illusions of greatness; yet he cannot do it with his progeny — nor with a doppelgänger. This is too divisive for the Filipino to tolerate. His legacy will be defined by his choices beyond his kin.

SBG is doing passably well as a senator. But he has yet to cut his teeth as a neophyte in the art of lawmaking — a necessary consequence of intellectual confrontation, debate and negotiations with his peers in the halls of the Senate. His refusal to be interpellated after his speeches either reflects his fear of a clash of ideas, the currency of lawmaking; or his inadequacies are simply overwhelming. He has to be his own man shedding his patron and perhaps, someday, he can be president. But not in 2022!

The Senate President crowed yesterday that the party he nominally coheads, PDP-Laban, has a “pleasant problem” — too many potential senatorial candidates. Koko Pimentel’s estimate is they have up to 20 possible choices for the 12-person slate for the 2019 senatorial race. But his list includes the five administration-affiliated senatorial incumbents up for reelection next year. This is a group that has made noises that, much as it prefers to remain in the administration camp, it is unhappy with the way PDP-Laban has been designating its local leaders and candidates, and therefore prefers to strike out on its own, perhaps in alliance with the other administration (regional) party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago, headed by the President’s daughter and current Davao City mayor, Sara Duterte.

Setting aside, then, the five-person “Force,” the administration-oriented but not PDP-friendly reelectionists (Nancy Binay, Sonny Angara, Cynthia Villar, Grace Poe, and JV Ejercito), what Koko’s crowing over is a mixed bag. Some of them have been floated by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez (with whom Mayor Duterte clashed in recent months): six representatives (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who is in her last term in the House of Representatives; Albee Benitez, Karlo Nograles, Rey Umali, Geraldine Roman, and Zajid Mangudadatu), three Cabinet members (Bong Go, Harry Roque, and Francis Tolentino), and two other officials (Mocha Uson and Ronald dela Rosa), which still only adds up to 11 possible candidates (who are the missing three?).

Of all of these, the “Force” reelectionists are only fair-weather allies of the present dispensation; their setting themselves apart is about much more than the mess PDP-Laban made in, say, San Juan where support for the Zamoras makes it extremely unattractive for JV Ejercito to consider being in the same slate. Their cohesion is about thinking ahead: Creating the nucleus for the main coalition to beat in the 2022 presidential election. The contingent of congressmen and congresswomen who could become candidates for the Senate, however, seems more a means to kick the Speaker’s rivals upstairs (at least in the case of Benitez and Arroyo) and pad the candidates’ list with token but sacrificial candidates, a similar situation to the executive officials being mentioned as possible candidates (of the executive officials, only Go seems viable, but making him run would deprive the President of the man who actually runs the executive department, and would be a clear signal that the administration is shifting to a post-term protection attitude instead of the more ambitious system-change mode it’s been on, so far).

Vice President Leni Robredo has been more circumspect, saying she’s not sure the Liberal Party can even muster a full slate. The party chair, Kiko Pangilinan, denied that a list circulating online (incumbent Bam Aquino, former senators Mar Roxas, Jun Magsaysay, TG Guingona, current and former representatives Jose Christopher Belmonte, Kaka Bag-ao, Edcel Lagman, Raul Daza, Gary Alejano and Erin Tañada, former governor Eddie Panlilio and Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña) had any basis in fact.

What both lists have in common is they could be surveys-on-the-cheap, trial balloons to get the public pulse. Until the 17th Congress reconvenes briefly from May 14 to June 1 for the tail end of its second regular session (only to adjourn sine die until the third regular session begins on July 23), it has nothing much to do. Except, that is, for the barangay elections in May, after a last-ditch effort by the House to postpone them yet again to October failed.

Names can be floated but the real signal will come in July, when the President mounts the rostrum and calls for the big push for a new constitution—or not. Connected to this would be whether the Supreme Court disposes of its own chief, which would spare the Senate—and thus, free up the legislative calendar—to consider Charter change instead of an impeachment trial. In the meantime, what congressmen do seem abuzz over is an unrefusable invitation to the Palace tomorrow — to mark Arroyo’s birthday. An event possibly pregnant with meaning.
“Then I fall to my knees, shake a rattle at the skies and I’m afraid that I’ll be taken, abandoned, forsaken in her cold coffee eyes.” – A quote from the song, “She moves on” by Paul Simon, singer/songwriter

THE recent tremors affecting the central provinces of Mindanao caused by a series of seismic waves radiating to the northern and southern parts of the island, were like nature shaking a rattle, emitting sharp sounds and unnerving motions from the underground, both frightening and bewildering as to the intensity and confusion they generated.

The successive earthquakes and aftershocks were rattling the nerves not only of residents close to the epicenter but also those living along the active fault planes who were not used to strong earth movements. Some reported dizziness, anxiety, depression and other post-traumatic stress symptoms after experiencing continuous shaking and periodic vibrations.

As this article was written, less frequent but perceptible tremors were felt on the affected areas although everyone is reportedly bracing for aftershocks which many hope and pray, would not turn out to be the dreaded “big one,” as some irresponsible persons are falsely posting on social media. Shake a rattle drum to this latter blokes.

According to Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), since the 1900s, Mindanao has been rocked by at least 35 earthquakes, three of which, felt at “Intensity 7” or worse, were deemed destructive: the 1976 Moro Gulf earthquake which caused a tsunami reaching up to nine meters that killed about 8,000 people including the unaccounted ones; the 1999 series of earthquakes in Agusan del Sur damaging roads, and poorly constructed schools and infrastructure; and the Sultan Kudarat earthquake in 2002, killing eight people with 41 others injured and affecting over seven thousand families in the provinces of Sarangani, North and South Cotabato (Rappler 2019). Shake a rattle of prayers for all who perished in these tragedies.

The series of earthquakes in October of this year, just weeks apart, with magnitudes of over 6 hitting many provinces, again, in Cotabato and southern parts of Davao accounted for the death toll of 22, damaging homes, school buildings and many infrastructure, shaking and sending chills to many residents who have to deal with continuing albeit smaller tremors which can be felt as far up the city of Cagayan de Oro and down the southern province of Sarangani.

Some local officials reported residents having developed “earthquake phobia” keeping watch on their clock hanging inside their tents in evacuation sites, losing sleep with anxiety awaiting when the next tremor would be coming. With frayed nerves, some would panic over even slight ground shakings.

But this is not about the temblor as much as the response of people and the country’s leaders and responsible officials. Except for the government of China which donated P22 million in aid and support for relief efforts in Mindanao, hurray for China, other foreign countries just expressed condolences and messages of sympathy to families of victims. No pledges, no assistance. Perhaps, they can’t trust our government agencies to do the job for them anymore. To them, a shake of the baby rattle.

To the initial bunch of donors who immediately come with their financial assistance such as Yorme Isko Moreno of Manila with his P5 million personal money, Mayor Vico Sotto with relief goods and P14 million coming from the people of Pasig City, Mayor Marcy Teodoro of Marikina with 100 modular tents, movie star Angel Locsin who moved about sans fanfare for her charity work offering food and other assistance to victims in Davao and North Cotabato, to Mayor Inday Duterte for relief distribution, Cebu provincial government for disaster relief campaign and to the many nameless others who came with their relief aids, shake a rattle of joy and thankfulness for their kindness and generosity.

To our government officials and politicians goes our appeal to set aside politics, distribute the relief items according to the wishes of their donors and not allow goods to rot because of political colors as was shown in the previous administration’s handling of donated goods. To them, shake a rattle of enlightenment and peace.

In whatever disaster or crisis that befalls the country, trust Filipinos’ resiliency and coping mechanisms such as resorting to prayers and humor to come to their succor.

Social media become a natural venue for memes, practical jokes and bantering such as the ones which came after Pastor Apollo C. Quiboloy reportedly claimed that he caused to stop the earthquakes so they can no longer create damage. To everyone, shake a rattle of laughter and fun while we help provide for the needs of our less fortunate brethren in Cotabato and Davao provinces.