Agony in Cebu

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THE SUSPENSION of Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia, ordered by the Office of the President and enforced by the Department of Interior and Local Government, is a vexing issue. The high-profile visit the so-called Three Kings of the United Nationalist Alliance paid the suspended governor did not help matters; instead of defusing the tension at the Cebu provincial capitol, it did the opposite—and added to the muddle.

The visit last Sunday by Vice President Jejomar Binay, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and ex-President Joseph Estrada followed a strictly middle-of-the-road script: They heard Mass with Garcia and her family inside the capitol, and then stayed for lunch. There were no rabble-rousing speeches at the barricade (although Binay did ask the police officer in charge why the security procedures were so strict). And there were no direct challenges to the political partner the three veteran politicians all say they support: President Aquino.

Enrile explained their presence in simple terms, of getting an ally’s back when the chips are down. “If we cannot support our members when they’re faced with oppressive conduct, then we might as well fall that soon.” Garcia, once a prospective candidate on the UNA Senate slate, until low national survey results forced her to decide to contest a congressional seat instead, had the grace to receive the three political leaders on behalf of all her province-mates. “I am deeply touched. I am speaking for the Cebuanos … This will be forever remembered by the Cebuanos, a truly, truly welcomed gesture,” she said.

As Binay may have had the occasion to tell her during the Sunday visit, Garcia’s show of defiance five months before the elections may have positive political effects. He certainly reaped the benefit back in 2007, when he faced a similar suspension effort backed by the Arroyo administration.

“At least in that particular case, I didn’t follow the [Ombudsman] order. I didn’t leave [Makati City mayor’s office] because I insisted that there was a pending case in court and we shouldn’t be removed,” Binay later told reporters.

The extreme delay in filing the suspension order, prompted by a complaint in 2010 from the Cebu vice governor at that time, certainly begs the question: What took the OP and the DILG so long? There are, however, serious differences between 2007, when Binay felt the wrath of the Arroyos, and 2012.

In the first place, in 2007 Garcia was firmly, prominently, on the side of the Arroyo administration. Indeed, Arroyo credited Garcia for her so-called million-vote mandate in the presidential election of 2004, over Estrada’s friend Fernando Poe Jr.—to such an extent that President Arroyo held her inauguration in Cebu. Garcia was a linchpin of the very administration that had also pursued the plunder case against Estrada (a pursuit that resulted, tragically, in a presidential pardon). If Binay and Estrada remain committed to a platform of governance that cannot be mistaken for Arroyo’s, on what basis—other than the million-plus votes of Cebu province—can they reconcile with Garcia?

Secondly, the circumstances surrounding Garcia’s suspension differ from Binay’s in one crucial respect: His happened a few days before election day. If the Vice President had given honest advice to Garcia, he should have noted that five months was a long time in politics, and that the political effects of her suspension and her show of defiance may also turn out to be negative. He should have also told her that Arroyo’s very political legitimacy was in question in 2007, whereas the opposite is true today of Mr. Aquino.

Last but certainly not least, the implied threat in Binay’s recalling his former situation—not following the Ombudsman, not leaving his office—suggests that Garcia is well within her rights to contest the suspension order from within the governor’s office. We think not. As Garcia and her lawyers know all too well, the first remedy lies in a temporary restraining order. (They have filed a petition with the Court of Appeals.) The thing to do is to remove one’s self from office while waiting for the court to decide. That is what we are all expected to do, in a working democracy. The example of the Three Kings, however, with their gifts of partisanship, political calculation and selective tales of survival, has muddled all that.

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