Analysis

Cebu siege: Political fallout on Aquino

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The Aquino administration stands on New Year’s Eve under heavy political fallout from the power struggle with the Cebu provincial government involving the suspension of Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia.

For the first time since he took office in June 2010, President Aquino deployed the vast powers of the presidency to incapacitate a local government when he suspended Garcia on Dec. 19 for six months on administrative charges of alleged “abuse of power.”

The suspension order plunged the central government into war with the Cebu government, which rules the largest electorate in the country. It came in the midst of the Christmas season, in what appears to be a show of force aimed at showing local governments who is the boss.

Garcia refused to obey the order issued by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG). She has barricaded herself inside the provincial capitol, refused to yield the post to Vice Gov. Agnes Magpale (designated by Malacañang as acting governor), and petitioned the Court of Appeals to stop the DILG from implementing the suspension order and hand down a temporary restraining order (TRO).

As a result of its action, the administration has found itself confronted with two provincial governments, one of them under siege from the central government.  And it is feared the DILG would call in the national police to forcibly eject Garcia from the capitol.

Magpale is sister of Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, a crony of President Aquino, who yanked Almendras out of the Department of Energy after a lackluster performance at the agency that is supposed to work to avert a power crisis in Mindanao in the summer.

A series of surveys by the Cebu Daily News showed indignation in Cebu over the suspension of Garcia, denounced by her supporters as a “power grab.”

According to one survey, the majority of the respondents who considered the suspension justified dropped from 61.49 percent to 56.43 percent, but those who believed it was political harassment and a forced takeover grew from 34.95 percent to 40.98 percent.

Garcia has served two terms as governor and is running for the House of Representatives from Cebu’s third district in next year’s midterm elections. The suspension order, issued just months before the elections, is expected to cripple Garcia’s campaign.

Garcia was ordered suspended based on the complaint filed by Vice Gov. Greg Sanchez in 2010 accusing her of usurpation of authority. Sanchez died last year.

DILG officials alleged that Garcia abused her authority when she, among other things, withheld the budget for the office of Sanchez.

The swiftness of the administration to employ its punitive powers to damage the electoral chances of candidates it does not favor is underlined by the fact that the case against Garcia is administrative, not criminal, and does not involve graft and corruption.

The timing is suspicious—it comes close to the next elections. The administration could have waited until after the elections, as there will be no ill effects on its centerpiece program—clean and honest government.

The administration is trying to turn the tables on Garcia by saying in its brief to the Court of Appeals, through the Office of the Solicitor General, that President Aquino did not violate any law in ordering the governor’s suspension.

Solicitor General Francisco Jardeleza asks the court to dismiss for lack of merit Garcia’s petition to stop her suspension and hand down a TRO. Jardeleza says Garcia has “failed to demonstrate that there was flagrant abuse of the exercise of the power of suspension” by the Office of the President.

The solicitor general counters Garcia’s argument that the administrative complaint against her should have been dismissed in view of the death of the complainant, Vice Governor Sanchez.

 

Real aggrieved party

Jardeleza cites Supreme Court decisions holding that in administrative cases the death of a complainant does not automatically extinguish the case against a respondent.

“Once an administrative complaint is given due course,” the solicitor general says, “the government becomes the real aggrieved party and the complainant’s death will not exonerate the public official of administrative charges.”

With this argument, Garcia’s only chance of getting the suspension order lifted rests with the Court of Appeals. She is forced to hold fort in the capitol, facing eviction by a superior force.

The Aquino administration is in no mood to go easy on those it perceives as its enemies, even in the spirit of Christmas and New Year.

2 power blocs

The siege of Cebu has created political repercussions beyond the province. It has widened the rift between two power blocs, one identified with Vice President Jejomar Binay and the other with Interior Secretary Mar Roxas.

Binay, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and former President Joseph Estrada—leaders of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA)—have thrown their support behind Garcia, who is a candidate of UNA in the congressional races.

The siege of Cebu is the first of the skirmishes that will come with the face-off between Binay and Roxas for the presidency in 2016.

The UNA is putting up a powerhouse lineup for May’s senatorial election. And it is sending a message to the President to go  easy on Garcia: He needs the UNA numbers to build up a coalition led by the Liberal Party in the Senate, where the ruling party holds only five seats.

The President needs to control the legislature during his remaining three years. Otherwise he becomes a lame duck.

President Aquino needs to show that he is more concerned about introducing economic and social reforms than prosecuting or persecuting his political enemies or proclaiming his incorruptibility.

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