Secret sauce

It seems Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV wants to oust Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile so badly he cannot think straight. Or perhaps he thinks candor and bold speech are a suitable substitute for strategy. But at a forum on Tuesday, Trillanes revealed the secret sauce behind the plan to unseat Enrile: Malacañang support.

“We will know that hopefully within the next two weeks,” he told the media. “[By then] the direction of the administration and this coalition would be clear… if Senator Enrile would be replaced or not.”

Let us assume, for the moment, that this is true. Why would Trillanes broadcast it to the world? It is not so much the putting of Enrile on notice; the Senate President knows that a Senate coup is in the works. Rather, it is the display of vulnerability. There is the confession of conflicting views within the majority coalition (otherwise why is the “direction” still unclear?). There is the uncertainty disguised as confidence (the 2-week timetable, betrayed by the inadvertent use of “hopefully”). There is the implied appeal for public support, or at least media coverage.

As strategy, this is all suspect, and reminds us that Trillanes shot to national celebrity when he, together with other elite soldiers, tried to seize state power a decade ago by taking over a serviced apartments establishment. It reminds us that he proved woefully unprepared, indeed inadequate, when he tangled with Enrile on the Senate floor last September. And it reminds us that he used his back-channel talks with the Chinese to undermine the carefully calibrated position, approved by President Aquino himself, of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Let us be clear. We do not doubt that some discussion about replacing Enrile with either Sen. Franklin Drilon or Sen. Manny Villar, both former Senate presidents, has taken or is continuing to take place. So when Trillanes says, “If the change in leadership only happened earlier, Sen. Manny Villar might have replaced [Enrile]. But now, the more appropriate choice would be Senator Drilon so that he could be carried over until the next Congress,” we can reasonably conclude that some senators have joined Trillanes in visualizing alternative scenarios.

But let us examine his primary assumption about the supposed secret of the ouster plan.

Is the Senate, in fact, like the House of Representatives? In every single contest for speakership of the House, going back to the first election in 1907, the preference of the resident power in Malacañang determined the winner. Villar himself would know; he couldn’t have been elected speaker of the House in 1998 if he didn’t have President Joseph Estrada’s support. Enrile can tell similar tales from the 1960s, involving Ferdinand Marcos’ use of the presidential privilege.

The privilege is best understood against a truly astounding pattern, first discerned by Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III when he was still writing for the Inquirer: Regardless of political affiliation or the circumstances of election, every president enjoys a majority in the House. Enough congressmen change political parties or join governing coalitions after every election to assure Malacañang of majority support.

The tradition in the Senate has been equally clear, but it is the exact opposite. As someone once famously said, the Senate is a clutch of independent republics. That became all the more true when Senate races became national in scope.

This is not to say that whoever is president cannot depend on reliable support from senators; Estrada, for instance, had Sen. Tessie Aquino-Oreta. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had, among others, Drilon too; he was part of Arroyo’s inner circle from 2001, before turning against her in 2005.

But the Senate is small enough, and a senator’s constituency wide enough, for a few independent-minded senators to actually make a difference, to serve as a counterweight to Malacañang.

So on the strictly practical level, we think Trillanes misreads the situation upside down. President Aquino will likely support the plan if enough senators back it, not the other way around.

On the level of democratic theory, the neophyte senator is even more wrong: If the only way you can visualize seizing control of the Senate is through presidential intervention, what kind of Senate do you have in mind?

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Tags: Antonio Trillanes IV , editorial , Juan Ponce Enrile , ouster plan , politics , Senate

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