Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile put to rest on Monday persistent rumors of a plot to unseat him with a farcical offer to resign, to clear the way for the election of his successor. He engineered the motion in such a way that it would result in a vote of confidence for his retention.
As a past master of the art of coup d’etat, Enrile initiated a motion declaring his position vacant—ostensibly a coup on himself—to show he was not clinging to the top post in the Senate or aspiring to be its president for life. He was applying the trick he had learned from his political mentor—the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who staged a coup on his democratically elected government by declaring martial law in 1972, claiming that he was acting to save Philippine democracy from the threat of the communist insurgency and the mounting unrest by the legal opposition over his regime’s corruption and economic mismanagement.
Enrile’s self-serving motion turned out the way he wanted it—a vote to keep his grip on power, and not for him to step down. When the Senate voted on the motion, the result confirmed his expectations/designs—a renewed mandate from his colleagues.
The result was 11 voted to reject Enrile’s motion to resign and three voted for his resignation. The three who voted to accept the motion were Senators Antonio Trillanes IV, Aquilino Pimentel III and Enrile himself, as the movant of the motion. Two senators didn’t take part in the farce—Joker Arroyo and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. They abstained from the vote. Senators Miriam Defensor-Santiago, the most outspoken critic of Enrile, and Edgardo Angara, Manny Villar, Francis Pangilinan and Serge Osmeña were absent. Also absent were Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and sister Pia Cayetano (who was abroad).
Enrile seized these opportunities to force the issue of his resignation to a test. Four senators were the hard-core members of the move to unseat him. Santiago was too ill to continue her tirade against him. So when the head count came on the motion, the dissidents didn’t have the numbers. The vote came after Enrile delivered a privilege speech, lashing at his critics who had denounced him for playing favorites in the distribution of Christmas gifts consisting of checks to 22 senators. He distributed just before Christmas the gifts taken from public funds, the Senate savings on the “maintenance and other operating expenditures” (MOOE). Enrile signed checks of P1.6 million each to 18 senators he considered friendly, and gifted four senators he had classified as hostile only P250,000 each.
The rejection of the Enrile-sponsored motion of resignation did not mean that the outrage over the cash bonuses to the senators has spent itself. On the contrary, the backlash of the lavish largesse disguised as Christmas gifts will continue to fester and dog Enrile’s leadership in the remaining few weeks of the current Congress, which ends in June. Enrile can claim that the vote of the Senate on his motion is a vote of confidence on his leadership and on the distribution of the MOOE. That Enrile attacked the media for breaking the story on using public funds for distribution of cash bonuses can also mean that the controversy is taking a political toll on the candidacy of his son, Cagayan Rep. Jack Enrile, who is running for election to the Senate.
The motion to declare his position vacant is not an act of someone who wants to step down. Enrile’s attack on the press was so virulent that he accused some of the media of engaging in a “venomous” campaign to vilify him as a “traitor” and as a villain.
He said: “In their passionate desire to destroy me, my enemies and critics have dragged the reputation of my colleagues, wildly accusing them of taking bribes and pocketing the people’s money. They have succeeded as well in placing this very institution … under the dark cloud of doubt and suspicion.” In his privilege speech, Enrile painted himself as a defender of the members of the Senate who have come under criticism for receiving largesse from the Senate savings. With that, he also succeeded in dividing the Senate into camps of friends or foes.
Enrile is also sending a message to the administration that it should desist from interfering in the affairs of the Senate, that he is still in control of the chamber, and that any move to stage a coup on him is bound to fail.
He has aligned himself with the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) which has formed a senatorial ticket in opposition to President Aquino’s Liberal Party. The party is at the heart of the administration’s lineup to take control of the Senate. Enrile is one of the three key leaders of UNA, which is identified with Vice President Jejomar Binay.
The current fractures in the Senate prefigure the cleavage lines along which the senatorial elections will be fought. Miriam Santiago and her group are likely to figure as key players in the coming Senate realignment. In this reconfiguration of the Senate leadership after May, Enrile is sending out flares signaling that he cannot be ignored as a key political player. He is telling the administration that he intends to continue to play kingmaker in the second half of the Aquino administration.
Enrile was a pain in the neck as an embedded coup maker in the Cory Aquino presidency. He can be as dangerous to the stability of the incumbent Aquino administration, as he was to Cory’s regime.