The gambit was a clever one. On Monday, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile preempted any attempt to unseat him by suddenly offering to resign from the top post of the chamber. A total of 11 senators, of the 16 present, voted to reject his resignation—thus giving him, by design and in effect, a vote of confidence. But the startlingly vicious word war that erupted on the Senate floor two days later, on Wednesday, between Enrile and Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano, suggests that the gambit’s success may turn out to be short-lived.
As millions of young Filipinos may have realized only recently, and as older generations have known for some time, Enrile is an exceedingly capable man; he is an astute lawyer and a master political tactician who has survived in the highest reaches of political office for almost 50 years. His conduct as presiding officer of the Senate impeachment court that convicted Chief Justice Renato Corona gave him a pervasive popularity he had never enjoyed before, and a pulpit from which to preach his gospel of preparation. He does his homework, he has said again and again. In the brutal exchange of words with Cayetano on Wednesday, he managed to say that he had come prepared.
Sometimes Enrile’s political tactics don’t work; in the case of the impeachment trial of then President Joseph Estrada in 2001, he was behind the plan to deny the opening of the so-called Jose Velarde envelope. It was a move that failed spectacularly, leading to Estrada’s ouster through a second People Power revolt. Will the history books also ultimately record his confidence-vote gambit as a failure? The Senate has six more session days left, before adjourning for the extended election recess, to decide whether Enrile remains Senate President or not.
But, we must ask, what exactly does Enrile mean by “preparado”?
Preparation for him means anticipating the next move, whether it is a privilege speech on the creation of a new province in Bicol (Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV) or rumors of a Senate coup (Trillanes, again), or another privilege speech on the controversial “Christmas bonuses” at the Senate (Cayetano).
On reflection, however, it becomes clear that any senator worth his or her salt could have done the same thing, whether through simply checking with the majority leader for the order of business or (in the case of the coup rumors) reading the news or watching TV. (Which makes us wonder whether certain other senators even bother to consult the calendar before they enter the session hall.)
Preparation for Enrile, then, actually means being ready with a counterattack: brandishing Ambassador to China Sonia Brady’s notes in Trillanes’ face last September, or retrieving from his coat pocket a document that supposedly proves that Cayetano’s father, the late Sen. Rene “Compañero” Cayetano, owed Enrile the uncollected sum of P37 million, just last Wednesday. To be completely fair, Enrile did prepare a defense of his disbursement of the so-called Christmas bonuses, and owned responsibility for “differentiating” between the Senate majority and minority when disbursing the extra funds. But it is the ready counteroffensive that Enrile is known for.
And Enrile’s choice of weapons is most characteristic of his kind of preparation.
To meet the challenge from Trillanes, he went ballistic, controversially using an ambassador’s confidential notes and in the process further compromising Philippine diplomacy. To meet Cayetano’s challenge, he went personal, digging up an old million-peso debt of gratitude that had nothing to do with the issue at hand. To meet the challenge of his rumored ouster, he went paranoid, seeing a conspiracy in negative stories. (He couldn’t resist taking a swipe at this newspaper, apparently immune to the paper’s critique of Trillanes’ amateurish coup-plotting.)
In Enrile’s world, to be preparado is to do whatever it takes, because the end always, always, justifies the means.