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Why return to Mamasapano?

/ 12:07 AM January 26, 2016

I share the view that the resumption of the Senate inquiry into the Mamasapano tragedy is politically motivated, but not the view that this turn of events was unexpected.

Mamasapano, not “Yolanda,” is the Achilles heel of a still-popular President. A dispassionate reading of President Aquino’s political fortunes will show that the great controversy over the fate of Tacloban City in November 2013 did not in fact seriously affect his approval or satisfaction ratings.

His handling of the Mamasapano crisis, however, had an almost immediate impact on his popularity.

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This is how I understand the Social Weather Stations survey data. In December 2013, Mr. Aquino had an overall satisfaction rating of plus-49 percent, with plus-50 percent or more in Luzon outside Metro Manila, in Mindanao, and in the Visayas which was still reeling from the supertyphoon. (Metro Manila, traditionally unforgiving of incumbents, came in at 22 percent.)

If we consider lag time as a factor, then the next SWS survey would have brought bad news. But in March 2014, the President was still at plus-45, with Visayas holding statistically steady at plus-49. (The bad news, survey-wise, came in in the next survey.)

But the impact of Mamasapano (the encounter happened on Jan. 25 a year ago, and the news trickled out the following day and then turned into a flood by the time the President decided to attend a factory inauguration rather than meet the coffins of the slain Special Action Force troopers) was clear and obvious in the same quarter. The March 2015 survey gave the President his lowest satisfaction rating ever, of plus-11—with Luzon outside Metro Manila at an astounding negative-3.

Mr. Aquino has since recovered, as far as survey ratings are concerned, but Mamasapano remains his point of greatest vulnerability.

In “What is Aquino accountable for?,” published about a week after the incident, I argued that the President was accountable for three failures:

First: “As more information emerges, it is becoming clearer that Oplan Wolverine [as the operation was then labeled, even by the President] was not designed to succeed. It is this failure that President Aquino and his subordinates who planned and approved the operation should be held accountable for …”

Second: “For this decision not to coordinate with the MILF (and, until it was too late, with the Philippine Army), and therefore raising the risks of the entire operation, President Aquino and his subordinates who planned and approved the operation should also be held accountable.”

And third: “it is his failure to ensure that the necessary exercise of violence that he had approved or encouraged or welcomed came with the equally necessary support.”

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The following week, in “Patterns of sin in Aquino admin,” I tried to read the President’s third nationwide address on the Mamasapano tragedy, the one where he announced that he had accepted the resignation of suspended Philippine National Police chief Alan Purisima, as a series of clues into his administration’s “systematic shortcomings.” I wrote then: “One reading: a deadly combination of legal-staff sloth and self-justifying pride.”

I do not think these shortcomings rise to the level of an impeachable offense. There are no guarantees in war—except perhaps that people end up dead. The decision itself to commit considerable force to pursue the Malaysian terrorist known as Marwan cannot be faulted; I cannot imagine any court, even a quasi-court like an impeachment Senate, holding that the decision to pursue a known terrorist should not have been made.

But it is likely that the failures we and others have already identified will be the crux of the hearings tomorrow. There should be no underestimating Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile; he will come to tomorrow’s hearings well-prepared, and even if he cannot prove that the President committed an impeachable offense, he can do immense damage to the President’s reputation—and by extension to the President’s election clout.

The old question from the US Senate hearings on Watergate, the one asked by Howard Baker, will be the recurring question tomorrow: What did the President know, and when did he know it?

On the issue of a plan designed to fail (something that the brave officers in the PNP’s Board of Inquiry suggested in their report), the President (through his Cabinet secretaries) will likely be asked repeatedly about his decision to place Purisima in charge, even though his old friend had already been ordered suspended, and on the role of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa.

On the issue of the deliberate decision not to coordinate with either the MILF, in contravention of existing agreements, or the Philippine Army, the President’s role will likely be probed. Whose decision was it to keep the Army in the dark? Did the President know, or did he in fact make the call?

On the issue of inadequate support (which, of course, is related to the lack of coordination with the Army), the President’s decision-making will be scrutinized. What happened, or did not happen, in Zamboanga City?

It will be a long day in Malacañang tomorrow.

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On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand

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TAGS: column, john Nery, Mamasapano tragedy, popularity, president Aquino iii, reinvestigation, Senate
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