The first phase
When Napoleon had an opponent tried by a kangaroo court and executed, his chief of police, Joseph Fouché, remarked, “This is worse than a crime—it’s a blunder.” That, in a nutshell, was the problem with two of the most prominent faces of the administration: Ronald dela Rosa, the chief of police, and Vitaliano Aguirre II, the secretary of justice. Both were tasked with ambitious projects: the elimination of the drug trade and the political opposition (conveniently portrayed as one and the same thing). Both took an elastic approach to procedures. Both caused more problems than they claimed to solve. Both have now been removed. Both have been kicked upstairs and replaced with figures far less vivid, but because of that, probably more effective, at least in the short term: Menardo Guevarra and Oscar Albayalde are far less easy to caricature than their predecessors.
Having put his two troublesome subordinates out to pasture — but still keeping them within the fold, lest they suddenly start being candid — the President then sorted out the problem of the speakership by basically sending out the message that there are too many things on the administration’s plate for the ruling coalition to get bogged down by leadership intramurals. The opportunity for weighing in was provided by Rep. Lord Allan Jay Velasco, son of Associate Justice Presbitero “Presby” Velasco Jr. At the Velasco bash at the Sofitel in Manila, the President said Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez had no reason to keep looking droopy because birthday girl Gloria Macapagal Arroyo wasn’t interested in the speakership. With one appearance, the President reminded everyone that he’s the boss, that he is content with the status quo, and that all factions are expected to follow his lead.
The President then went to China, again to remind everyone that he retains Beijing’s blessings, that in turn, those blessings will be abundant, and that Beijing got his back. In this manner, too, Beijing reminds everyone that it speaks softly but carries a big wallet. Along the way, the President declared war on the Chief Justice, closing the circle: Velasco is loyal in the House of Representatives and the President, in turn, is loyal to folks like Presby Velasco. Both Velascos can count on the ruling administration, whether in the House (instructed to impeach the Chief Justice), the Senate (what is the point of having an administration majority if it won’t vote as it should?), and the Solicitor General sporting a red tie leading his staff in red shirts thoroughly matching the red getup of the Supreme Court itself.
All of this recovers momentum that had begun to be lost over the past few months. The President’s on-again, off-again style had led to a certain amount of drift, but now the drifting has stopped.
The long congressional vacation is setting the stage for the third phase, the most ambitious of all, which is regime change. Not from outside, but within. The Speaker’s ambitious plan B (after plan A, to have a plebiscite this May, failed) is to have a plebiscite by October. Others in the ruling coalition consider it more prudent to hold the plebiscite next May. An October 2018 plebiscite could, theoretically, include postponing or even canceling, the May 2019 midterms, leaving the Speaker unchallenged as the big man of Davao. A May 2019 plebiscite would force the Speaker to carpetbag his way to a new district such as Siargao. Both, in any case, would either eliminate, or at least defang, the midterms which would mark the shift of the President from strongman to lame duck.
This leaves six months for the fifth republic as we know it. But even a month or two is a long time in politics, as the saying goes. If the President has reclaimed center stage and replaced lieutenants who’d begun to become counterproductive, it still remains to be seen if everyone stays in line and pitches in to the regime-preservation project. The justices preparing to go into retirement still have to kick the Chief Justice out; the ruling coalition still has to deliver on Charter change; and the Speaker and his rivals still have to get along.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.