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The Long View

Ambition’s back, big-time

Alan Peter Cayetano’s zombie speakership began, not with a bang, but with a whimper. The breakfast he threw for legislators didn’t seem to be well attended based on a tweeted photo. But his smooth election accomplished demonstrating that the President is well and truly back in the saddle. It marks the end of two years of his public standing having to claw its way back to where it stood during his first and second State of the Nation Address (Sona).

Back in July of last year, the President’s ratings per the Social Weather Stations (SWS) declined 11 points overall, with a 20-point drop in Metro Manila. It was a slide that had begun with the murder of Kian delos Santos in August 2017, and the President’s calling God “stupid” in the month the SWS survey was taken made his ratings sink further. The President reacted to that news with typical self-pity: “I don’t care… It does not interest me at all. Basta ako coast along na lang ako, just traveling along… since I’m not popular anymore, Congress might decide to find a popular one. You want a popular president? Good.”

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The removal of his henchman as Speaker in a coup mounted by Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, with the enthusiastic assistance of the President’s daughter, marked a low point as well in his ability to project paramount status. In Monday’s Sona, he began his address by revealing that survey numbers do matter, expressing gratitude for his numbers bouncing back — they’ve never been better, in fact.

With the return of his popularity comes the return of ambition. In his Sona, the President asked Congress to enact a “rightsizing” law. I wrote about this proposal in January 2017, when Leoncio Evasco Jr. still hadn’t been defeated in the Palace death match between himself and Bong Go. “Rightsizing” was the euphemistic name for a law to grant the President power to reorganize the government, which has only happened five times since 1935. The bill ended up going nowhere as the administration focused its energies on tax, tax, tax. The ambitious agenda being pushed by Evasco on many fronts ended up shipwrecked on the executive issuances Bong Go got the President to sign that methodically stripped Evasco of turf and resources.

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Evasco may be history, but at least one of his pet proposals is back on the table. Taking a page from Arroyo, who methodically packed the bureaucracy at the end of her term with her appointees both to reward subordinates and hamstring her successor, the power to reorganize will be a handy one as part of an exit and postpresidency insurance plan. The President let slip a purge as a benefit of reorganization when he complained, referring to a document signed by the defense secretary, “May nakakuha because sa Malacañang, every administration may tao ‘yan diyan. Every administration leaves some of the men because they are appointed on plantilla position.”

There is no contradiction between purging the bureaucracy even as you propose to drastically enlarge it by creating new departments, when another ambition that seemed moribund has been emerging from its coma: Charter change. After the Sona, asked why there was no mention of Charter change, the President replied, “It is not the proper time to be discussing it. It’s better left in conferences that are not allowed to be open to the public.”

Asked about federalism, he said, he is still pushing for it, but “there are certain things that I cannot mention now. Federalism is good but there are certain things that you have to be clear.” A draft Constitution exists in the House, hammered into existence by now-former-speaker Arroyo; the Senate could be enticed if separate voting is respected. The existence of a supermajority may even dangle the tasty yet risky possibility of calling for a proper constitutional convention, which could be packed with obliging delegates delivered by the local machines.

Which brings up another Sona proposal of interest: Incumbent officials with terms expiring in May next year would be extended to October 2022. The extension they currently enjoy was useful in the midterms since the “nonpolitical” nature of barangay positions (more fiction than reality, really) makes them a sector that requires the granting of wholesale incentives to work for the success of whatever administration keeps them in place (and that’s nearly all post-Edsa administrations). Keeping incumbents in place is useful for the May 2022 polls, including a possible constitutional plebiscite on or before then.

So, behind closed doors, something ambitious is gestating. The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) put out an online infographic saying “PCOO is in need of new team members who will be part of a nationwide communications campaign.”

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TAGS: 18th Congress, Alan Peter Cayetano, House speakership, Manuel L. Quezon III, PCOO, Presidential Communications Operations Office, Rodrigo Duterte, SWS, The Long View
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