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The Long View

Hell’s angel

The President shot first, and then weighed in again, later, once the discussion erupted on what, exactly, his target was. The shot heard around the nation’s newsrooms was his double-barrel blast announcing that he would surrender his powers to enforce the law to the Vice President, and give her six months to carry the burden of conducting the drug war. “Let’s see if anything happens,” he grumbled, pledging not to interfere. Then, when everyone was busy debating whether this was even possible, he weighed in again, this time saying, “I do not surrender anything. I said if she wants, I can commission her to be drug czar” (or czarina, in this case).

This was more than a case of typically shooting first and then answering questions later (in this case, he was apparently reminded by his own people he couldn’t delegate, in a wholesale manner, his powers). It was a simple but effective solution to a couple of problems. The first was the problem of strength — or the perception that his is waning. The second, related to the first, was the problem of his administration running out of steam.

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The President’s motorcycle mishap on Wednesday night, Oct. 16, apparently led to his leaving the enthronement ceremony for the new Japanese emperor early, on the 22nd. He would, it was announced on the 23rd, take some days off to recuperate, having complained, for a time, of unbearable pain. Before leaving for Davao, apparently on Friday night of the 25th, the President took another spin on a motorcycle to avoid, as Sen. Bong Go helpfully pointed out, developing a phobia from his accident.

The news led to sympathetic noises from fellow leaders and his devotees, but it would have led to a festering of the status quo, which wasn’t favorable at the time. The President, on the 24th, had administered the oath of office to the new chief justice, after a rather heated back-and-forth between the lawyers of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Leni Robredo, and speculation about whether the outgoing chief justice had a surprise up his sleeve on the Marcos case (the surprise had come from the Sandiganbayan on Oct. 14, when it dismissed yet another Marcos-related graft case).

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While it would be foolish to believe that the President is merely a chair-warmer for Marcos Jr., it did raise the question of his coalition’s looming problem of finding an electable successor it fully controls. The administration’s economic team, for its part, has been rolling back the Build, Build, Build program, as fiscal and other realities have kicked in. The PNP, for its part, remained institutionally shaken after the disgrace and retirement of its chief.

Not that the public pays much attention to budget goings-on in Congress, but there, the story is pleasing only to the Armed Forces and police, which continue to enjoy full budgetary support even as front-line agencies are being required to tighten their belts. What’s served to camouflage all these things is the continuing fall in rice prices, which led to self-rated hunger going down.

Still, the President had to do something to seize control of the headlines and circle the wagons: Any sign of presidential weakness always leads to naughty thoughts on the part of even the most inner circle of a leader; what more for a nation which has as one of its national sports the joys of speculation. With a single announcement, he put the Vice President on the defensive (she has had to carefully walk a tightrope between alienating her hard-core supporters and the larger public, which doesn’t necessarily share all her views on current goings-on), reasserted his authorship — and ultimate command responsibility — for his so-called war on drugs, and reminded everyone who has toed the line that they have a lot to lose, maybe not tomorrow, but in the near future, in case the country goes under new management.

Hardly any new administration, often elected as a repudiation of its predecessor, cares about the legacy of what it replaced. But the President has, from day one, by pledging himself to be the protector of anyone who participates in his war, created ties that will bind everyone involved, together, for life. It represents a compelling argument for remaining tightly-knit, whatever administrations are to come. To untangle it will, his pledge implies, require going after so many people, in so many crucial sectors, that any successor will find it a nightmare.

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TAGS: drug war, leni robredo, Manuel L. Quezon, Rodrigo Duterte, The Long View
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