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Censoring the President

Once upon a time, a late night television appearance by the President would have been a major event, a shock and awe experience for everyone. But times have changed. Last Monday night, the President once more made an appearance. But the spirit of the times are such that, in mid-rant about his wives, state media cut him off, abruptly ending the broadcast. The next day, from observers such as Katrina Stuart Santiago would come useful context: The rant of the President was actually about his complaining about his salary, which is why he was talking about having two wives. As for the rest of his remarks, it essentially boiled down to tail-wagging over Russia potentially producing a COVID-19 vaccine; blaming the public for the pandemic getting out of control, and threatening to have health measures, such as they are, enforced by the military and not just the police; threatening unnamed individuals in PhilHealth; and stating lockdowns are unlikely to last because the government’s out of funds.

If last week was the moment when the President was placed in the position of the Emperor Having No Clothes, then Monday was about the government having to censor its chief executive for his own — and his administration’s — good.

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It’s been a long time coming. At the start and until the midterms of the present dispensation, a kind of cottage industry sprang up with academics and analysts dishing out a smörgåsbord of profiles and publications outdoing each other in arguing the President was far more cunning, crafty, consistent, and thus capable, than people (meaning everyone other than the academics and analysts concerned) assumed. He was, on one hand, an insatiable disciple of Mario Puzo and his Godfather books (the Mafia school of management); a rip-roarin’ Jose Ma. Sison-believin’ agent of class war; a latter-day nationalist; a modern-day practitioner of realpolitik, presiding over a furious bidding war between America and China for the affections of the Philippines; the messianic harbinger of federalism: any or all, take your pick. He was, in other words, everything his propagandists, with their book covers of the President in knight’s armor (remember that crude and literal copy of an infamous Hitler poster as a book cover?), said he was, and a lot more—mainly whatever pet theory the frustrated academics or analysts cashing in on the new order happened to be espousing.

Occam’s razor is the principle that when you have two explanations accounting for all the facts, the simpler one is more likely to be correct. The President, by this reckoning, isn’t any, much less all, of the above, but instead a long-time dynast from a petty provincial dynasty long used to doing a minimum of executive work by bullying and blustering his way out of every predicament confronting him, who has quite a chip on his shoulder not least because all his bark and bluster disguises weak leadership. Circumstances conspired to put this indubitably on display last week, and such was the effect of the President’s having been backed into a corner (having to resume the lockdown for Metro Manila) while rambling on air to disguise his helplessness, that the people saw through the act. So much so that state media two days ago dared to do what no state media has ever done to a chief executive — it’s taken coups or revolutions in the past to kick a sitting president off the air in mid-sentence.

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Around the same time the public seems to have ignored the President’s latest late-night ramble, a rumor circulated that the armed forces would be unable to meet its payroll. This was belied by people in the armed services, but the seriousness of the fiscal situation was underscored by the President himself. The day after the President was cut off, Fitch Ratings warned that even as it says it doesn’t want to, the government might be forced to spend more on fighting the pandemic, to help revive the economy: There would be even more pressure, it suggested, to spend if the economic recovery stalls. There was further news: In Peza ecozones, job losses have hit firms, leading one paper’s business section to ask if this doesn’t put into question the government’s hopes of stimulating growth by transferring the power to give incentives to the President, away from institutions.

At the very least, a basic political question arises: Besides bayonets, it’s the fiscal stick that is the most potent in the arsenal of any president. But with empty coffers, even the reliability of bayonets becomes shaky.

Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mlq3

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