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Choosing a Cabinet: ‘Langis at tubig’?

The Philippine executive Cabinet consists of 22 executive departments, with some other heads of other agencies and offices given Cabinet rank. As more nominations are made, the character and complexion of the Marcos Jr. Cabinet become clearer.

The economic team composed of Benjamin Diokno (finance), Alfredo Pascual (trade), Emmanuel Bonoan (public works), Felipe Medalla (governor of the Central Bank), Bienvenido Laguesma (labor), and Susan Ople (migrant workers), has sent reassuring signals to domestic and foreign investors and economic managers.

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On the other hand, the nominations of Victor Rodriguez (executive secretary), Benhur Abalos Jr. (local government), Crispin Remulla (justice), and Beatrix Cruz-Angeles (press secretary), signal the retention of the capacity for creative regime support and advocacy capacity in the areas of policy, local government, information, and the law.

One wonders about how Cabinets emerge and end. As soon as a new president is on the horizon, the hopeful gaze of the public shifts away from the president.

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For instance, should we look back at the Cabinet of President Duterte and check the extent to which they really became a “collegial” body? To what extent did the Cabinet enhance the presidency of Mr. Duterte, or were they simply a bunch of gofers set out into various directions, with nary a chance to check exactly what it was they were collectively attempting to achieve?

On what basis is the incoming president picking his Cabinet? Surely some personal acquaintance is important, as has been mentioned in the reports profiling the nominations. But what are the ideologies and shared values that influence these nominations? Does the vision and character of the administration of the president dictate his Cabinet choices, or do his Cabinet choices dictate the vision and character of his administration? Do technocrats aim to contribute to the direction of the administration, or do they simply aim to demonstrate their technical prowess?

Given the political and technocratic hemispheres of Cabinets in the Philippines since the martial law regimes, one can almost think that these hemispheres balance one another. One perspective remembered from the martial law days was how then Prime Minister Cesar Virata and his network of technocrats eventually failed to check the profligacy of the first lady and other cronies close to the president.

Once again, moderating the greed in a new administration may be a silent task, expected of the top technocrats in the government. This perspective applies not only to the Marcos martial law regime. This is also about Estrada. I can recall how Estrada was able to put together a technocracy that amazed people like Horacio Morales, Benjamin Diokno, Karina Constantino David, Domingo Siason, Manuel Yan, and Felipe Medalla. The main connection was his brother-in-law, Dr. Raul P. de Guzman, who lent his intellectual stature to supply the Estrada administration with the technocratic talent that filled the perceived gap in Erap’s own preparation for the presidency. But in the end, Prof. Aprodicio Laquian, a well-respected Filipino academic who was imported from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver to be Erap’s chief of staff, had to resign in exasperation with Erap’s “midnight Cabinet” ways.

In the case of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, we remember the Hyatt 10, mostly technocrats, that sought to change the direction of presidential politics but failed. Even in the administration of Mr. Duterte, there was some evidence of pushback in the resignation of Ernesto Pernia as secretary of economic planning.

In the end, it seems that the technocracy could not engineer the systems that would curb the excesses of an administration. They end up being deodorizers until it is time to acknowledge the stench that massive top-level corruption creates.

What is missing? The technocracy cannot succeed if it does not share the values of the political leader. Getting on board the Cabinet without any real discussion of the ethical, political, sociocultural, and environmental dilemmas that the administration will be traversing over the next six years is eventually a formula for failure. Technocrats should be able to bargain with the devil but only if they have a collective “prenuptial” agreement with him.

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TAGS: Ferdinand Marcos Jr, Marcos Cabinet, On The Move, Segundo Eclar Romero
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