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Analysis

Palace dumps Enrile

Juan Ponce Enrile irrevocably resigned the Senate presidency on Wednesday, ending close to five years of leadership of the reputedly more independent chamber of Congress.

He stepped down in an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination, but in real terms, Enrile bowed to the reality that after the May midterm elections, a new majority has emerged, requiring a changing of the guard—a shift in composition of the Senate which he could no longer control, as he did in the 15th Congress that ended Thursday.

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In announcing his exit in an emotional and rancorous privilege speech, Enrile denounced his most critical adversaries in the chamber, citing the “virulent personal attacks” against him which, he said, succeeded in “eroding the image of the Senate.”

Suggesting that there was an administration plot to oust him, Enrile lambasted Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, a stalwart of the administration’s Liberal Party, for announcing that Sen. Franklin Drilon of the LP would soon replace him and that Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. would be retained as leader of the House.

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He said he was not surprised by the eagerness of the administration to have him replaced. “I am sure that those who are eager to replace me have been assembling and gathering the numbers, if they haven’t already sealed the deal.” In his old age, Enrile, who is 89, said he may have impaired vision but he could still see and read clearly the writing on the wall. “I need not be told by anyone when it’s time to go.”

The tectonic plates in the Senate shifted after the elections. The administration’s candidates won nine of the 12 seats under contention, ensuring its control of the Senate, as well as of the House, and allowing it to consolidate its grip on the 16th Congress.

The administration needs a pliable Congress and leadership to push its legislative agenda in the second half of its term. It does not need independent-minded senators who every now and then refuse to act as rubber stamps of the executive branch. Enrile displayed streaks of independence during his presidency of the chamber; he acted according to the tradition that Philippine presidents find it difficult to control the Senate.

President Aquino is well aware of this institutional independence, and it is not to his advantage to ride roughshod over the Senate and to retain Enrile as its president. During his presidency of the chamber, Enrile formed an uneasy alliance—indeed, an alliance of convenience and cooperation—with the administration. One of the most outstanding examples of this critical collaboration was the impeachment trial of then Chief Justice Renato Corona, with the Senate acting as the impeachment tribunal. As the presiding judge, Enrile conducted himself with legal expertise and authority, giving the trial an aura of independence and fairness, such that when Corona was found guilty of the impeachment charges, the verdict was praised for its credibility and for its being a result of due process.

That trial was a high point in Enrile’s career as a member of the Senate. But from another point of view, the impeachment tribunal’s verdict and the credibility of the procedure helped the administration in boosting its campaign to hold officials of the previous administration accountable for misdeeds in public office. But now that Enrile had served its purpose in removing Corona from office through impeachment, it has no more need for him and is disposed to junk him and replace him with a more pliable LP leader, Senator Drilon, who is expected to be elected as Senate president.

The numbers are not in Enrile’s favor. He has come down to accept the role of minority leader in the next Senate. He has three more years as senator, and it will be in his role as minority leader that he can deploy his experience and enormous political skills to help the Senate maintain its independence as a foil against the administration’s majorities in Congress. But the new composition of the Senate does not make it susceptible to easy control by the executive branch.

It is anomalous that the new majority in the Senate is built on a coalition of the LP with the Nationalist People’s Coalition, with one member; Nacionalista Party, three members; PDP-Laban, one member; and Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino, one member. The LP, the government’s party, has only one seat. It stands out like a sore thumb. The presumptive Senate president, Drilon, represents only one seat. The United Nationalist Alliance, to which Enrile belongs, is offered a happy hunting ground to sow discord in the fractious ranks of the majority.

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But Enrile has left many enemies behind who are sharpening their knives to investigate his use of Senate funds as Christmas gifts. His uneven distribution of the cash gifts has left resentment among senators who received less than the favored ones. Their moves to investigate the disposal of these funds will keep Enrile busy defending himself. He cannot expect the administration that he helped in Corona’s impeachment trial to come to his aid.

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TAGS: Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, congress, Juan Ponce Enrile, Midterm elections, Philippine Senate, Senate presidency, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr.
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