Monthly Archives: July 2005

Bulls and bears

The rather bullish analysis from Bear Stearns (dated July 22, or the Friday before the President’s SONA jumpstarted the "great debate" on Charter change) may be based on some wrong or at least overstated assumptions. I don’t have a copy of John Stuermer’s report, so I can’t say I’ve looked at the fine print, but some of the quotes included in the story set me wondering.

His reading of the impeachment scenario, in particular, seems downright erroneous.

Stuermer also said that the longer the impeachment process drags on, the less likelihood it would prosper by the end of this year as lawmakers’ focus on reelection prospects for 2007.

"It may take a really brave congressman to sign the impeachment complaint, especially if he or she is from a party that is presently or was previously in President Arroyo’s coalition," the analyst said.

Yes, but in the previous, and successful, impeachment of President Joseph Estrada, many majority congressmen jumped ship even when the elections were only about half a year away. "By the end of this year," however, means administration congressmen who endorse the impeachment complaint against President Arroyo actually have a year and a half to recover from their endorsement and prepare for the next elections.

"In addition, filing the complaint too early might cause them [the opposition in the House] to miss more compelling evidence that may surface later in the year," Stuermer said.

Did he mean the opposition in Congress could have waited, say, weeks or even months, before filing the amended complaint? This reading ignores the basic fact that a complaint had already been filed, by Marcos lawyer Oliver Lozano, and that — whether the opposition was on board the impeachment train or not — the House majority had to decide on the complaint within 10 days of the opening session. The pro-impeachment camp, simply put, did not have the luxury of time.

Stuermer may also have overstated the local governments vs. "imperial Manila" divide.

"Promulgation of the new Constitution, especially in the provinces outside of Manila, might be met with apathy or even open hostility and not viewed as a solution to the Philippines’ political problems," he said, noting that provincial officials in Mindanao had already threatened to secede from the Philippines if either the Constitution were changed or the President removed from office.

Actually, the secession bluff was only in case of the President’s removal from office. And those same provincials in Mindanao are actually some of the most forceful advocates of the shift (through Constitutional revision) to a federal system.

Hmmm. A little more bear, a little less bull, perhaps?

PS. Here’s a short bio of Stuermer (please scroll down, about midway); a report on his election outlook, two weeks before the elections last year; and a quote about a month after the Hello Garci scandal exploded, about the President’s staying power (second to the last paragraph). I must say; he has been quite consistent.

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Chavit Dy

The extremely dangerous cat (see second paragraph of the previous post) is out of the bag.

Archbishop Oscar Cruz’s "last witness" (note who else had picked up on the idea) is purported to be ex-Isabela governor Faustino Dy. But, hype from sources aside, will we hear the cat roar, or purr?

A younger brother of Dy, Mayor Napoleon Dy of Alicia, Isabela, called the Inquirer last night and said he had talked with his brother in California.

"He said, ‘Kung ano man lahat yung mga balita, ay hindi totoo’  (Whatever those reports are, they are not true)," Napoleon said. "He was laughing."

Do cats laugh? I think foxes do.

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State of the opposition

Does the opposition have what it takes?

The idea that a Chavit Singson-like ex-governor with stakes in jueteng will come out in the next few weeks to testify against President Arroyo is double- or even triple-hearsay at this point. We have to admit, though, that the idea is tantalizing. But does this mean that the opposition has finally what it takes to force President Arroyo from office?

Maybe. Could be. The answer depends on many variables, not least of which is what the opposition would do in the event of the inevitable reaction from the President and her allies.

I am reminded of something a good friend (the federalism advocate I had written about) insisted to me a couple of weeks ago: that the opposition is not in the driver’s seat, that it is, in fact, fatally reactive.

Maybe. Could be. To test his idea, I looked up the original reactions from opposition leaders when Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye first broke the tale of the alleged Garcillano tapes, on June 5. (Sorry, I couldn’t find the file of the story online.)

Sen. Sergio Osmena III: "If we had such a tape, I would have exposed it a long time ago."

Rep. Francis Escudero: The administration was "beginning to imagine things."

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr: "If we get more details from Bunye, we will make a more apt reply."

The worst thing to happen to Arroyo, and the best the opposition could do was ask for more details, to confirm what was already spinning through the country’s rumor mills. (Malaya had a related story, which I’ll link to later; I’m posting this by email.) Does sound reactive, doesn’t it?

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Inimical typo

I have some misgivings about the July Pulse Asia survey, and hope to put them in writing one of these days. But I can’t resist pointing out this typo from the ABS-CBN News website article on yet another batch of findings from that same survey:

Some 22 percent of the respondents also believed that the continuation of the Arroyo administration until 2110 could be inimical to the Filipinos’ interests at present, while 47 percent as being unacceptable to them to lead the country at present.

Until 2110? I know Sunshine Joe de Venecia has been accused of delaying the impeachment process, but this is ridiculous! I guess he’s thinking long-term.

PS. It’s 2010 in the copy of the survey Pulse Asia sent me.

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Truth, anyone?

Now that even the opposition’s main impeachment strategist has accepted an extended timetable, with the "definitive" vote taking place in October at the earliest, will more anti-GMA activists give a second look at the so-called Truth Commission?

From a Reuters report:

"We probably will get into a vote in the House of Representatives, which will be definitive of sending the complaint to the Senate or not by the first week of October," said Ronaldo Zamora, an opposition leader.

Zamora told reporters he discussed the impeachment schedule with Simeon Datumanong, an Arroyo ally and head of the lower house panel hearing the complaint against the president.

He said the house may begin hearing the complaints by September, weighing testimonies of witnesses and documentary evidence submitted by opposition lawmakers.

Datumanong has listed the next steps that would lead to the weighing of testimonies in September:

Datumanong confirmed a radio report though that they have set a tentative schedule in case the rules were approved not later than next week.

On August 9, the committee can start deliberating if the complaint was sufficient in form; determination of substance is slated on August 16; issuance of invitations to involved parties on August 19; and the preliminary investigation on August 31.

So an up-or-down vote in plenary, to decide whether to send the impeachment complaint against GMA to the Senate, is more than 60 days in the future. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to the House opposition   – unless, of course, they believed in their own hype, and really thought they could get 79 signatures before filing the amended complaint.

Their latest idea, that only 41 congressmen signed because  Zamora, Minority Leader Francis Escudero, et al were deliberately keeping about 20 more in reserve, is as lame as, well,  Marcos lawyer Oliver Lozano’s original impeachment complaint. It needs to be amended, and fast. (I once heard Lozano, whose misfortune it was to catch only the tail end of the Marcos dynasty, explain his argument on radio. Look at all the surveys, he said. They show that GMA was becoming less and less trusted. "That’s betrayal of public trust!" he said.)

I have no doubt that  a considerable number of our congressmen will shift their allegiance once they sense a turn in the tide; I also do not doubt that some pro-GMA congressmen have already signalled their availability to their counterparts, in case, you know … This is simply how most things get done in a deliberative body like Congress; almost everyone breeds horses, and trades them for a living.

So a quick reality check: Those congressmen "in reserve"? They do not have any political value at the moment, except to make other congressmen think that the tide is turning. Is the bluff working? You tell me.

In the meantime, the anti-GMA camp may wish to reconsider the Truth Commission. This will require a leap of imagination on the part of many oppositionists, who seem stuck in a cartoonish version of the Edsa framework (if I shout, or whine, loud enough, people will gather around me).

Last week, Zamora already took aim at the idea:

San Juan Representative Ronaldo Zamora also warned that the commission could further worsen the country’s political crisis, saying that Congress and the commission might reach different conclusions.

The assumption is that because the President will appoint the members of such a fact-finding commission, the agency’s conclusions will favor the President. But what makes Zamora et al think that the administration-dominated Congress will find against the President? Because we have "tons of evidence," Zamora said this week, refining his evolving answer.

We must assume that part of that tonnage has to do with evidence on the incriminating wiretaps (the subject, we also assume, of any Truth Commission). A question, then: Why not present the same evidence before the Commission?

Because the Arroyo appointees on the Commission will be partial to the appointing power? Come on. In the first place, the same disadvantage applies to Congress. In the second place, it really depends on who gets appointed. (I’ve written about this before, here and here.) Again, if the President were to appoint ex-election commissioners Haydee Yorac, Christian Monsod, and Harriet Demetriou to the commission, to give only three examples, can anyone seriously question the fact-finding body’s independence and integrity?

It may be that the problem with the political opposition is that they can only imagine waging a one-front war. At first it was the parliament of the streets, alone.  Now (and taking a large hint from the Catholic bishops) it’s the impeachment process, by itself. (Realizing their difficulty in the real parliament, opposition leaders like Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano have started dropping hints that they will, if forced to, return to the first battlefield.)

But if they do have "tons of evidence," why conserve their ammunition?

The administration is certainly not shy about fighting on other fronts. The Truth Commission itself is part of the overall multi-front strategy. It doesn’t matter; the opposition should still engage the administration in that particular theater of operation. It should demand that the Truth Commission meet certain conditions; chiefly, that its composition be partly filled with opposition nominees, and that the agency itself be enabled by a joint resolution from Congress.

That way, it can use the next two months not only to try its "creeping impeachment" guerilla tactic, but also to hold its own in the battleground of truth.

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Under the weather

That’s where I’ve been the last 24 hours. Hope to be back in the saddle tomorrow. In the meantime, may I direct your attention (as both Howie Severino and Manolo Quezon have done, generously) to an interesting exchange of ideas between Mario Taguiwalo and Jojo Abinales in this particular comment thread?

Local power and the Thong Republic, indeed!

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Curious language

I was struck, listening to the President yesterday, by the tentativeness of her language on Charter change. "Perhaps." "Maybe." "May well." ‘Consider." And, not least, from that catchiest sound bite of all, "the great debate."

If you were to launch "epochal" change (Speaker Jose de Venecia was even more ebullient yesterday), would you use language that suggests rather than directs?

Perhaps we politicians have done our best; but maybe our best is not enough, given the present system. Perhaps we have strained the present political system to its final limit.

That’s a platoon of reluctant soldiers, forced-marched to the front. To be sure, there is a yelling-mad rush over the top:

The system clearly needs fundamental change, and the sooner the better. It’s time to start the great debate on charter change.

But let’s back up a bit. Let’s look at that last sentence again. Time to start a debate? Instead of sticking their bayonets into the enemy, our reluctant platoon has pulled up, extended a hand, and said, Can we talk about this?

There’s more.

The mode of charter change is the exclusive prerogative of Congress. But a constituent assembly may well give our people the quickest reforms.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, that. And three paragraphs later, we have the less-than-resounding conclusion of the section on Charter change.

Perhaps it’s time to take the power from the center to the countryside that feeds it.

I recognize that our form of government will be the decision of the body constituted to undertake Charter change. But we should consider that legislation could be quickened and laws made more responsive to the people under a parliamentary system, similar to that of our progressive neighbors in the region.

I realize, of course, that understatement can sometimes be more powerful than the usual hyperbole of political action. (All the emphases above, by the way, were mine.) Is this in fact the case with the President’s address? Did she deliberately choose to use the language of suggestion?

My two centavos: Yes, but not to make the case for constitutional revision stronger. It was to meet the minimum requirements for making the case. Period.

The President, in my view, remains a reluctant Charter-change advocate. She certainly knows that the very idea of a constituent assembly won’t fly in a suddenly-defensive Senate. So why risk what’s left of her political capital on what looks like a losing proposition? Maybe because (ah, there’s that tentative language again) she sees it as an investment in the process-that-must-not-be-named (at least, not in the SONA): impeachment.

In other words, she gave those who will deliberate on her fate exactly what they wanted.

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The real plot

As Sheila Coronel has noted, there were no real surprises in today’s let’s-change-the-Charter address. But the focus on constitutional revision did remind me of a text message that an active federalism advocate (dismayed with the amount of oxygen being used up by the Ramos-De Venecia formula) sent me last week. I checked, and it was still in my inbox: "The McGuffin is the opposition takeover threat. The real plot is the making of a parliament immediately."

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A hollow victory

For a couple of seconds, right at the end of the President’s annual address, I thought I saw her hesitate — as if the waves of applause that greeted her had stirred a familiar thought, as if she half-wanted to say something more.

She certainly seemed pensive at the very end; it was a triumphant speech, but from where I sat, she did not seem to bask in the final, uproarious standing ovation. She waited for the applause to wind down, and then said, very simply, almost inaudibly, "Thank you."

Perhaps she felt, at the end of the briefest of her five State of the Nation speeches, that she had not done enough, that in spite of all the staff work and President’s time that had gone into the speech, she had nevertheless come up short.

For a couple of seconds, I thought I saw all that. Or maybe it was only because, for a speech that started with great promise, today’s SONA ended up being decidedly underwhelming. I wanted the President to go on, to speak to the scandal that has all but consumed her presidency, but there was nothing more; there was nothing more there.

In sum: a triumphant speech, but a hollow victory.

The speechmaking stars were aligned: a friendly environment (no small thanks to Speaker Jose de Venecia’s skill in issuing strategic invitations); a dramatic entrance (almost three minutes of continuous applause; I counted four distinct waves, all before the President even said a word); a recognizable villain (Senate President Franklin Drilon, who was teased and booed and heckled; the first time it happened inside the Batasan’s session hall, he tilted his head and smiled like some tame sheep); not least,  a well-written, well-tempered speech.

But the almost-giddy reception aside, the President did come up short. She did fail to do enough. She should have said something more.

Borrowing a leaf from John Edwards, Mrs. Arroyo told a tale of two countries. I thought it was a simple but effective way to put the message across: This crisis may have started with me, but it goes way beyond me.

But the President stopped short of telling the truth about her own role in the crisis. Mrs. Arroyo had the signal opportunity to tell her own part of the story today, about how we had come to this pass. Today’s Inquirer editorial had looked forward to just such an act of catharsis:

At the same time, she must speak honestly, and speak without fear, about her own role in the political crisis; "to discern deeply," as the bishops had enjoined her, "to what extent she might have contributed to the erosion of effective governance and whether the erosion is so severe as to be irreversible."

By keeping quiet, the President tore a hole in her own reform agenda.

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By the number

Last week, Rep. Rolex Suplico said the opposition in the House will not boycott or walk out on the President’s annual address. This is my house, he said, and she is my guest, or words to that smooth-interpersonal-relations effect. This morning, I read that the House minority has changed its mind. "Rep. Allan Peter Cayetano of Taguig-Pateros announced Saturday night the 28-member minority in the House of Representatives reached a consensus not to hear the President’s address ‘unless she delivers it under oath’."

I read that to mean that  social etiquette has been trumped by political arithmetic. If the opposition had the 79 signatures necessary (at least as of Saturday night) to send the amended impeachment complaint against GMA directly to the Senate, I have no doubt that the House minority would have rather enjoyed sitting in the Batasan’s session hall, the look of inevitability burnishing their faces.

It is always easier to tolerate "oratory gymnastics" (Rep. Imee Marcos’s phrase) if the orator-gymnast will have her day in impeachment court much earlier than expected.

PS. I will be at the Batasan today (a political tourist taking in the sights, or a fourth-estate vulture coming in low; take your pick). At first I thought of live-blogging by cellphone, but the SONA rules are quite strict; no cellphones inside the session hall.

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The game

The decision of the Senate opposition to boycott tomorrow’s State of the Nation Address makes tactical sense. The annual rites of state prescribed in the Constitution quite literally give the President the political high ground; what the opposition senators want to do is withdraw from the one battlefield that favors the President and choose another.

Strip away all the pious talk about a fatally compromised President, about not providing an audience for “another pack of lies and excuses” from a commander-in-chief without credibility, and that is what we are left with: The reality that the SONA is the President’s game. The presence of the opposition will not add legitimacy to the proceedings; by the same token, their absence will not subtract from it.

The tradition of the SONA allows the President to set the agenda, to command undivided attention, at least for a time, and define the terms of the national debate. A walkout by critics of President Macapagal Arroyo won’t change any of that; in fact, they will be playing right into Malacanang’s how-can-you-trust-the-opposition game plan. But a boycott, or a rally outside the Batasan, allows the anti-Arroyo opposition to change the frame of reference, away from the President’s constitutionally manufactured bully pulpit.

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Strong Republic, RIP

I meant to write something on this last year, right after the SONA, after I reread all four of the President’s addresses. The so-called Strong Republic? Done away with. Dead and buried.

The Strong Republic was launched, at least as a theme in presidential speeches, in the 2002 address. "My countrymen, the fine stone I should like to add to the edifice of our nation, right above the stone of social justice that my father left behind, is a Strong Republic."

It was sounded again in 2003. "In short, government must be the arm of a Strong Republic. But a Strong Republic does not happen overnight; not even in two or three years. Nor does it happen once and for all."

In last year’s State of the Nation Address, however, there was no mention of it. Not a word. I guess if it does not "happen" overnight (a curious choice of verb, yes?), it will not happen at all.

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Media matters

The question I raised earlier about the handling of the Angara-Osmena word war is not an idle one. The story is not only a cipher for the fragmenting of the opposition; it is a stand-in for the whole other issue of the manipulation of media (deliberate, accidental, feigned, or otherwise).

That issue has only gained in importance in the last several weeks. Winnie Monsod (who has the gift of packing more information that you would expect in an 800-word column) wonders whether the media’s bias for getting the story (the "get," in US TV terms) isn’t somehow part of the problem.

Am I saying that media are in some way to blame for this lynch-mob mentality? Another bit of anecdotal evidence here: When asked what they thought would be the outcome of their demonstrations against Ms Arroyo, a spokesman said, "It depends — on the media and the military." Not necessarily in that order, would be my guess.

And my guess would be that what that spokesman really meant was: It depends not only on whether the media reports the news about us, but even more on whether the media makes our case for us.

The statement from the allegedly revitalized YOU, for instance. Regardless of its provenance (about which ex-Armed Forces chief and Marine icon Sen. Rodolfo Biazon has also said his piece), one must admit that the timing of its release is near-perfect. Ditto with Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s "True State of the Nation Address" (which, if you will remember, was originally scheduled to be delivered, Powerpoint and all, on Tuesday next week, after the President’s constitutionally mandated accounting-before-Congress).

The object of the game, if I read it right, is not the President’s make-or-break speech on Monday. It is the impeachment complaint that the political opposition seeks to amend and then file that same day. 

It seems to me that Rina Jimenez-David’s column today offers a clue about how this game is being played. She quotes an analysis by a "respected NGO leader" at length:

"I have been attending meetings asking the question: Where are we in this crisis? I have two kinds of answers. In terms of the narrowly defined crisis concerning the fate of PGMA [President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo], we are on the stage where we think we still have political, or even moral, choices to make that can drive events and outcomes … In another two to three months, this window of apparent luxury in political or moral choices will narrow and real events — economic distress, mass actions, military movements — will dictate severely constricted and circumscribed options.

(I do not have a copy of this brief, but judging from the clarity of vision and prose, I would guess it’s by Mario Taguiwalo or his clone.)

It seems to me, then, that the specter of military action and Lacson’s fast-forwarded feat of image engineering were designed precisely to narrow that "window of apparent luxury." A smaller window would make a shorter impeachment process a smarter choice. How do we shorten the process? By creating the conditions that would push a swing bloc of maybe 10-20 congressmen to join opposition and pro-impeachment representatives in endorsing the amended complaint — and thus send it immediately to the Senate.

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Inside, invisible

Two very pregnant comments in the last couple of days: May I direct your attention to them?

Jojo Abinales shares a post from Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, the main author of the bishops’ July 10 statement, here. It’s more of the inside skinny on that fateful weekend. And Citizen Frank pushes the discussion on "national unity" forward, here, with an aside on "invisible, informal" networks.

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The visible hand

Let us assume, for now, that the Young Officers Union has in fact risen from the grave. Did the new leaders pledge to topple the government? The closest they came to making that pledge is in a quote (from their statement) carried by the opposition newspaper The Daily Tribune:

“Realizing that radical and not just incremental changes are needed to save our country, YOU members are calling all men and women who believe in our race, who remember the proud beginning of our history, who believe, as we do, that Filipinos are capable of courage and sacrifice, to act now, not later, to bring down the Arroyo administration and save the country from further ruin,” the manifesto stated.

Since the statement was released, however, denials have come in. The one we should give the most weight to is from YOU’s first chairman: then Captain, now Brigadier General, Danilo Lim.

"Nananahimik na ang mga dating member ng YOU [Former members of the YOU are now leading quiet lives]," Lim told Camp Aguinaldo reporters in a telephone interview.

"I have returned to the service as head of the Rangers. There are no YOU members among the Rangers," said Lim, the commander of the First Scout Ranger Regiment based in Bulacan province.

Lim said that if ever there was dissent within the military, it would not come from former YOU members. He added that any group could easily use the YOU’s name for its own agenda.

Malaya also carried a denial in its first-day story (not online, unfortunately):

"YOU is long gone. We are already middle ranking and some of us are already senior officers. We are not behind that. Some group could be taking advantage of our group," the official with a rank of major said.

The most interesting reaction, however, came from the Armed Forces spokesman, Lt. Col. Buenaventura Pascual (scroll down, please).

When asked if politicians could be behind the statement, Pascual said: "I don’t want to speculate. You can see the statement was released at 6 p.m. and this morning Senator [Panfilo] Lacson made a statement."

He was referring to Lacson’s own version of the State of the Nation Address (SONA), which he delivered at the Manila Hotel on Friday, three days before Arroyo would deliver her speech before a joint session of Congress.

"I don’t want to add political color to it, but you can see the scenario," Pascual said.

About not adding political color? Too late. What Pascual seems to have in mind as "the scenario" is plain enough: Lacson’s visible hand.

At the Manila Hotel, the man who would be president offered the same service for the YOU story that he provided when an unnamed police official "identified" unnamed public figures as jueteng lords: He "confirmed" it.

In the same press conference, Lacson confirmed the "growing disenchantment" and "agitation" among junior military officers.

Lacson, a former chief of the national police, said the disenchantment with the Arroyo administration stemmed mostly from the promotion of police and military officers who were perceived to have taken part in the manipulation of the 2004 election results.

But Lacson said the disenchanted military officers should not take it upon themselves to topple the government, which they had sworn to protect.

Interesting, yes?

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YOU again?

I have no doubt that many junior officers in the military share, at the least, a sense of grave disappointment in their commander-in-chief. The question is, do they necessarily share the interventionist view (at least, as ascribed to the group by our headline writer) of the suddenly revitalized Young Officers Union?

One possible answer: It depends on whether Archbishop Oscar Cruz, whose crusade against jueteng has led to the high-profile hearings in the Senate, does indeed have a Chavit Singson for his "last witness."

I was struck most by the following passage in the YOU statement:

"The ‘Hello Garci’ tape scandal is nothing compared to the huge sums of money from jueteng, drugs, smuggling and kickbacks that changed hands between the first week of the May 2004 presidential elections and the last weeks of June after the elections at the house of Mrs. Arroyo in La Vista, Quezon City, where bags of money … were distributed."

This allegation, if proven or at least plausibly established, may well provoke some in the military to cross the line between personal expression and group action.

Anonymous Sources, the new blog, already adverted to the allegation a few days ago.

Anyway, aside from former senator John Osmena’s charge that Arroyo cheated in the Visayas in the last election, I also learned from a very reliable source (a legislator, in fact) that a witness will come out in the Senate soon who will directly link Arroyo to jueteng. The story goes that, sometime before the election, Arroyo — right inside her La Vista home — doled out jueteng money to be used for cheating in the 2004 elections.

Where will the confirmation come from? The opposition newspaper The Daily Tribune said last week (story cached on Google) that it will come from Archbishop Cruz’s last witness:

The jueteng witness, sources said, would testify that money changed hands to ensure Mrs. Arroyo’s victory in the polls and that such payoffs in tens of millions of pesos were made to top Commission on Elections (Comelec) officials. This even took place purportedly right in the residence of the Chief Executive.

Will that witness, if he does indeed exist, finally come out of the jueteng woodwork? (The Daily Tribune said it was a he.) I can only guess that that, too, will depend, on how that reportedly well-placed witness reads GMA’s prospects. If she still seems to be firmly in the saddle, the last witness will not leave the safety of his ranch; if he doesn’t, there may be no man on horseback riding over the hill, at least not just yet.

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Mere coincidence 2

On the ABS-CBN news website, this story: "Angara tells Noli: I want to be your VP."

But over 18 hours after the news first broke, complete with sound bites from opposition senator Sergio Osmena III, the site’s version of the story still does not include any reaction from Sen. Edgardo Angara.  I heard Angara’s denial and his counter-challenge to Osmena yesterday afternoon, on the radio, perhaps an hour after I first heard Osmena’s allegation. So it’s not as if Angara has kept mum. Why isn’t his  side reflected in the online story?

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Mere coincidence?

Today’s lead story in the Inquirer: "Reds scrap peace talks." On the inside page, a related article: "Party-list lawmakers quit De Venecia’s House coalition" (other versions appeared in other newspapers, hence this link to the ABS-CBN/Manila Times).

Coincidence? Nato Reyes will take me to task for this, but maybe the National Democratic Front’s "chief political consultant" shouldn’t leave this kind of paper trail on the Web.

From what I know as chief political consultant of the NDFP Negotiating Panel, the resumption of formal talks in the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations has become nil or dim under the Arroyo regime. The regime is already so weak and so isolated and yet it seeks to impose preconditions in violation of the existing agreements on the framework and modalities of the peace negotiations. Thus, Ka Roger of the CPP Information Bureau has publicly declared that it is excellent now to intensify the people’s war in order to further weaken the regime, cause its soonest possible ouster and pave the way for a new government that can comply with the existing agreements in the peace negotiations.

I hope that BAYAN can study the situation comprehensively and profoundly and find out what it can do to further strengthen itself as a multisectoral alliance and its participating mass organizations, to fight the oppressors and exploiters of the Filipino people and to make new advances in the struggle for national liberation and democracy against the US and the local exploiting classes of big compradors and landlords now chiefly represented by the Arroyo regime.

That message from Joma Sison was dated May 5, a full month before the Hello Garci tapes surfaced.

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Truth or consequence 2

I do not mean to suggest that truth and consequence, process and product, the Truth Commission and the impeachment process: that all these are mutually exclusive. In fact, I hold the opposite view (although "hold" may not exactly be the right word).

The impeachment process will determine whether GMA committed an impeachable offense. That’s all. For purposes of punishing the President for her "lapses in judgment," of removing her from office, however, that’s all that’s needed.

But as a kid may wonder after a disappointing display of fireworks (or a grown-up after listening, over and over again, to Sandra Cam’s testimony): Is that it? Is that all there is to it?

There are questions that a Truth Commission (properly enabled by law, comprised of Filipinos of unimpeachable integrity and independence of mind) can actively pursue that an impeachment trial cannot even touch. Isn’t it in the real national interest that we help ourselves get to the bottom of things? The "what" of election fraud is obviously a matter for the Presidential Electoral Tribunal. But equally important are the "how" and the "why." We must also all take stock and ask ourselves: In our blatant political use of wiretaps, have we opened our own, intelligence-funded Pandora’s box? And is this, in fact, what the old man Lorenzo Tanada had in mind?

Vital questions, for which we must try to find the answers. They won’t come from the "quasi-judicial"  impeachment trial, which is really more quasi than judicial.

But who says we can’t have both the Truth Commission and the impeachment court? I hesitate to agree with Rep. Joey Salceda, who is closely allied with the President. But he does have a point.

“Ideally, the output of the truth commission would be an input to an impeachment process. However, given the severity of partisan animosity, the two could run parallel reinforcing each other along the way. A truth commission would address the intense skepticism over the incorrigibly partisan character of political processes."

Will the President’s allies try to use the Truth Commission to delay the inevitable: the moment of reckoning in the impeachment court? Well,  does Anna Nicole Smith have to sleep on her back? Of course. The rules of political survival are there for all to read. But does that necessarily mean the Truth Commission is necessarily a bad idea? Only if the opposition lacks both cunning and competence. And only if the game plan stops with removing the President from office.

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Truth or consequence?

That the two Prosperos in the President’s coalition differ on the need for a Truth Commission may be reason enough to push through with it. (Mindful of Adrian Cristobal’s Law of Opinion Writing, I hasten to add that my tongue is firmly in my cheek.)

Rep. Prospero Pichay is thisclose to the Palace; when Malacanang thought it was time for ex-election commissioner Virgilio Garcillano to issue a few well-chosen words, it coursed the transaction through Pichay. On the proposed Truth Commission, however, Pichay has parted ways with Malacanang.  He said GMA was "ill-advised" in directing the creation of the panel.

But Rep. Prospero Nograles, the majority leader, and another stalwart ally of the President’s, welcomed the idea. He said it was "a faster mode to get to the truth."

Even the traditional opposition is split. Rep. Francis Escudero, the minority leader, warned that the truth panel "was definitely a diversionary and dilatory tactic for the impeachment proceedings." Sen. Sergio Osmena III, however, said he was open to the idea, noting that it could lead to discovering election-related “shenanigans in the government.”

The other usual suspects, the same people who are interviewed by the media or regularly send press statements to the country’s newsrooms, also weighed in on the issue. Reading the reports, I was struck by a very strong first impression; it persists, even now, even though I have tried to shake it off.

At least among the political players, and columnists such as Alex Magno with close ties to those same players, how the very idea of a Truth Commission is received depends, or so it seems to me, on whether one is for truth or for consequence.

If your framework of analysis and political action is the removal of the President (whether you are for or against it), the commission is a bad idea. It either gets in the way (in Sen. Aquilino Pimentel’s formulation, it would only prolong "the people’s agony") or it would confuse the troops (at least, that is how I read Pichay’s concerns between the lines; also read Magno’s piece today, especially the four "If the purpose is" paragraphs).

If your framework is getting to the bottom of things, however, the commission may be a flawed but serviceable idea. Now Ceres Doyo is not a political columnist; her Thursday gig in the Inquirer is one of the few reporting-driven columns around, and it ordinarily deals with, well, ordinary lives (as the column title "Human Face" suggests). But I found her column today an eloquent expression of this second framework, which puts a greater emphasis on process rather than (but not in lieu of) the eventual outcome.

She short-lists key questions she would like the Truth Commission to ask, then adds:

Those who dismiss the questions as old hat or as small are not after the bigger truth. These are not just about whether Ms Arroyo cheated or not. These could lead to bigger questions and answers. Questions like, how have we come to this?

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It depends

Allegations of voting anomalies, rumors of lucrative deals for powerful families, stories about the possible misuse of government resources, and finally a walkout from a crucial annual event. The GMA election scandal and Monday’s State of the Nation Address? Nope. Only yesterday’s contentious stockholders’ meeting of Equitable PCI Bank. The parties ended up electing two boards of directors. That’s not the end game for the other scandal, is it?

At any rate: The President has told the bishops she will form a Truth Commission, but the language she used was intentionally vague. It isn’t only the structure that is ambiguous; it is also the scope of work. I don’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary with the setting up of a fact-finding commission, armed (we hope) with the full arsenal of subpoena powers. But by expanding (or seeming to expand) the scope of the commission to include allegations of vote-rigging in last year’s elections, the commission may very well be unconstitutional.

The key paragraph in the President’s letter to Archbishop Fernando Capalla is the fourth one:

On the matter of moral accountability and the need to restore trust, I have initiated the creation of a commission or similar body to look into the truth behind issues recently raised against me. While accepting the principle of accountability, it may be noted that such issues were raised at a time and in a manner that seems to give credence to the observation that various groups may be manipulating situations for their own agenda, perhaps with the aim of grabbing power. I am hopeful that the process of searching for the truth will shed light on these disturbing matters as well.

Fr. Joaquin Bernas has already raised the point: If the Truth Commission investigates the actual conduct of the elections, then it will usurp the functions of the Presidential Electoral Tribunal.

Does this mean that we should reject the commission outright?

Not necessarily. If in drafting her executive order she sticks to only one of the "issues recently raised" against her, that of verifying the allegedly wiretapped conversations between her and election commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, then the commission does seem to be in order.

But hasn’t she already admitted to talking to Garcillano? I heard Bro. Eddie Villanueva on radio this morning, making essentially the same point. But her apology, in fact, does not admit to much of anything; she does not even name Garcillano. At most, she only admitted to talking to an election official to protect her votes, in conversations that may or may not have been caught on tape.

Couldn’t the President then save scarce government funds by simply coming right out and authenticating her part of the tapes? (It is important to remember that it was Garcillano who was the object of the wiretaps, not GMA.)

That may not be something any counsel of hers would give as advice. Besides, the tapes raise other issues as well. The Truth Commission may help us ferret out their truth as well.

So I guess what I’m really saying is: It depends. It depends on the scope of work. It depends on the powers of the commission. Above all, it depends on the people who will be appointed to it.

Did Malacanang do something out of the ordinary and air the idea without benefit of a trial balloon? Well, this vaguely-worded proposal may well be the trial balloon.

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Comparing responses

As I read the President’s second response to the CBCP’s pastoral letter, and then reread her first, I was struck by a key difference in rhetorical strategy. It made me think GMA actually had different audiences in mind.

The first response, issued on July 10, the same day the bishops released their pastoral statement, does not merely appropriate biblical language; it is structured around a key passage from the New Testament.

I’ve searched deeply for moral discernment. The second letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians rings true for me. I cannot boast about myself except about my weaknesses. But I know, in faith, that in my own weakness, his power can be made perfect in me, to help me become the servant-president for you, in the way he wants me to be.

This central paragraph convinces me that the President had the bishops mainly in mind; she used language and attitude they could understand.

The second response, issued today (a day after Archbishop of Manila Gaudencio Rosales released an astringent clarification of the meaning of the CBCP letter), seems to me to be addressed primarily to the public at large. It was, of course, written for the eyes of the CBCP president, Archbishop of Davao Fernando Capalla, but it seemed to have been put together with a national audience in mind.

Consider the key proposal:

On the matter of moral accountability and the need to restore trust, I have initiated the creation of a commission or similar body to look into the truth behind issues recently raised against me.

A commission or similar body? You mean she isn’t exactly sure yet? I am reminded of that unforgettable line from Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones looks about for a way to escape from the Nazis. Hey, he says, "I’m just making this up as I go along." The vagueness will test the bishops’ patience, who surely expected something more detailed. But the public? Maybe they wouldn’t mind so much.

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Much ado about unity

I’ve been meaning to ask this question since I saw part of last week’s episode of Debate: Isn’t unity overrated?

(The way I just phrased that, in the negative, tells me I am leaning towards an answer in the affirmative. )

I think the question in Debate was, Can the President still unite the country? To which (if I remember correctly) the irrepressible Kit Tatad replied: Yes. She is uniting the country … in opposing her rule.  (The quip was in Tagalog, but without Tatad’s trademark sneer it would have fallen flat.)

But let’s think about that for a moment. The Hyatt 10, the Makati Business Club, the Drilon wing of the Liberal Party (in other words, the key groups who called on GMA to resign on July 8) all sounded variations on the same theme: the crisis had undermined the President’s capacity to govern. The resigned Cabinet members raised a warning about the use of government resources (and the President’s time) to meet the overriding objective of "political survival." The MBC, or at least its board, asserted a "loss of confidence" in the President. The Liberal Party, well, what did the Liberal Party really mean when its highest-profile members appealed to the President to "vacate her office"?

The point is, the argument from her former allies is all of a piece:  she has to go because she is unable to govern. (Cory Aquino’s call for resignation, as the least painful of the constitutional options, is based on a related concern, one that the President’s natural allies and now-divided constituencies share:  the need to avoid greater turmoil.)

Okay. But does, in fact, a head of government need "national unity" in order to govern? History and experience tell us that the answer must be No. All she needs is the support of, or at least the lack of outright hostility from, an active plurality.

Look (as we often do or are asked to) at the United States. It is, as Karen Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute said in a special briefing a couple of months ago, a country that is "closely divided." I guess it was even more so during George W. Bush’s first term, which he won by Supreme Court fiat. But is there anyone who seriously suggests that the Red/Blue divide has undermined Dubya’s capacity to govern? (On the contrary, he is accused of over-centralizing the powers of government.)

Or consider the case of Fidel Ramos, who won the presidency in 1992 with a plurality of 24 percent. An SWS-Ateneo de Manila survey conducted after his first hundred days found that half of voting-age Filipinos remembered having voted for him. Now how did that happen? Without a doubt, Ramos had secured a greater mandate in only his first 100 days because of the improved national situation. (Ramos had taken decisive action on the power crisis then; of course, we are still literally paying for that decisiveness today.)

In Hitchcockian terms, "national unity" is a McGuffin.

Now a sense of national purpose, a nationwide consensus on the country’s direction, or at least the end of a sense of drift: These are altogether different, and require the "buy-in" of a considerable number of people. Not even a majority, just enough people to tip the balance.

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Death by taxes

I am sure many of us have received the email in our inboxes. You know, the toxic taxpayer’s rant. The one where the writer, in bracingly foul language,  attacks everyone’s tendency to pay too much attention to the "masa" but not enough to those actually paying the taxes that power much of the economy. (If anyone can point me to a copy of the letter which I can link to, well, that would be nice.)

The email (at least in the version I got, from three different sources in the past week) is titled, "Walang kwenta ang Pilipinas." (Loosely, "The Philippines is no good," but I would think the more idiomatic translation would be, "This country stinks.")

A key passage (complete with all-caps and multiple exclamation marks) reads:

Lagi na lang sinasabi ng mga pulitiko: Ipaglaban ang masa! Tulungan ang masa! Mahalin ang masa! PUNYETA! MASA LANG BA ANG TAO SA PILIPINAS? SINO BA TALAGA ANG BUMUBUHAY SA PUNYETANG BANSANG TO? SAAN BA GALING ANG PANGPAGAWA NG MGA TULAY AT KALYE? SAAN BA GALING ANG PORK BARREL? SAAN BA GALING ANG PERANG KINUKURAKOT NYO? KAMI NA MGA MANGGAGAWA AT MIDDLE CLASS NA BAGO PA MAKUHA ANG SWELDO BAWAS NA – KAMI ANG BUMUBUHAY S WALANG KWENTANG BANSA NA ‘TO!!!!!!!!!

As those who forward the message  invariably point out, the writer does seem to have a point.

But the other day I got this in the mail too (as it happens, from an opposition lawyer):

Every consumer in this country is a taxpayer.  Whenever they buy rice or galunggong or LPG or detergent or pay bus fare, part of the purchase price is tax.  Kaya maski mabaho sila dahil wala silang tubig pampaligo, o di sila nagbabayad ng income tax dahil seasonal daily paid laborers lang sila,taxpayer pa rin sila.  In fact, as a percentage of gross income, they probably pay more taxes annually than you do.  And that gives them a stake in this country.  The biggest tax cheats are the largest corporations.  Sila ang ireklamo ninyo, hindi yung mga kapos-palad.  Minimum-wage workers do not have the opportunity to cheat on income tax; withheld at source yon. Yung mga korporasyon na may madudulas at konektadong accountants ang may kakayahan na man-doktor ng income tax.

PS. Here’s a link (thanks, Citizen Frank!).

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The LGU factor

Manolo Quezon has an interesting disquisition on the role newly powerful local executives are playing in the current crisis. (It is followed by an even more interesting exchange of ideas between Manolo and Jojo Abinales.) Last week, Jojo raised the same issue here in Newsstand. Fertile ground for further thinking-through, which is, when you come right down to it, about the only thing that keeping a blog allows me to do.

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