Column: Ronnie Puno and the endgame

Published October 30, 2007

In reporting on the circumstances or consequences of Pampanga Gov. Ed Panlilio’s disclosure about cash gifts in paper bags, some colleagues in the trade found themselves describing his election victory last May as overwhelming. In fact, it was a squeaker. Father Ed’s 219,706 votes edged “queenpin” Lilia Pineda’s tally by a mere 1,147-vote margin — less than one-tenth of one percent of the number of voters eligible to vote for governor of Pampanga province.

The mistake, the myth-in-the-making, is understandable: It is the afterglow effect at work. I remember that, a hundred days into Fidel V. Ramos’ presidency, which he won with the smallest plurality (24 percent) in Philippine history, a survey jointly conducted by Social Weather Stations and Ateneo de Manila found that fully half of all voters remembered having voted for Ramos.

* * *

It does us and the country’s democratic project no good, however, to misremember Father Ed’s “miracle” victory.

The three main candidates (there were actually three more) each received roughly a third of all votes cast: Pineda had 218,559, the incumbent, Gov. Mark Lapid, had 210,875. If the traditional politicians had come together, Father Ed would surely have lost the race.

That is the exact scenario the priest-governor will face in 2010. Under Vice Gov. Yeng Guiao, the intemperate basketball coach and Gloria Arroyo loyalist, and Lubao Mayor Dennis Pineda, the favored son, the traditional politicians of Pampanga (they were among those who trooped to Malacañang at a politically awkward time to declare their support for the President and to denounce Panlilio for dragging her name into the paper bag scandal) are merely, patiently, biding their time.

* * *

Another traditional politician is in charge of the President’s own fortunes. Ronaldo Puno is not only the secretary of the interior and local government (and thus head of the country’s police forces), he is also the presidential adviser on political affairs. He chairs President Arroyo’s own political party, Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi), and is, as his entry in Wikipedia puts it, “arguably one of the most successful campaign managers in Philippine politics. He supported the presidential bids of eventual winners Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.” (The rest of the entry is copied from a short biography available on at least two government websites.)

* * *

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Ramos’ leading rival in the 1992 campaign, may not be the only politician or journalist to contest that description. There is no question, however, that Puno is a political animal — in Aristotle’s original sense, of a species whose nature it is to live for the State.

But his many years in government service or political work (he also served as Joseph Estrada’s interior secretary) have given Puno a reputation associated with another philosopher: Machiavelli.

I am certain he will dispute the following characterization, but his political work can be said to display a signature style. He is fond of the feint; he is a whiz at the use of funds; his trail is followed by accusations of fraud.

He is adept at diversionary tactics (his crucial role in Estrada’s pardon, effected at a time of political scandal, has been both recognized and condemned). Political operators say he knows how to use special funds strategically (his own secretary-general in Kampi, Francis Ver, was involved in the attempted bribery of opposition congressmen; his own undersecretary at the DILG just happened to be in Malacañang during the alleged distribution of cash gifts in paper bags). And fraud continues to dog his name (he has been accused of masterminding the so-called Sulu Hotel operations, which reputedly gave Ramos the margin of victory).

* * *

The point of all this: Is Puno the right man to guide President Arroyo in the endgame?

Granted, he can win elections; indeed, his signature working style (marked by those three F-words) works best, and was perhaps first perfected, in election campaigns. But it is a mistake to treat the President’s last days in office as though it were only the continuation of electoral warfare by other means.

* * *

A footnote in Austin Coates’ biography of Jose Rizal startled me the other day, reaching out from the past to place the Estrada pardon in unexpected perspective.

Coates was writing about the hero’s return to the country after completing medical studies and writing the “Noli,” and how the liberal Governor and Captain-General Emilio Terrero received him in Malacañang. Coates, a British colonial officer, wrote:

In a British possession Rizal, a 27-year-old doctor who had written a book, would have considered himself lucky to be interviewed by an assistant superintendent of police. He would more probably have been consigned to an inspector in the Special Branch, and in either case one might regard it as a foregone certainty that the officer would not have read the book. In the Spanish empire at certain levels there was an equality that overrode racial differences, and a more personal kind of government such as was never to be found where the British ruled, though the general effect of British rule was to produce a far juster and freer society.”

Was it in fact equality, or seigneurial privilege, the kind that members of the political classes accord each other? It makes sense. The Estrada pardon belongs to a long tradition of personalistic politics, which we may or may not have inherited from the Spaniards. The effect is as Coates predicted: a less just, less free society.

1 Comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics, Readings in Rizal

One response to “Column: Ronnie Puno and the endgame

  1. The Nobel Peace Prize 2008

    We respectfully propose to The Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2008, in alphabetical order, to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Joseph “Erap” Ejercito Estrada and Ronaldo Puno for their efforts to create peace and national reconciliation in the Republic of the Philippines.The three nominees have worked hard to establish a political democratic atmosphere and firm respect for majesty of the Law (following the dictum of “justice delayed is justice denied”)

    For the past decade, the conflict the “Pro Erap” forces (the “masa” ) and the “Pro Gloria” (the ruling elite), has been among the most irreconcilable and menacing in Philippine politics. The parties have caused each other great suffering.

    By negotiating the The Presidential Pardon For Erap , and subsequently following it up with the quick pardon after six (6) weeks from the conviction of Erap by the Sandigan Bayan, Arroyo,Estrada and Puno have made substantial contributions to a historic process through which peace and cooperation can replace a bitter political feud and possibly a dangerous civil war and hate among Filipinos.

    In his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel wrote that the Peace Prize could be awarded to the person who, in the preceding year, “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations”.

    The proposed award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2008 to Arroyo, Puno and Estrada is intended to honor a political act which called for great courage on both sides, and which has opened up opportunities for a new development towards fraternity in the Philippines.

    It is our hope that the Committee will give the award to these great Filipinos to serve as an encouragement to all the Filipinos of different political persuasions who are working to establish lasting peace in this important country in the strategic ASEAN region.

    The Profiles of the Proposed Nobel Peace Prize Awards for 2008

    1) President Gloria Arroyo: She has declared the Philippines as the most democratic country in our region. “We have no tolerance for human rights violations at home or abroad.” GMA Speech in the UN General Assembly;Sept.28,2007

    2)Ex- President Joseph Estrada:He served more than six years in detention — six years and six months to be exact. First in an air-conditioned suite at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City, and then at his own well-appointed rest house in Tanay town, outside Manila .

    3)Secretary Ronaldo Puno :The Peacemaker between President Gloria Arroyo and President Joseph Estrada. He is arguably one of the most successful campaign managers in Philippine politics. He supported the presidential bids of eventual winners Ferdinand Marcos,Fidel Ramos,Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

    PS:JOKE only (trick or treat !)

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