Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

President Duterte graces PDP-Laban celebration where Nene Pimentel serenades him with popular postwar ditty, "You are my Sunshine, my only Sunshine." But bigger focus now on Inday Sara's "Hugpong ng Pagbabago" (HNP). In view of Mr. Duterte's recent revelation of his desire to "step down," is Sara's new HNP preparation for "succession to the throne," as an LP pundit asserts?

Photos taken during launch of Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP) last week (photos by Ian Cruz from Tweeter)

Last night, Aug15, the PDP-Laban party, founded by former Senate President Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Sr and his son, former Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, held an anniversary party at the GSIS compound next to the Senate. Gracing the occasion was no less than President Rodrigo Duterte who, in 2016, ran and won under its banner.

It seems like a convivial gathering of political forces---so happy, in fact, was 85-year old Nene Pimentel---all white hair now and voice raspier than  ever---that he took to singing that song popularized during the Japanese wartime,  “You Are My Sunshine, My only Sunshine.” Nene dedicated his song to Mr. Duterte, who, said the old political warrior, has always been “my sunshine,” and the President graciously acknowledged it.


Beneath the festive atmosphere at the PDP Laban celebration,  however, loomed  the shadow of the new “regional party” announced  a few days ago  by presidential daughter and Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, the “Hugpong ng Pagbabago” (HNP), in a launch in Paranaque City..  Like a ultra-powerful magnet, the HNP instantly attracted various political groupings---most of them hardly just the “regional” type.

To be sure, there were a good number of regional politicians from Mindanao and the Visayas at Sara’s launch---a total of 11 governors attended---but what was more significant were those from the national political parties who flocked to the HNP launch exhibiting the Duterte fist-bump. 


Among them were Sen. Cynthia Villar and Rep. Pia Cayetano of the Nationalista Party, whose son and sibling, respectively, are key members of the President’s Cabinet---namely Secretary Mark Villar of Public Works and Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano of Foreign Affairs. 

Also very prominent at the HNP launch were Gov. Imee Marcos of the “Ilocano Timpuyong” NP Ilocos chapter; Rep. Fredesnil Castro of the National Unity Party; Quezon City Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte of Serbisyo ng Bayan Party; former Batangas Rep. Mark Leandro Mendoza, secretary-general of the Nationalist People’s Coalition; and Gov. Lilia Pineda of the Kambilan Pampanga, who is very close to Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  Another recruit was Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque. 


Statistics-wise, the attendees at Sara Duterte’s launch were far too significant for what's touted as a “regional party:” 2 out of 23 senators; 1 House member out of 292 members; 11 out of 81 governors.  Also very significant was Sara Duterte’s statement releasing HNP's initial list of candidates to back up for the 2019 mid-term elections:  former PNP Chief Bato de la Rosa, presidential aide Bong Go (despite his frequent denials, he went around distributing relief goods during the storm) and Sen. J.V. Ejercito.  Certain to be included here will be Harry Roque.

Sara Duterte was quoted saying that the HNP supports the ruling PDP-Laban and has no wish to take away its members from that party. As she put it, “We do not meddle with the factional problem of the PDP-Laban.”


With the entry into the national political ring of the new “regional” party on the block, all eyes would be on the fate of the PDP-Laban, the party under which then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte ran for the presidency in 2016.  PDP leaders have admitted that politicians flocking to HNP has led to “confusion” among party leaders as it struggles for unity and survival ahead of the 2019 mid-term elections.

At the outset, Mr. Duterte was quoted as saying that he has nothing to do with the HNP of his daughter, but he is set to grace the  swearing-in and oath-taking of its political leaders. As if to make amends, however, he also attended last night the anniversary celebration of the party he ran in and won---the PDP Laban. 


The situation is becoming very tough for the PDP-Laban inasmuch as Senator Koko Pimentel, supposedly an ally of the President, was yanked out of the presidency of the Senate, and had to give way to Sen. Tito Sotto of the LP.  Koko was quoted by media as admitting that “the possibility of HNP endorsing national candidates could be an issue to the ruling party.”

Governor Anthony del Rosario of Davao del Norte,  one of the HNP stalwarts, was quoted as saying that their group did not anticipate “the level of interest that other political parties had with (Sara Duterte) Carpio’s party.”  Gov. del Rosario was also quoted as stressing that the HNP supports President Duterte’s political agenda and will endorse 8 senators all supportive of the Chief Executive.

Sara Duterte, however, does not seem confused and in fact was candidly quoted in media as saying, “I am confused with (the PDP-Laban’s) confusion.” HNP, she insisted, “is not a national political party. Perhaps the right way to put HNP in perspective is that it's a 'regional party' with super-strong 'national links.' ”


One grizzled LP stalwart I spoke to,  however, who has seen administrations come and go over some decades now, noted the political strength demonstrated by Presidential daughter Sara Zimmerman Duterte-Carpio, e.g., the ouster of the object of her reported ire, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. This  pundit also noted  the easy removal of staunch presidential ally  Koko Pimentel from the Senate Presidency, and how, in both cases, "both were ousted without Malacanang throwing “life savers.’ ”

What this analyst is saying is that what we are witnessing in the HNP today is a “succession to the throne.”  This theory becomes especially fascinating in the light of today’s headline in the Inquirer: “DU30: I’m thinking of stepping down.” 

Sara Duterte as defender of the political fate of her father, especially if it should worsen, and eventual successor to the throne?  Any which way, she is---as the French would say---"tres formidable." 

Monday, August 6, 2018

In aftermath of firing of Deputy Ombudsman Carandang, new Ombudsman Martires will be measured by same yardstick of arrogant independence that Conchita Morales displayed. Titimbangin si Martires nguni't kulang kaya?

In happier times, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and Deputy Melchor Arthur Carandang

Newly appointed Ombudsman Samuel Martires takes his oath of office before Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio
Aug. 06, 2018

The sacking of Overall Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur Carandang by President Duterte, as conveyed in a 10-page decision by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea last July 30 will be watched for weeks, months and even years to come---for a good number of reasons. The Palace had objected to the disclosure by Carandang of bank records of the Duterte family, which it felt Senator Antonio Trillanes could use to accuse the President of plunder. Carandang had claimed that the figures were obtained from the Anti-Money Laundering Council.

Actually, sympathizers of the President are predictably rallying to his defense inasmuch as the release of the figures would be regarded as questionable from their perspective. As Presidential Legal Adviser Sal Panelo put it, "What is patently illegal is that Carandang created a prejudiced environment against a person he is investigating".There is some truth to this, no doubt.


For the moment, however, the legality or non-legality of Deputy Ombudsman Carandang's disclosure of the supposed wealth of the presidential family becomes less interesting---compared to the way he was dealt with by the Administration and implications for the Office of the Ombudsman in the long run.

 A major point at issue here is the harshness of the manner whereby Carandang was fired. According to Secretary Medialdea the dismissal order spells "accessory penalties" of cancellation of eligibility, forfeiture of retirement benefits, being barred from taking civil service examinations and perpetual disqualification from holding public office."  For a civil servant with lifelong service to the government, the forfeiture of retirement benefits is doubtless the harshest, as it deprives him of the nest egg he hopes to enjoy in the twilight of his life.


What's interesting was that the Palace clearly waited until Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales was safely retired two weeks ago, before firing Carandang. Actually ex-Ombudsman Morales already clashed with the Palace over her Deputy's dismissal by the Palace as early as last Feb. 1, but the fiercely independent and seemingly arrogant Morales simply refused to carry it out.

Morales argued with her signature arched-eyebrows that the President had no business firing Carandang, inasmuch as the Supreme Court had ruled as early as Jan. 28, 2014 that the provision of the "Ombudsman Act" of 1989 that gives the Office of the President disciplining powers over the government's watchdog deputies is UNCONSTITUTIONAL. As per that Act, only the Ombudsman can discipline his or her deputy, and she probably would have done so, except that the Palace couldn't wait for her retirement to cool off a bit in axing Deputy Carandang. .

As Morales insisted to media, "The Ombudsman will not allow herself to betray her sworn duty to uphold the Constitution by recognizing what is patently unconstitutional, as ordained by the Supreme Court." There were initial threats about impeaching Morales on this issue, but this was abandoned inasmuch as the feisty lady graft-buster remained popular and admired for her guts vis-a-vis Duterte.  While Morales was in the saddle, the Duterte administration kept its distance.


The Palace appointed 69-year old former Supreme Court Justice Samuel Martires last Monday as Morales' successor and all eyes are now on the poor man, who will be measured by standards set by the feisty lady. Would Martires enforce the President's order to kick out Carandang or would he have the guts to follow his gutsy predecessor on her avowal of independence for the office?

Recall that the Palace had already clashed with Ombudsman Morales when it ordered the 90-day suspension of her Deputy Ombudsman---on the issue of his supposedly irregular release of bank records of the Duterte family, allegedly in the billions, to the President's arch-critic,  Sen.Antonio Trillanes. The Palace feared that the information supposedly from AMLC would be used by Trillanes to charge Mr. Duterte with plunder.

Solicitor-General Jose Calida of quo warranto fame defended the validity of Carandang's dismissal resulting from this issue---arguing that the Constitution does not bar the President from disciplining a
deputy official. The Administration's rationale seemed to be that the authority TO HIRE also implies the  authority TO FIRE, but this is not upheld by recent decisions of the Supreme Court.

Some observers rue, however, that SC decisions are not cast in stone, and Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque has already predicted confidently this reversal by the SC.. New Ombudsman Martires, however, seems to take the safe way out when he stressed that the sacking of Deputy Ombudsman Carandang "is a matter left to the courts to decide." .


President Duterte will retire on June 30, 2022, and until then, it is easy to predict that many legal skirmishes will still be fought by his officials in his name. With the retirement of the feisty Conchita Carpio Morales, aunt of the President's son-in-law, lawyer Maneses Carpio, last July 26, the ball is now in the court of new Ombudsman Martires whose association with Mr. Duterte appears to have come a long way.

Some observers don't give Mr. Martires the same allowance for impartiality that Carpio Morales displayed. For one,  Martires, a fraternity brod of President Duterte, who took his oath as Associate Justice on March 8, 2017---who also happened to be Mr. Duterte's very first appointee to the SC.  Justice Martires had previously occupied the post of Sandiganbayan for 10 years, starting in 2005, leaving a trail of controversial decisions.

 In 2012, he rendered the verdict clearing Marcos and Bobby Ongpin in the alleged Binondo Central Bank scam. News accounts also said that in April 2013,  Martires penned the Sandiganbayan resolution upholding the plea bargaining agreement struck between military comptroller Carlos Garcia and the Ombudsman.

The Filipino people are in for interesting times. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Digong's third SONA delivered at the 17th Congress would best be remembered for coup vs. Speaker Alvarez that installed GMA in his place. A pity that the coup buried some meaningful pronouncements by Duterte in a SONA sans expletives and verbal sling-shots at other leaders, such as toward VP Robredo last year.

Former President and now Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal Arroyo plays out a new and more challenging role as the First Female Speaker of the House of Representatives. 

The 17th Congress of the Philippines will be remembered not for the surprisingly brief State of the Nation Address of President Duterte---but for the coup against Speaker Alvarez that took place over many hours at the Batasan last Monday. In a series of lightning moves by 184 members of the House of Representatives (out of a total membership of 234), who chose to install as their new leader former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, co-province-mate and co-PDP-Laban party-mate of President Duterte and his longtime ally, garnered only 48 votes while  12 representatives abstained. 

The Batasan audience sensed something big was going on when the appearance of the President in the cavernous session hall was delayed for over an hour---even though the giant screen inside the hall showed that he had already arrived. The audience realized something was afoot when a huge group of representatives milled around near the stage, discussing something still unclear to the vast SONA crowd at that time. Many in the audience, including the diplomats, grew more and more restless as still no SONA. I whiled away the time by chatting with a US Embassy political officer and a UNDP official.


Soon enough, I sensed that a coup vs. Speaker Alvarez was in progress and the buzz went around quickly that GMA was going to replace him. Still more waiting amid the raucous of voices and then GMA, who came in a an orange business suit and not in a Filipiniana outfit like most of us, obviously because she didn't have enough time to change outfits, went up the dais to sit at the Speaker's place---all by herself. By then great confusion reigned in the session hall. GMA tried the microphone, but no sound came out. The Alvarez camp had shut it out. 

Finally GMA decided to leave the dais and take her seat among her colleagues on the floor. More groups in a buzz, and after a long while a page came in and set up the Mace---the symbol of the House. 


President Duterte began the shortest speech among his three SONAs so far---which was cut short probably because he had already known what was happening in the House---which was the bigger story. Then Senate President Tito Sotto and by then still-Speaker Alvarez adjourned the session on behalf of their respective chambers. The buzz in the hall was that an arrangement was fashioned between the two protagonists for the Speakership that Alvarez would still get to preside over the House for the SONA---ONE LAST HURRAH FOR HIM.  

Soon after the reception for the guests, the President left by chopper back to the Palace. Then followed the climax of the day journeying quickly into late night---the viva voce voting for Speaker in the session hall, which was being very seriously taken. At that late hour, there was a quorum, which was in itself AN INCREDIBLE FACT IN A CHAMBER NOTORIOUS FOR ABSENCES. 


A big snag: the Alvarez camp, aside from turning off the power on the stage earlier, also did a good job of hiding the Mace---the symbol of House authority---so that it couldn't be produced for last Monday night's over-extended session and voting. Someone questioned whether voting without the Mace would be legal, but this argument was shot down by Camarines Sur's Rolando Andaya who likened the Mace to the policeman's chapa---even without it the policeman remains an officer of the law.  His explanation quieted the objectors and voting began fast and almost automatic---no complex explanations, just voting one by one, overwhelmingly for GMA. 

Buhay Rep. Joselito Atienza termed it "spontaneous combustion," though later reports said the plot was hatched earlier in Bonifacio Global City by a group led by Andaya. 


Lots of theories arose in the search for a rationale for Alvarez's ouster. Some pointed to his vigorous espousal of a "No-El" (no election) scenario---recently headlined by newspapers---which was said to have drawn flak toward the President inasmuch as Alvarez is considered one of his closest political allies and the latter would not do anything without Mr. Duterte's blessing. Perhaps it was there, but the whispered animosity of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte toward Alvarez---which was widely known in Davao---gathered more credence and showed the power of this young politician. Significantly, other politicians from Davao, such as Rep. Karlo Nograles and TonyBoy Floirendo were allied with Sara vs. Alvarez.

I spoke to Rep. Floirendo whose Tagum banana plantation became the object of Alvarez's ire after their two ladies quarreled over who gets to sit at which place of honor at the Bacolod Masskara Festival two years back. Floirendo, known to have been a major donor to Duterte's campaign, had few words of endearment for his fellow DavaoeƱo Alvarez. 

Another solon felt that Alvarez's espousal of same-sex marriage and divorce drew the ire of the Church.

Indeed, many possible reasons for Alvarez's unceremonious eviction. Everyone concedes, though, that the shake-up wouldn't have been possible without at least the tacit approval of Mr. Duterte.  At the session hall  after the voting, I managed to query new speaker GMA, looking quite tired, whether the coup vs. Alvarez had the approval of the President and she replied tartly and almost inaudibly, "Does it have to have his approval?"


Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was elected Speaker of the House tonight---a new phase in her long and distinguished political career. Former Senator and DENR Secretary Sonny Alvarez noted that In becoming Speaker after her nine year-presidency, GMA took the same path as John Quincy Adams in US history. After Adams finished his term as President of the US, he became a member of the US Congress---but as ordinary legislator and not as Speaker. Interesting new world for GMA. Great expectations from her colleagues. Congratulations, Mme. Speaker---the first Filipino woman to achieve this distinction in a predominantly man's world.

If the shift to federalism, as President Duterte is now campaigning furiously for, takes place, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo could conceivably become the first Prime Minister and the first Filipino woman to achieve this goal. Some commentators note that with Duterte shooting his mouth off frequently without thinking, GMA would be the perfect foil, as she is known as a meticulous plodder especially in the realm of economics and foreign investments. 

 At the moment the idea of GMA's return to the top is reaping a lot of favorable remarks, but her political enemies are also quite active in shooting it down. This petite woman, however, has fought many political battles over the decades and she appears to be in this new game to stay.