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 21, 2014

President Aquino in a bind over Palparan: to keep him in Bulacan jail would anger the military, but to turn him over to military or PNP custody would outrage leftist elements. Young officers said to be upset with Defense Chief Gazmin's rather insensitve remarks about former fugitive. Jardeleza appointment to SC perceived as rebuke of Sereno for 13-0 anti-DAP vote. COA Chief's recent revelations on DAP abuse stems from disappointment over failed SC seat?

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin

Former Senator Joker Arroyo is right when he opined in a recent interview that President Aquino is in a bind, as he has antagonized both the Left and the military in his recent statements following the arrest of retired Army Major General Jovito Palparan by NBI operatives. Palparan now languishes in the Bulacan Provincial Jail, but significant segments of the military want him in military custody or at the PNP Camp Crame jail where they feel he would be far safer than in Bulacan.

The problem is that if P-Noy and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin agree to transfer the controversial officer, leftist elements would surely protest to high heavens his "special treatment” inasmuch as he has since become a civilian. But if something happens to Palparan while in that Bulacan jail---and this fear is shared by many elements, including his present custodians---there’s no telling what could happen, given the thick rumblings of discontent from the military ranks over what they consider the unjust and treatment being accorded a colleague who was just doing his duty as a soldier. 

It’s a tough balancing act and a highly sensitive issue for the Palace indeed.


The dilemma began with Secretary Gazmin’s impolitic statement upon the wanted officer’s arrest, which sounded like a boast. Gazmin was quoted as saying:  "Matagal ko nang gustong ipaaresto si Palparan at iregalo sa Pangulo, para naman mapangiti siya." This sounds like an insensitive thing to say, indication that the DND Chief is far removed in feelings and understanding from the military hierarchy he commands. 

Contrast his statement with that of AFP Chief Catapang who knows how to calibrate the feelings of his officers. Contrast, too, the treatment of the former fugitive with that of former Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who didn't seem to be really wanted for a long while. 

P-Noy followed his Defense Chief's statement by saying that now that the fugitive has been arrested, things could get back to normal in the military.

Palparan has long been roasting in the media, with highly-charged invectives against him, much of which he doubtless deserves for the crimes attributed to him. But this should not have made P-Noy and his Defense Chief less sensitive to the feelings of the AFP about Palparan's capture and imprisonment---more temperate language could have been employed if they know their beans.

What they could have said was that Palparan has long been wanted for a series of crimes, but that like every citizen of this country he is entitled to fair and speedy trial UNDER THE LAW. Period. Leave the invectives to the media and the trial to the courts.  


I spoke to some active and retired AFP officers about Palparan’s arrest and imprisonment and they told me how texts have been burning among the officer and enlisted personnel corps about this. They said the military---especially junior officers---are angry about the way he is being treated, and that he's entitled to presumption of innocence until proved guilty. The papers correctly put the dilemma: is Gen. Palparan hero or heel?

There's a more crucial point: an active officer told me that to the rank and file military Palparan was just doing his duty in fighting rebel forces, and that as a result of the recent foul treatment of him, junior officers would now hesitate to fight the insurgents---as they fear they'd also end up with cases.  


There's a grave issue that the Aquino administration has to worry about. The arrest of Palpaparan comes at a time when P-Noy's acceptance and trust ratings are at their lowest in his four years. There are many grave and serious problems besetting his administration, most scandalous of all the DAP issue that has been a source of vast corruption, while the Legislature under his control is now highly discredited. 

The military corps is doubtless aware of these developments, and the administration ought to take care that all measures to ensure Gen. Palparan’s safety under custody be taken. For if something should happen to him there’s no telling how events would shape.   


New Associate Justice Francis H. Jardeleza 

The recent appointment of former Solicitor-General Francis H. Jardeleza to the Supreme Court as its 15th justice was also fraught with conflict.  Recalled that his name was struck out of the final list of nominees submitted by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to the President some months back. News reports said JBC's chair, Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, ordered deletion of his name owing allegedly to some problems of "integrity" affecting him.

That integrity issue is thought of as the Sol-Gen's decision, to quote Daily Tribune, "to unilaterally withdraw the Philippines' claim to the largest island in the Spratleys, in a pleading submitted to the UN arbitration body hearing that territorial dispute (with China)."  Jardeleza's move was perceived as an apparent bid to appease the Chinese government, but as an insider argued, it obviously was done with P-Noy's go-signal. 

To watchers of the Sereno-Jardeleza conflict, the bigger issue, however, was that the Sol-Gen was deprived of the opportunity to defend himself against what looked like an arbitrary move by CJ Sereno in the JBC. He brought his case ironically enough to the SC and to President Aquino, who ordered that his name be put on the JBC list.

Some commentators noted that bad blood between Sereno and Jardeleza dates back to the time when they, both outstanding UP College of Law graduates (class '84 and '74, respectively), were both faculty members of the premium law school.


Given this conflict background, it was rather surprising to many Court watchers that P-Noy appointed Jardeleza to the SC. Part of the surprise was due to the fact that the popular notion was that COA Chair Grace Pulido Tan was favored for the SC. In fact reports say she already did her round of farewells in COA, but it was not meant to be.

Some commentators surmise that the appointment of Sereno's nemesis to the High Court was the President's way of retaliating against her for her failure to successfully push the constitutionality of DAP that P-Noy needs so badly to realize his party's 2016 election agenda. The 13-0 vote was particularly bitter for him, but the High Court could not do otherwise, as public opinion was near-solid vs. DAP. Now the House is giving CJ Sereno hell for this failure via scrutiny of the Judicial Development Fund and demand for the disclosure of the justices' SALNs.

But there are also surmises that Pulido Tan is now revealing many hitherto hidden facts of DAP, because of her bitter failure to get the coveted SC seat. One such revelation from COA is that P239 million of DAP allegedly went into the feeding program of the foundation where Viel Aquino-Dee sits in the board (the Palace quickly cleared her on this issue). Another recent allegation of COA is that the Cayetanos of Taguig, staunch allies of P-Noy, had squandered so much DAP funds in aid of their campaign;  in fact plunder charges were filed against them. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

LP strategists trying to calm political waters violently roiled by sudden opening of P-Noy on Cha-cha and term extension. Political Cha-cha alive and kicking, despite Abigail’s denial and Speaker Belmonte’s assurance that House would only amend economic provisions. But should Cha-cha happen, Transitory provision should prohibit P-Noy from running. Battle royale between Gina Reyes and Lord Allan Velasco on eve of HRET meet.

Is “Political Cha-cha” truly dead in the House, as an unnamed House leader recently asserted and featured as the banner of Philippine Star today? The fact, however, that this leader asserting it wants to remain unnamed is indication enough that “political Cha-cha” is far from dead---he or she is wary of displeasing the President who has become “amenable” to term extension and the LP hierarchy strategizing for him. 

Yes, despite Malacanang spokesperson Abigail Valte’s denial in a rather dead-pan manner, that her boss would seek a second term (tough job, huh, Abigail, my sympathies), it looks like the LP strategists and Palace officials are simply trying to calm political waters across the nation violently roiled by the sudden opening by P-Noy on Charter change and term extension.   

They can assert to high heavens that political Cha-cha is dead in the House, but the fact remains that it’s alive and kicking.


Speaker Sonny Belmonte and his allies seek to assure the nation that amendments they want to push would be confined only to some economic provisions and that others won’t be touched---No to “political Cha-cha” daw. The House Chief argues that economic provisions should be a bit more liberal toward foreign investments, and on this score there's basis enough.

But the way many House members are thinking and acting right now, e.g., demonizing the Supreme Court in retaliation for its ruling on PDAF and sections of DAP as unconstitutional,  and with the Palace’s weak denial of P-Noy’s earlier TV statement, it’s obvious that Belmonte and Co. cannot hold down inclusion of such controversial provisions as lifting of term limits for the President and Congress---once the Cha-cha train starts to roll.  They'd be up against thugs allied with the administration in that same chamber. 


Once in Congress most solons get to love power and all the trappings that go with it so much, that they'd want nothing better than to be able to run sans the three-term limit they’re strapped to now. As for P-Noy, more than seeking to ensure that his “reform” programs would continue, as his media allies argue, he needs assurance that he won’t go to jail for constitutional violations---or as the Inquirer editorial put it, with his "worst lame-duck fears come to life." In plain language, political survival.   

No, citizens who do not want P-Noy to have a second term and who want to retain the term limit for solons (two terms for senators and three for House members) will just have to derail the Congressional Charter-change train predicted to be pulling out of the station by middle of next year.


This does not mean I'm closed to Charter amendments---far from it. But I would  not want those sitting in office to decide constitutional amendments, as this crucial exercise would be self-serving for them and would dilute the high moral caliber of such effort.

In 1997, when followers and admirers of President Ramos were campaigning for a shift to parliamentary with FVR to serve as first Prime Minister, I was approached by a dear friend, the late Rome-based Filipino sculptor/painter Tomas Concepcion whom FVR appointed as sectoral representative for Overseas Filipinos (and later decorated by President Arroyo with the Presidential Merit Medal in Rome for his artistic skills). Tom asked if I could support extending FVR's term either as President or as PM. I said that while I admire and respect FVR highly and feel he was quite effective especially in tackling the energy problem inherited from Cory Aquino and handling the MNLF problem, I cannot buy extension of term of any incumbent or automatically installing him as PM.  

Many citizens, including Cory Aquino who “anointed” FVR, felt that way too . Cory argued to him that "no one is indispensable" and draft-FVR fizzled out. Pity she's no longer around to drum the same thing into her son's head.


I feel the same way today. I feel that we ought to write soon a new Constitution (the very idea enshrined in BayanKo) to enable us to shift to the much-delayed parliamentary/unicameral system. A critical provision, however, should be to bar the incumbent President from participating in the new parliamentary elections, and this prohibiting clause should be categorically stated in the Transitory Provisions, while explicit term limits for MPs and an unambiguously-defined Anti-Dynasty provision should be stated in the main body.

We should have fresh elections for parliamentary districts and the PM elected by the newly-elected MPs.  The latter half of this year and 2015 could be devoted to a nation-wide information campaign on rewriting the Constitution and the  crucial shift in form of government---to be undertaken by the various faiths (this is where the multi-faith National Transition Council would come in), NGOs, professional organizations led by the 50,000-strong IBP, academe, business sector, artists, etc. 

A plebiscite on the Charter could be held on the 29th anniversary of the 1987 Constitution in February 2016 and first parliamentary elections in May that year.   

It would be ideal if P-Noy could be persuaded to campaign for this new Constitution and parliamentary elections in 2016 and then retire as ex-President, with this basic law as his lasting legacy.  It would also be ideal if the members of Congress could put patriotism and love of country first over ambition and self-aggrandizement, and encourage the writing of this new charter and elections with fixed term limits. 

Such occasion would be a rebirth for the nation. We can dream, can't we?


Marinduque Rep. Gina Ongsiako Reyes

The battle royale in the House between incumbent Marinduque Rep. Gina Ongsiako Reyes and defeated rival Lord Allan Velasco is far from over and complicating ramifications involve the Supreme Court where Velasco’s father, Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco, is a member as well as the chair of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET).

To refresh you readers’ memory, the provincial board of canvassers of Marinduque proclaimed Reyes as rightful winner in 2013, after which she was proclaimed in a mass-swearing in by no less than the President at Malacanang and by Speaker Belmonte at the opening of Congress in July 2013. Since then she has sat as member of the House.


The first complication came when Comelec began questioning her assumption into office, based on the claim on an anonymous blogger in the Internet that Reyes allegedly is not a Filipino citizen and in fact uses an American passport. On this flimsy basis Comelec is belatedly annulling Reyes' proclamation and declaring Velasco winner; the SC is said to uphold this decision. 

Reyes has fought this issue of her alleged US citizenship and interestingly, Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes himself filed a dissenting opinion stating that evidence on hand vs. Reyes (from the unnamed blogger) is mere hearsay.  Interestingly too, the dissenting opinion of an SC justice very clearly stated that the Court and Comelec should not rely on a blog to judge whether a person is Filipino or not.


In answer to this issue, the Reyes camp asserts that Sec. 17, Art. VI, the “Legislative Department,” of the Constitution provides that all questions pertaining to the election of House members fall under the jurisdiction of the HRET. This constitutional principle has been upheld in the past year, enabling Reyes to stay in office.

Recently, however, in anticipation of convening HRET for the second regular session of the 16th Congress on Aug. 28, the “draft decision” allegedly prepared by a prominent SC justice-member of the HRET is being circulated among its members (a copy was sent to Reyes by a concerned House member). The Reyes camp alleges that this “draft decision” aims to convince Comelec and the SC to belatedly disqualify her in favor of Justice Velasco's son and to allegedly "precondition and influence the disposition by the other (HRET) members of (this) case."


Reyes is appealing to HRET members to stand by their conviction stated in their earlier ruling upholding her election, and reject the move to install her rival. She also pleads with Speaker Belmonte to protect the dignity of the entire House by granting her a fair hearing where first-hand evidence can be considered before reaching a decision---instead of the only evidence  offered by an internet blog whose author has not been revealed, much less surface. 

Reyes rightly asks, “Is there really such a person at all?" Her camp asserts that neither the Comelec nor SC knows for sure, and yet, there seems to be a concerted effort to ease her out through this “draft decision” on the eve of HRET’s convening. 

"This uncharacteristic haste in deciding a case that would benefit the son of a colleague in the HRET is clearly wrong and most improper, protests Reyes, who warns that such act would set a very destructive precedent that can only weaken HRET for eternity."

Indeed, is there a Phantom, not of the Opera but of the House?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Moment of decision for advocates of Charter Change: continue to push it or postpone now that P-Noy has opened up on intent to stay longer in power. His recent TV pronouncement clearly shows he wants to ensure that his successor would buy him freedom from accountability to the people---safe from a jail term.

When I  wrote here two months ago that the House of Representatives is all geared up to undertake Charter Change to prolong the stay of President Aquino in power, few of my readers were inclined to believe it as it sounded like a wild story. My inside sources had warned that amending the Charter would be a fait accompli by next year, but it seemed unlikely at that time, since the President had been resisting “tinkering” with his mother’s Charter all along; only Speaker Sonny Belmonte and a small group were  pushing cha-cha to amend some economic provisions.  

But the other night P-Noy in no uncertain terms asserted in an interview with Channel 5’s legal analyst Mel Sta. Maria that he’s now open to amending the Constitution and staying longer in power if his “bosses” want him to. With that pronouncement, expect the administration cha-cha train to steam out of the station PRONTO---unless we the people and patriotic, right-thinking legislators (meron pa bang right-thinking reps, aside from the tiny minority in the House?) derail it.


There’s a convergence of reasons for P-Noy’s change of heart. One is that since DBM Secretary Florencio Abad made it clear in the media two months ago that the President gave the go-signal for each and everyone of those DAP releases, he has become fearful of going to jail, along with Abad, for constitutional violations of DAP. 

Hence P-Noy's refuge now is to be able to lift the term-limit provision in the Constitution, so that he gets to stay longer, while ensuring that his LP anointed gains power after him to protect him. While VP Jejomar Binay, the acknowledged front-runner in the 2016 elections, has had close ties with the Aquinos since EDSA days, P-Noy cannot really predict what the Opposition would do to him once out of office.


Then too, when the Supreme Court knocked down PDAF and parts of DAP as unconstitutional, P-Noy lost the sources of his bribery to gain support of members of Congress---or at least the SC has made it much tougher now for him to make use of PDAF and DAP clones. Thus the SC has now become his favorite punching bag---his bĂȘte noire---and he found ostensible reason for charter change: to clip the SC’s vast powers that, he claims, are being used excessively vs. the Executive and threatening its “reforms.”

What's sad is that the President has little qualms about destroying institutions just to carry out his personal agenda or protect his flank.


 Advocates of Charter Change have grown by leaps and bounds as realization sank over decades that the presidential system cannot sustain the country to progress. They now feel that a shift to a parliamentary/unicameral system, instead of the cumbersome and ultra-expensive presidential/bicameral system, and amending certain economic provisions, have become imperative. 

But now, with P-Noy’s allies controlling Congress and displaying feudal obeisance to his whims and fancies, valid goals of Charter Change might be obscured, at least for the moment, by the President’s desire to prolong his term to escape accountability to the people.

In view of these realities, we advocates of Charter Change have to assess our moves and bring our case directly to the sovereign people, from whom all power is supposed to emanate. Perhaps the means provided by the Constitution for People's Initiative, where 12 percent of total registered votes, at least three percent of them in every legislative district, could effect amendment of the Charter more reliably than the tuta Congress sitting as constituent assembly.


From indications, P-Noy takes setbacks very seriously. Soon after he assumed office in July 2010, the story's told that he invited to the Palace CJ Renato Corona, whom he has a great distaste for as a “midnight appointee” of his equally distasteful predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, to coax him to resign. Corona refused, arguing that to do so would make him look guilty of a violation. 

After that flat No! from Corona, executive and legislative cohorts of P-Noy carried out the grand plan to subject him to the most dreadful shaming of a public official ever through the impeachment process. The dislike for Corona was aggravated by the SC unanimous ruling under his watch to distribute lands of Hacienda Luisita to its farmer-tenants, and its majority decision to award these lands at 1989 prices instead of at current prices.


Today the country is witnessing a second round of harassment of the SC, which could be rightly read as a constitutional crisis in progress---pitting Executive and Legislative vs. the Court. The SC, ironically headed by P-Noy's appointee, Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, is being harassed by the same gang in the House and Senate that engineered Corona’s impeachment and conviction.

Aside from forcing CJ Sereno to show up in the House committee on justice hearing, headed by the fiercely obeisant Rep. Niel Tupas---which fortunately she has the guts to ignore---the SC’s budget, whose release is automatically guaranteed by the Constitution to assure its independence, has been progressively reduced even as legislators’ funds continue to flow generously.  

In the proposed 2015 National Budget the SC’s budget of P19 .3 billion registers only a 5% increase and yet Tupas and Co. are tearing their hair over it,  as well as over SC’s Judicial Development Fund. And to top it all, there’s the threat of impeachment hanging over the SC justices that, after what Corona underwent, has traumatized them.


For P-Noy to marshal continued support of Congress he has to rely mainly on the strategy that has served him well over the past four years: to indulge the pork-hungry lawmakers even after the SC had struck out their major sources of funds.  Recall that in the battle over the RH bill pending in Congress for over 13 years, P-Noy used pork barrel funds without qualms. As ACT Rep. Antonio Tinio asserted then, P-Noy allegedly gave P250 million to each House member supporting that bill, and his accusation was never denied. Cabinet members also staked out at the House lounge to pressure representatives to vote yes to the RH bill. 

In P-Noy's new battle against the SC---and to ensure that his support in Congress is not eroded---his House allies are making sure that lump sum allocations are embedded in the proposed National Budget for 2015, disguised as a new definition of “savings." According to authoritative sources, the P20.7 billion PDAF budget (or P70 million per House member) that was outlawed by the SC last year has actually been retained in the 2015 budget of six executive agencies---with access guaranteed to each solon. 


Thus, EACH representative is authorized the following allocations: P23 million for bridges and roads courtesy of DPWH; P14 million for scholarship grants by CHED; P14 million for dole-outs under DSWD, P10 million for medical aid through DOH; P3.5 million for training projects under TESDA and P3.5 million for livelihood projects through DOLE. 

Add these items up and it’s nearly P70 million per representative. Yes, PDAF is alive and well. 

The health and education items were said to be peddled by Health Undersecretary Janet Garin and CHED Chair Patricia Licuanan (et tu, Tati Licuanan?) to House members as still their very own PDAF, during a secret closed-door meeting in the House a few days ago. Interestingly, it was the same ACT Rep. Antonio Tinio who exposed this new bribe attempt through video.

All of these mysterious goings-on in the House are what you may call, to borrow the title of a popular short story in the '60s, "Other Voices, Other Rooms."