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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.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sihanouk demise marks passing of last of the Non-Aligned Movement giants. Sereno TROs Comelec order removing Maliksi as Imus Mayor. Recto tough's balancing act in sin tax bill. Can P-Noy and Recto, both heavy smokers, be Poster Boys in trying-to-quit-smoking campaign?





King Norodom Sihanouk


As I was finishing this online column news came that Cambodia’s revered former King Norodom Sihanouk had died in China after a lingering illness. King Sihanouk, 89, was the last of that colorful and historic batch of many decades ago---the giants of the Non-Aligned Movement that counted Marshal Tito of what was then Yugoslavia and President Sukarno of Indonesia. I shall be writing in my next blog of my own fond recollections of this colorful and legendary figure in Asian and world history whom I came to know during my husband’s stint as the first ambassador in the post-Khmer Rouge era in that country. In the meantime, my condolences to the Royal Family of Cambodia.

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The scheduled signing today in Malacanang of the framework agreement between the GPH and the MILF, to be witnessed by no less than Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, should prompt all right-thinking Filipinos to wish that everything would go well and peace would truly descend on war-torn Muslim Mindanao. 

But we all know that the signing of the framework document is just the beginning of a long tortuous journey that could be laden with all sorts of snags and pitfalls. For instance, consider the various interest groups that would be affected in this highly contentious area---especially members of Congress from Muslim-dominated provinces who would be helping to hammer out the final peace agreement creating the Bangsamoro. All of them would want a piece of the action, beginning with the composition of the 7-member GPH panel of the Transition Commission that will lay the groundwork for that final agreement. 

There is understandable nervous uncertainty over what lies ahead in this far-reaching political experiment; but sincerity, goodwill and openness should play a major role. And of course all of us in the various faiths have to pray a lot that final peace and understanding would emerge.

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Comelec Com. Rene Sarmiento
CJ Ma. Lourdes Sereno shocked court observers last week when she exercised her TRO authority unilaterally to stop implementation of the order of the Comelec First Division, headed by her fellow CJ nominee to the SC, Senior Commissioner Rene Sarmiento. The division ruled last August 15, after extensive deliberations, that Imus City Mayor Emmanuel Maliksi, one of the ruling LP leaders in Cavite province and son of a close ally of President Aquino, Rep. Ayong Maliksi, had lost the 2010 elections to rival Homer Saquilayan by 8,429 votes;  Comelec en banc ordered the latter installed.

To understand this dispute, note that Saquilayan had assumed office after the 2010 elections as the rightful winner, but the Imus RTC in November that year annulled his proclamation and declared Maliksi as elected mayor on the basis of a 665-vote victory. Saquilayan appealed to the Comelec and in a vote of 4-2, the poll body affirmed en banc its Second Division proclamation of him as winner. Maliksi petitioned the SC for certiorari and his case was raffled to the SC division headed by Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, which ordered both parties to file their respective answers by Oct. 19.

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CJ Ma. Lourdes Sereno
CJ Sereno, however, ignored the Carpio division’s motion and instead exercised her TRO privilege to stop Comelec’s ouster of Maliksi. A media report by Rey Requejo in Standard said that “under SC rules the CJ has the power to act on cases calling for urgent actions in consultation with the other magistrates and subject to confirmation by the other justices in their next full court session.” But the justices had already set in motion Maliksi’s petition in their regular session last Oct. 2 and decided NOT TO ACT on his TRO plea, and instead ordered the two parties to first submit comments. Then the SC magistrates held another regular session last Oct. 9, and as Requejo noted, “still no action was made on the injunction relief sought by Maliksi.”

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Last Oct. 11, to everyone's surprise, Sereno issued the TRO on the Comelec’s order to install Saquilayan, even when obviously  there was no “urgent action” called for, and the other justices did not want to preempt the Carpio division’s order to both parties. To the best of my knowledge, the only TRO in memory was issued by former CJ Reynato Puno vs. a violation of the SC's landmark Writ of Kalikasan. 

The query in the SC now is, was Sereno's precipitate action on LP leader Maliksi's petition due to a call from the Palace? This is sad, for she surely realizes that she is hampered by perceptions that she was appointed despite her poor rating in the JBC’s psychiatric exam and questions about her past income from the government's Fraport negotiations. She should have been more sensitive and careful about protecting the necessary image of independence of the top magistrate, but she seems reckless so early. 

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Sen. Ralph Recto
If we citizens are asking for sincerity and goodwill among stakeholders in Bangsamoro creation, we should also plead for this between the executive and legislative branches, and between the two chambers of Congress, over the formulation of the final Sin Tax Reform Law.  Already bad motives are being ascribed to Sen. Ralph Recto, sponsor of the Senate version, because it advocates the far lower target of P15 billion in excise taxes instead of the P30 billion of the House version.  Both versions fall short of the 1000 percent increase in sin taxes, aiming at P60 billion, that the DOF wants to raise, ostensibly to help patients suffering from the ill effects of smoking and drinking.

I find quite baseless the malicious allegation that Recto, because of his much lower target, has already been co-opted by tobacco companies. In advocating a “four-tiered” sin tax structure, instead of a “single-tier” huge tax immediately slapped on cigarette and alcohol consumers, Recto, who has won the respect of his Senate peers over the years for thorough study of issues, is just being realistic. In other words, he recognizes the need for a balance between raising needed revenues for government, the smoking and drinking demands of consumers, the plight of the industries to be affected and the public concern over alarming health statistics especially on young professionals.   

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I salute Rep. Mitos Magsaysay who, as usual, is forthright and courageous in siding with Sen. Recto’s bill, which she feels had taken into account all the factors for a workable and sustainable program, rather than the “non-viable” version of her own chamber. I agree with Recto’s fear that if such a huge tax were to be levied immediately especially on cigarettes, this would not only kill the cigarette industry, but even lead to the huge smuggling of this product, such as we saw in past decades---given the porous state of our customs.  

This is because no matter how expensive cigarettes would become, our young people, especially those from the call center industry, would still take to smoking at the sacrifice perhaps of better nutrition. One sees them during break-time in various work-places, smoking away stress. Lamentable but true.

No less than P-Noy admits how badly he needs to resort to smoking because of the tremendous stresses in his office---promising to work at giving it up in 2016. But perhaps if he showed that he, as the Kuya of all the youngsters, is really fighting this vice, it might inspire them to do the same. Good idea if Ralph Recto, also a heavy smoker, could join this campaign. Both of them could be the Super-Poster Boys of anti-smoking.

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Senate President Ponce Enrile, taking up the cudgels for Recto, opines that taxation is resorted to by government to raise revenues, and that if its aim is to kill the tobacco industry, the way to do so is to prohibit smoking rather than taxing it to death. Of course JPE knows this can’t be prohibited, as it would be unconstitutional and lead to smuggling. But as I have stated earlier, leaders of the North such as JPE could encourage farmers there to go into the cultivation of high-value vegetables, herbal crops and flowers in lieu of tobacco-farming. Such veggies have become boom business in northern Mindanao, owing to the great predilection to healthy juicing these days; flowers grown in Cebu and northern Mindanao are flown to Manila, jacking up their cost, whereas they could just be trucked from Ilocos. The Ilocano farmers need not wring their hands in despair.


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