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.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

White-haired, voice raspier and in wheel-chair, 84-year old Nene Pimentel steps up battle for Federalism, away from Imperial Manila, with key anti-dynasty provision and term limits in proposed constitution. Fellow Mindanaoan Ching Plaza seals more business through PEZA.

Former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr., father of current Senate President Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III, was jailed four times by President Marcos, so that the late Sen. Joker Arroyo termed him “the face of martial law---the poster boy of defiance to Marcos’ one-man rule." 

Nene Pimentel, now 84,  has had a long political career that began when he was first elected mayor of Cagayan de Oro in the '70s. These days, however, despite his hair all silvery now, his raspy voice raspier, sporting a cane and at times wheel chair-bound due to weakening knees, the grand old man of Cagayan de Oro is still a rebel with a cause---and very clear-minded about it. 

Nene, founder of PDP-Laban which is now the administration party, is vigorously rebelling against "Imperial Manila." He has been clamoring for federalism and decentralization for decades now, and despite  weakening knees, his resolve remains firm: to fight for more power in the hustings, away from Imperial Manila; institutionalize federalism,  the anti-dynasty and term limit provisions via charter change.  


Cecile Alvarez and I interviewed Nene Pimentel and former Senator Heherson "Sonny" Alvarez---who were the oldest and the youngest members of the 1971 Constitutional Convention at the height of the Marcos era (Alvarez was among 12 upstarts in that Con-Con). In that assembly supposedly to draft a new constitution, Nene was already fighting for a shift to federalism.  What made him a rabid federalism advocate?

He narrated how as CDO mayor in the '70s, he detested the idea of having to ask Manila constantly for the mere salaries of his City Hall employees. In the Senate he worked hard for the passage in 1991 of the Local Government Code, which provided for the devolution of powers to the grassroots. Nene viewed the LGC also as the solution to the Muslim problem dating from Spanish colonial times. Sadly, however, Congress chose to devolve only three departments: namely, Agriculture, Health and the DSWD. 

Moreover, the LGC law provided for its review by Congress every five years, but Nene notes that this hasn't been done. He also observed that while DSWD was by law already devolved in structure and function through the LGC, yet, when Yolanda hit Eastern Visayas, DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman was distributing aid funds from Manila---when it should have been the local officials who should have taken charge of these funds and relief.   


Nene Pimentel is clamoring for the drafting of a new charter to replace the 1987 Constitution, which will provide the meaningful shift to FEDERALISM. It would mean empowering the provinces to handle their own affairs, instead of over-concentrating power, especially over funds, in "Imperial Manila" and releasing it in trickles to favored partisans.

 A key provision in this new constitution, Nene stresses, should be the rejection of the political dynasties now found all over the country---perhaps in the case of as much as 60% or even of the members of Congress. To get at the heart of the prevailing dynasty system for so many generations now, he proposes two things: l). term limits confined to perhaps maximum of two terms, and 2). that relatives up to the 4th degree of consanguinity cannot run together. 


This latter restriction could be a tough point of contention, given the tenacity of our trapo politicians to cling to power, the poverty of the masses that makes them susceptible to bribes, and their lack of political awareness. But along with reform-minded Filipinos, I see the anti-dynasty provisions as the only way for our politics to be cleaned up and reformed. Most of our provinces have remained in the grip of dynasties. To really prosper and eliminate corruption at the local level---as well as the private armies of the dynasties in various provinces that coerce and terrorize plain folk--- power must be dispersed through Federalism.

Nene's advocacy seems like a pipe dream, given the prevalence and power of dynasties. But it is time that we Filipinos look at this political set-up for what it is---a big source of corruption and mismanagement, and break its back. Nene sees the shift to federalism as the answer to the current over-centralization of power in Manila., and the primary tool for this new deal is the people empowered at the local level. 

It is media's responsibility to get this message across to patriotic Filipinos. so that they would adopt federalism and fight for it. The progress of our country depends a lot on this issue.


Ching Plaza, the new Director-General of PEZA
Ching Plaza was quite aware of the big shoes she's filling when she was appointed by President Duterte as Director-General of the Philippine Export Zone Authority (PEZA). She succeeded long-time DG Lilia de Lima, who was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service last year.

But Ching---who holds the rank of brigadier-general in the AFP Reserve and is a consultant of the Defense Department---is a descendant of Lapu-Lapu: not the type to be intimidated. For one, she is familiar with the PEZA Law as she was one of its authors during one of her three terms in the House as representative from Agusan. With her familiarity with the law and her boundless energy---she was spewing ideas during our one-hour program, just like Mayon now is spewing lava---Ching intends to build on PEZA’s accomplishments as well as blaze new trails.


Cecile Alvarez and I interviewed Ching recently over dzRH and she outlined her priorities. One is to “revolutionize” the PEZA program by establishing two economic zones (ecozones) per province and city as well as two public PEZA ecozones per region. Second, for easier dealings with investors, especially the foreigners, she intends to come up with the Philippine Economic Zones Map with locations nationwide clearly identified. Already there are 379 eco-zones under PEZA which are export-oriented and seek to encourage local capital and boost employment. 

Among Plaza's pet projects are medical tourism (the manufacture of  medicines by international companies here and the establishment of more medical communities around the country for consultation and treatment of both Filipino and Asian patients); and more steel production here. 90% of our steel needs---down to the littlest nail---are imported from China, while, ironically, that country imports our iron ore as raw material. 

The logical question: why not build factories here for steel products, so that we lessen dependence on imports especially in the crucial construction industry, and we get to train our work force for high-end production?

Toward that goal, Plaza intends to put up the “PEZA Institute” to train the manpower needs of industrial zones per region. She also plans to commence the greening of the various ecozones by means of “Green Industries"--- environment-friendly technology and zero-pollution. On June 18-19 this year, Ching Plaza intends to sponsor the "First Global Ecozones Convergence &; Exposition." Corollary to this is the strengthening of the infrastructure in our IT Parks, especially their internet facilities. 

I wish this dynamic manager lots of luck and success, as her triumph is the country's gain.  

Friday, January 19, 2018

Duterte should have left the sacking of Rappler entirely to SEC, and stayed away from making the bruising fight his own. Foreign reactions mount in protest of the SEC move, but it still has failed to dent Duterte's popularity here at home. What gives?


There's tremendous uproar over the recent closure by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of the nearly six-year old Rappler, Inc. on the charge that it has violated the Constitution’s restriction on foreign ownership of local media, continues. The SEC, headed by P-Noy appointee Teresita Herbosa, has also accused Rappler of violating the anti-dummy law, the Corporation Code and the Securities Regulation Code.

SEC has revoked the news outlet’s certificate of registration, alleging that Rappler, Inc. ”sold control to foreigners”---even as its closure extended to the stockholder which owns 98.77% of the company, Rappler Holdings Corporation, headed by Benjamin Bitanga, who is  Filipino. SEC accused Rappler Holdings of “existing for no other purpose than to effect deceptive scheme to circumvent the Constitution.” 


The closure of Rappler comes in the heels of a number of administration moves that bring into serious question---especially abroad, judging from various foreign reactions---what appears to be its ineluctable drift toward authoritarianism and strong-man rule. The overtures in Congress about the possibility of a "No-El" scenario only succeed in reinforcing this unhealthy perception abroad about the administration's drift. 

Very recently a prominent senator from President Trump's Republican Party, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, in a privilege speech delivered IN THE US SENATE NO LESS, lumped President Duterte with other leaders, including his party-mate Donald Trump who had been attacking news media and accusing them of propagating "fake news." 

Citing how Mr. Duterte had complained of being "demonized" by "fake news," Sen. Flake recalled the recent ASEAN Summit in Manila where the Philippine President, with President Trump "laughing by his side," called reporters "spies." Flake said that though that statement appeared to be a joke, still, "nothing was funny about the emergence of dictatorial leaders who attacked news media when the truth started to hurt them."  

Flake likened Mr. Duterte to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.


The shut-down of Rappler would not have hurt Mr. Duterte's image as much had he just let the SEC do the dirty job vs. the news site.  That move could have been argued by SEC, as  Sec. 11 (1)  of Article XVI, “General Provisions,”  of the 1987 Constitution specifies that “The ownership and management of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines, or to corporations, cooperatives or associations, wholly owned and managed by such citizens.”  

SEC fell on the provision that Congress “shall regulate or prohibit monopolies in commercial mass media when the public interest so requires. No combinations in restraint of trade or unfair competition therein shall be allowed.” SEC then zeroed in on the issuance by Rappler Holdings to “Omidyar Network Fund LLC---a fund created by ebay founder Pierre Omidyar and wife---of what are called “Philippine depositary receipts” (PDRs). To SEC those PDRs represent tools of ownership.

SEC’s action may be appealed within 15 days, but it has already created history in that, as noted in media, revocation of Rappler's license “was the first for both the commission and the Philippine media.” 


If Mr. Duterte was smart, what his administration should have done was to studiously keep out of the SEC-Rappler dispute and just let them fight it out. Unfortunately, he came out in an interview showing articles from Rappler that were outright against his administration. His communications people jumped in too, and the issue of violation of the Constitution---which can be argued by smart lawyers---morphed into a campaign instigated by the President to get Rappler for its attacks against him. 

Recall that in his 2017 State of the Nation Address, he already attacked Rappler as foreign-owned, thus violating the Constitution; he later followed this with the accusation that the CIA was funding the online website. Palace communications officials began making life difficult for Rappler---e.g., Mocha removed it from the Palace website.

The SEC had admitted in one instance that it had been deliberating on the Rappler case since December 2016---only six months into the current administration---when it received a request from the Office of the Solicitor General for an investigation of the news website and Rappler Holdings Corporation.


The battle has become personal between the President and his men, and the news website. Feisty broadcast journalist Maria Ressa---who heads the Rappler media group composed mainly of daunting women scarred in journalistic battles over the years---has vowed to fight for her organization’s right to exist and operate. The SEC case  has aroused fears in local circles of  increasing media censorship by the administration.  Observers, recalling what happened to the Inquirer, are now watching what could become of ABS-CBN. 

Tie that to talk in the House of Representatives about a No-el scenario and one can imagine the reactions from abroad as well.  

Interestingly, however, despite fierce criticisms, Rodrigo Duterte's popularity remains at an all-time high here at home---the highest for any Philippine President at this comparative stage in his administration.  This is the paradox of his zig-zagging leadership. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Likelihood of federalism shift puts PH at critical crossroads, as dynasties infused with more "local" funds would predictably refuse to fade away. Current dynasties would prefer cha-cha via a constituent assembly, as they themselves would vote the new system in. But for such a historic undertaking, the best is to elect delegates across the country in a con-con.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte
Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III
House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez

Having been away for over two weeks, I find myself plunging right into the issue of the planned constitutional shift to federalism.  This is not new---we have been talking about it for years, but the fact that the party pushing it---the PDP Laban---is in power makes a lot of difference. 

With President Duterte having campaigned for federalism since he was mayor of Davao and making it the core issue of his presidential campaign, plus the fact that he enjoys a popularity rating not seen in recent administrations, MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE. 

That Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III is vigorously campaigning for federalism in continuance of the family legacy begun by his father, former Senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, Jr. adds tremendous impetus to the current campaign.  


Despite the above factors, however, a shift to federalism will not be a walk in the park. In fact, because of this planned push by the administration to federalism, the country is in a crossroads, with considerable implications on our political and economic life.

Further complicating an already complicated topic---the shift from a unitary to a federal system---is the naked plan of the party in power to do away with the mid-term elections of 2019 and simply extend the term of all current members of  Congress---as well as that of Mr. Duterte--- beyond 2022, by a vote of Congress convened as a constitutional assembly.   


The parliamentary system has many adherents around the world---the US and  Germany are among the biggest federated examples, as are Canada and  Australia. In our Asian region Malaysia and India are successful examples of federations.

A shift to federalism from our current unitary form of government centralized in Manila would make an interesting---and imperative---case study, for there are factors present in our current set-up not found abroad in other cases of shifts in form of government.  Academics point to the fact that the Philippines has 7,000 islands,  28 dominant ethnic groups and 81 provinces---the fact is that in this diversity lies both the richness of our culture as well as the inherent difficulties in governance.


For federalism to succeed here, however, we need, in addition to the intrinsic factors two key factors: A BETTER-EDUCATED PEOPLE WHO ARE BY AND LARGE ECONOMICALLY WELL-SITUATED. These are the reasons why federalism has succeeded in the countries cited above:  their citizens are  better-educated and enjoy improved economic status.

The poverty in our country would make our people quite susceptible to further machinations of the political lords in each province---entrenching the latter further and the derided dynasties just dance the rigodon among themselves. .


Moreover, our being a country of many islands has helped Manila control power and wealth, earning the monicker of “Imperial Manila” (if I am not mistaken, that term was coined years back by former Senator John Henry OsmeƱa and it stuck).  As the imperial majesty, Manila has held the purse-strings and funds have merely TRICKLED DOWN to the LGUs, at their pleasure and discretion. 

The local entities are in a tight bind, inasmuch as they can only collect real estate taxes and business permit fees, not much else. 

Whereas, in a federal set-up the LGUs ideally could generate more income and retain them---to fund programs they need and determine by themselves. Note, for instance, that in 2015, 35% of the national budget went to Metro Manila, even if it represented ONLY 14% OF THE COUNTRY'S POPULATION. 

With the planned devolution of more power and autonomy to the LGUs in a shift to the federal system. it is argued that the central government could now focus on the big-ticket items---such as foreign policy, defense, health care and taxation. That’s one positive aspect of federalism. 

But just as important, “Imperial Manila” could perhaps now look forward to badly-needed decongestion as the LGUs would be given more impetus and challenge to develop as population centers outside Manila. Hopefully it could be a race for meaningful and substantial development such as job generation, and not just the superficial, e.g., park beautification.  


Right now, Metro Manila is bursting at the seams and rural folk continue to stream into it---as there's not enough movement in the provinces and rural salaries are abysmally low. To be sure, there are factors that have spurred some growth outside Metro Manila over time, such as the arrival of call centers and related industries. These industries, however, have yet  to produce ENOUGH MIRACLE EFFECT TO STEM MIGRATION TO METRO MANILA, especially of the untrained. 

Among the nuclei of growth---owing principally to the development of the internet-triggered industries there---are Cagayan de Oro, Davao City, Naga City, Baguio City, Iloilo City and Tacloban City. Academic nerve centers there have sustained businesses feeding on the internet. 

But the fact remains that there is still a heavy inflow into Metro Manila than outward migration. If you don't believe me, ask your housemaids whose clans are virtually in the cities already.


I have been for federalism for some years now but there are nagging concerns that I’m sure many other Filipinos share. One is the fear that federalism, which will give more access to home-grown funds than ever before, would only  institutionalize political families in each province and city than we have seen so far.

I cannot shake off my mind the Parujinogs, the Espinosas, the Mabilogs and other local warlords who have ruled over their areas---soon to be even more empowered with fresh funds. 

The fly in the "Con-Ass" ointment is that it would likely be Congress---in a 3/4 vote in a constituent assembly---that would be passing all these constitutional amendments. Can we expect the miracle of the dynasties outlawing themselves?


With more funds among the LGUs the petty warlords could just thrive in more hospitable climate----to the detriment of the townspeople who need real emancipation from poverty and lack of opportunities.  Historically, federalism thrives best in an area where the people are better educated and reasonably independent economically from the politicos. These two attributes are mutually dependent. and Switzerland is always cited as the ideal.  
Can the citizens of our LGUs who could be newly emancipated by federalism also derive better education and training,  so as to be independent from the dynasties that will seek to continue to rule over them? Could we truly claim we could say goodbye to warlordism in those "emancipated" areas?

Ultimately it is not more funding that we could fall back on to develop our people into more politically independent citizens---IT IS MORE AND BETTER EDUCATION. I have observed at close range how the American people live their daily workday lives:  at its core is a better-educated and trained, and more politically aware people.  

How soon could we produce such Filipinos in our soon-to-be federated regions?