Philippine Commentaries

Read Malaya's daily commentaries on economic and political developments that shape Philippine society. Veteran Filipino journalist Joy C. de los Reyes is the paper's editor-in-chief of Malaya, an independent daily newspaper in the Philippines. To visit Malaya's website, just click the Malaya link below.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Joe’s 747

Speaker Jose de Venecia got it right when he outlined his "747" economic program some years back. This must have been around the time of his unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1998 against Joseph Estrada.

The "747" in this case meant 7 percent growth for seven successive years to make a dent on poverty and to lay the foundation for industrialization. At this pace of growth, output would double in about 10 years. While a 7 percent yearly expansion would just match the growth rates of our neighbors (in particular, Thailand which has a similar population, natural endowments and level of development of the Philippines a few decades back), at least the Philippines would not fall further behind.

The problem, of course, is that while it is easy to snatch targets from thin air, there must be a doable blueprint to raise the economy by its bootstraps, as it were.

We brushed off the dust from Joe’s plan so we can have some basis for assessing the purported economic successes of the Arroyo administration.

The numbers are not yet in but GDP growth for 2005 would likely be slightly below 5 percent, compared with the original target of 5.1 to 6.3 percent.

For 2006, the target is 5.7 to 6.3 percent against the original 6.3 to 7.3 percent. For 2007, the new target is 6.1 to 6.5 percent against the original 6.5 to 7.5 percent under the Medium-Term Development Program.

So under the best-case scenario, growth could hit 7 percent only starting in 2008. That leaves exactly two-and-a-half years under this purportedly growth-driven administration under a PhD where there would be a fighting chance to achieve respectable growth.

In Baguio yesterday, Gloria was again boasting of the "stupendous" performance of the peso against the dollar, the best, she said, in the world. We’re not knocking off the overseas workers’ contributions, the reason for the peso’s appreciation. But with record remittances of more than $12 billion this year, why is it that growth could do no better than 5 percent?

There is something terribly wrong somewhere. We suspect that the main culprit is the leadership crisis brought about by this lying, cheating and thieving administration. Business has succeeded to some extent in insulating itself from the political uncertainties, explaining the fact that the economy has not, in fact, contracted. But business confidence may snap if the turmoil persists.

We could, however, be wrong. Perhaps there are other deeply rooted structural reasons why the economy could not take off. The point is to take a cold, hard look at what ails the economy.

We cannot, however, undertake this unless we first admit everything is not coming up roses. Deluding ourselves, as Gloria habitually does, will only sink is deeper into the economic hole she refuses to acknowledge.


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Economic take-off?

Anecdotal evidence points to sluggish spending during the holidays. Because of this, it is virtually certain that the government would miss its growth target of 5.1 percent for this year.

In any language, missing a target is a setback. But the way we are hearing it from Gloria and her propaganda hacks, the economy is on a roll and rapidly nearing take-off. The peso is the best performing currency in the region. The stock market is strongly recovering. Dollar inflows – in the form of remittances and investments – are surging. The recitation of "good news" is nauseating.

Palace spin masters make it appear it’s a matter of perspective. Optimists see the glass as half-full; the pessimists see it as half-empty. Framed this way, the question of economic accomplishment claimed by the government is reduced to a matter of belief.

The government is being dishonest. There is a yardstick by which performance can be measured. We refer to targets and projections set by the government itself.

At the start of 2005, the government targeted a growth rate of from 5.3 percent to 6.3 percent. The figures were immediately scaled down to 4.8 percent to 5.1 percent.

So what was the actual performance? The average growth over the first nine months was 4.6 percent. For growth to reach 5 percent for the whole year, fourth quarter growth has to be at least 5.5 percent. With the anticipated surge in consumer spending during the holidays nowhere to be seen, last quarter growth would probably hardly top 5 percent. That would mean a full year growth of around 4.8 percent, the low end of the growth projection.

The word is "pasang awa."

Were Gloria honest, she should concede 2005 is a disappointing year. But her lying is congenital. To maintain the fiction the economy is doing well under her watch, she is readying even at this moment another scheme to spruce up the Potemkin village she has erected to hide the economy’s weakness.

She said her government "saved" P35 billion this year. The "savings" will be spent in the first months of 2006 to pump prime the economy.

What "savings" is she talking about? The P35 billion is not an excess of revenues over expenditures. It is the difference between the projected deficit of P180 billion against the actual fiscal gap. That P35 billion is far from "savings." It is, on the contrary, a borrowing.

Investors, lenders and credit rating agencies are purportedly growing confident because of the improvement in government’s fiscal management.

Well, we they can join us in a friendly game. We have three shells and a pea. Where do we send the invitation?


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A Left-Right tactical alliance?

The communists are hallucinating if they believe they are in a position any time soon to seize power after 37 years of "people’s war." Their revolution has proven true to its "protracted" character. If it goes any more protracted, victory will remain a dream after another 37 more years since the founding of the Communist Party of the Philippines in 1968.

Still one has to give the devil his due. The communist rebellion has been resilient. It was able to survive harsh repression under martial law. It has remained attractive despite the restoration of democracy and its promise of social equity and people empowerment.

The reason is obvious. The social inequity that proved a fertile soil for the seed planted by Jose Ma. Sison almost two generations back continues to nourish insurgency. The same ruling class that has been impervious to the demands of change continues to hold sway. The communists’ continuing characterization of the Philippines as a "semi-colonial semi-feudal" society is patently an anachronism in the era of globalization and mass exportation of labor. But widespread poverty and powerless remain a reality.

Given this background, the nation, we fear, will continue to be haunted by the specter of insurgency. More worrisome yet, the communists appear to have broken out from the straightjacket of Maoist orthodoxy.

The other day, the communists issued a call for a tactical alliance with reformist factions in the police and the military who have grown disgruntled with the "lying, cheating and thieving "administration of Gloria Arroyo. We don’t know how the soldiers and policemen will react to the call. But given Gloria’s determination to hold on to her stolen powers by whatever means, the emergence of a broad alliance of all anti-Arroyo forces is a distinct possibility.

Surely it can’t happen here, sections of the military and the police linking arms with Left? That’s what we also used to think. But take a look at Bolivia and Venezuela where the Left is in power with the kind of military support which was unthinkable in the Latin American setting in the 1970s.

The "democracy" restored by Edsa 1 has failed the masses of our people. Gloria Arroyo has become the living refutation to the belief that the ruling elite are capable of leading this nation to social justice and material prosperity.

Gloria, as the symbol of the worst excesses of traditional politics, is driving the Left and the Right to a mutual embrace. One more reason for the Center to press for her immediate ouster.


Defensive they ought to be

(This was published Friday, December 23, 2005)

Artemio Panganiban, the new chief justice, yesterday said he would not take a telephone call from President Arroyo if the latter placed one. A rather strange thing for a chief justice to say during his first day in office.

We could not think of any reason why the chief executive should call the chief justice, save perhaps during the latter’s birthday or similar social occasions. It is a given that the President should never ever try to persuade the high tribunal into ruling one way or the other in any case. And the chief justice – or any member of that court, for that matter – is not supposed to entertain any lobbying from anybody, however exalted his position.

So why is Panganiban so defensive? Nobody, after all, has accused him of being a potential Virgilio Garcillano.

In the same defensive vein, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Panganiban’s appointment to the seat vacated by Hilario Davide Jr. is not a reward for his getting the Supreme Court’s blessing for Arroyo’s power grab in 2001.

"Ibig sabihin ay every time the President appoints somebody, merong bayad utang? Let’s give it to the President. She knows what conditions must be present in appointing people," Ermita said.
So what conditions did Gloria find so compelling that she had to appoint Panganiban?

The most senior nominee was Associate Justice Reynato Puno. In the history of the Republic, there were only two instances when the tradition of seniority was broken. Ferdinand Marcos bypassed Claudio Teehankee twice. But that was during martial law. Teehankee had been a dissenter in almost all martial law cases and it was understood that Marcos wanted a more pliable chair of the tribunal. There was a political logic in the bypass of Teehankee.

The people thus cannot be faulted for suspecting "bayad" for past favors done or, worse, "utang" that is expected to be repaid in the days to come.

The credibility of the Supreme Court has been in tatters since it came up with the bizarre doctrine that President Joseph Estrada had constructively resigned, justifying Arroyo’s usurpation of the presidency.

The credibility of Arroyo, needless to say, is far worse. People believe she stole the presidency twice, first by grabbing power from Estrada and second by rigging the 2004 election.

The result? An appointing authority with practically zero credibility naming the second best man to an institution with suspect integrity.

Only under Gloria’s administration.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

Call a constitutional convention

The Palace says we should not knock the draft prepared by around 50 people it had handpicked to make up the Constitutional Commission which just so happened was also its own creation. It says critics of the Con-Com’s output should come up with an alternative.

So, OK, let’s humor the Palace propagandists. Let’s start with how the 1987 Constitution provides for the introduction of amendments. The first is through a three-fourths vote of Congress, the second is through a constitutional convention,.and the third is through a people’s initiative. The third is a non-starter after the Supreme Court’s Pirma ruling which says this provision needs fleshing out by legislation.

When Gloria Arroyo delivered her State of the Nation Address, she announced the opening of the "grand debate" on whether to shift to a parlientary-federal form of government. We all know all what she wanted was to distract attention from the then one-month-old "Hello Garci" election fraud tapes and to sidetrack the clamor for her resignation.

But leaving aside Gloria’s motives, why she did not call for the holding of a constitutional convention? Discarding the presidential system is tantamount to overhauling the 1987 Constitution. A constitutional convention, with delegates coming from all over the country, would have been the most appropriate way of tackling this momentous question.

Cost? Let’s take on its face the claim that cost of a convention lasting two years will top P9 billion. That’s only one-half percent of the expected total budget for 2006 and 2007. Gloria frames the issue of a shift to parliamentary as a make-or-break choice for the nation. Yet she would loathe spending P9 billion -- around four times what the Senate committee on agriculture said was diverted by agriculture secretary Jocelyn "Joc Joc" Bolante to Arroyo’s campaign chest in 2004 - for an honest to goodness "grand debate."

Congress sitting as a constituent asembly may be less costly. But we do know that the House is already committed to a parliament system. What "grand debate" are we talking about when the issue has already been prejudged by the House?

Senators are said to be open to a shift, but the overwhelming sentiment is for the holding of a convention. Among the reasons cited by senators is the very likelihood that a constituent assembly would come up with self-serving provisions.

Now, the worst fears of the senators are about to become a reality. The Con-Com’s proposal to scrap elections in 2007 is about to be adopted by the House.

What could be more self-serving than staying in office longer than what the people voted them to serve? Were the would-be holdovers saints, we would oppose the "no-el" scenario in principle. What more when the beneficiaries are certified cheats and thieves?


The Davide court

(This was published Wednesday, December 21, 2005.)

Retired Chief Justice Hilario Davide said the controversies hounding the Supreme Court were due to the court’s being "proactive" during his watch. "We had the courage to defend the independence of the court from partisan politics," he said.

Independence from partisan politics? What a laugh. The Davide court has been the most politicalized high tribunal in the country’s history and it will probably take a generation for the court to shed its image of a fawning handmaiden to politics.

The Davide court will ever be remembered for legitimizing Gloria’s Arroyo’s usurpation of the presidency in January 2001. All the good the court has done will always be eclipsed by this singular political act of installing an illegitimate president and subsequently weaving a whole cloth of judicial doctrine justifying a power grab from the flimsy thread of President Joseph Estrada having purportedly "constructively resigned."

Three women senior students at the UP College of Law had a merry time pointing out the absurdity of that ruling. The Supreme Court can only take comfort in the fact that the debunkers, at least, were not sophomores.

Perhaps it is unfair to blame Davide for the Supreme Court’s descent into politics. He was just one of the 15 members of the court. It was Justice Artemio Panganiban, now highly touted as next chief justice, who convinced Davide to swear in Arroyo after cutting the Bible to guide the court’s action. It was Justice Reynato Puno who wrote that towering decision on the Arroyo presidency based on the lie that Estrada had resigned.

It is the high tribunal that is on the dock. And that’s why whoever succeeds to Davide’s position will have a Herculean job of regaining for the court the respect and awe it used to be held.
The single biggest test currently facing the tribunal is the constitutionality of Executive Order 464 which bars officials, including the military and the police, from appearing before congressional inquiries without permission from the president.

It’s a cut-and-dried issue. But let’s see. The court might yet spring another surprise, complete with the kind of contortions that characterized the Estrada decision.

Still hope springs eternal. The Supreme Court, as the final arbiter of the law, is the last institution standing in the way of the country’s seeming descent into the rule of naked power.

It can still redeem itself.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A perfectly rational – if thieving – mind

Rep. Joey Salceda had it all wrong when he said the creation of a "superbody" to address the energy crisis is a product of a sick mind. The brains behind this fast-break are far from crazed. They are, on the contrary, perfectly rational. There are no more big-ticket government projects in the near future. So they are trying to grab whatever any honey pot is at hand.

The "superbody," ponderously named Philippine Strategic Oil, Gas, Energy Resources and Power Sector Office, is supposed to help the Department of Energy and other agencies attract more capital to the energy sector as well as secure funding from government financial institutions, private financiers and international lending institutions. The ostensive aim is to address the looming energy crisis by "promoting, developing and accelerating the implementation of private sector-led projects."

The impression is that the new office’s job is no more than luring potential investors into oil and gas deposits. But that is already being handled by the Bureau of Energy Development, complemented by the PNOC-Energy Development Corp. No "superbody" is needed to implement a straightforward marketing job. In fact, sourcing of oil and gas is not the most pressing problem in the energy sector.

Power generation and transmission is. Three years from now, the country would face crippling brownouts similar to those in the 1990s if no new power plants are built. The transmission backbone is already inadequate as it is. The current government policy is to privatize power generation and transmission in recognition of the government’s inability to raise financing because of its budget deficit.

Now let’s talk actual assets on the block. There’s the transmission grid which is up for another round of bidding early next year. The Senate oversight committee on energy places the value of the transmission system at not less than P15 billion. Then there’s ongoing auction of the individual power plants of the National Power Corp. Just one plant, the 600 megawatt Masinloc, has been snapped up for $500 million. We understand the buyer is having problems raising the down payment ($200 million if we remember right), but the snags, we suppose, could easily be straightened out with some friendly help from whoever gets to sit on top of the "superbody" and his patrons.

These two privatization efforts are worth P40 billion. At the usual 10 percent "facilitation" fee, that’s a cool P4 billion.

Is that Jose Pidal we see drooling?


Monday, December 19, 2005

A blueprint for national suicide

The mountain that labored mightily to bring forth a mouse of a proposed new constitution must have the hide of an elephant (to mix our metaphors).

Gloria Arroyo packed her Consultative Commission with advocates of a shift to the parliamentary system. So she got what she wished, a proposed unicameral legislature she and the party of thieves could control to keep themselves in power in perpetuity.

Goodbye, check and balance. With legislative and executive powers concentrated in the hands of a parliament of 500 tradpols and its designated cabinet, it’s open sesame to the doors of the treasury. Under a cosa nostra setup, we would probably remember Joc Joc Bolante as a penny ante operator.

But Gloria’s Con-Com boys and girls were not satisfied with changing the rules of the games. They also wanted to pack the deck from the very beginning. Among the qualifications they require for membership in the parliament is a college diploma. The late Blas Ople was a dropout. Ka Blas was able to stand his ground in the Interim Batasang Pambansa before the likes of Dr. Onofre Corpus, the political scientist-historian. And we don’t mean in parliamentary jousts alone. Ka Blas’ lack of a diploma did not prevent him from rising to the Senate president, the third highest post in the land. He must be turning in his grave.

What would they think of next? A property qualification?

There is also that provision which bars MPs from exercising their profession, especially when they belong to mass media and the movies. Those two qualifications would have taken care of the likes of President Joseph Estrada and Fernando Poe Jr.

We have qualms about an aristocracy, even one of merit. But an aristocracy of election cheats and thieves? That certainly takes the cake.

And for the coup de grace on democracy, they want to strip the sovereign people of their right to elect their leaders for the next four years. Their reason: they want a "cooling-off" of political passions to ensure, they say, a successful economic takeoff. We see the economy putt-putting on the edge of the runway (growth has been slowing down the last six quarters). If Gloria tries to pull up the nose of the plane, it will augur in.

We pity the few members of the Con-Com who sincerely believed they were crafting a document that would serve as a new basis for a social consensus after the body politics’ sundering under the questionable legitimacy of the administration of Gloria.

They’ve been had, which only shows that mortarboards on their heads and an alphabet soup of credentials after their names do not guarantee rational thinking or moral rightness, let alone wisdom.

We are tempted to rail against the Con-Com’s draft charter. But we’re saving our breath. For we are sure the people, in their collective wisdom, will reject such blueprint for national suicide.


An invitation that could not be refused

(This was published Saturday, December 17, 2005)

Fortunato Abat declared his "revolutionary transition government" Wednesday morning. This was the occasion when he urged the military and the police to withdraw their support from Gloria Arroyo, the act which government prosecutors later said constituted the crime of inciting to sedition.

According to the police, they had intelligence agents monitoring Abat and company’s show at the Club Filipino. The agents, therefore, had personal knowledge of the crime allegedly committed.

So why did these agents not go to a prosecutor a file a complaint? Why did they have to invoke citizen’s arrest when Abat was not going anywhere?
Plain laziness? Sheer stupidity?

And they could not even get their act together. The policemen told Abat and his companions they were being "invited" to Camp Crame. When Ambassador Rey Señeres asked for any document covering the "invitation," the policemen could not present one.

The policemen, not to be bothered by legal niceties, bodily carried out lawyer Carlos Serapio. Seeing the policemen meant business, Abat, Señeres and Salvador Enriquez decided to go with them to Camp Crame.

During martial law, people were not arrested. They were "invited," with the invitation extending to free board and lodging courtesy of the state for an indeterminate period. The police are back in the business of inviting people. Did Edsa 1 really take place?

Incidentally, would it have greatly inconvenienced the policemen had they slipped into uniform before proceeding with their mission? They looked like bums in T-shirts, vests and rubber shoes.

But we should not lean too hard on the policemen. They had been ordered to grab Abat and company. As far as they were concerned, they were only doing their job.

PNP spokesman Chief Supt. Leopoldo Bataoil was bobbing and weaving when asked who issued the order to arrest Abat and company. He said the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group-Metro Manila saw a crime was being committed. He said the unit needed no directive from anybody for it do its job.

So, OK. The arrogance that characterizes Malacañang has already seeped down to ordinary policemen. Gloria respects not the Constitution, the law, morality and basic courtesy. So how could policemen be expected to follow rules on arrest and detention?

Abat thinks the Arroyo administration is beyond salvage. After what they did to him, we can only nod our head in agreement.


Abat’s gambit accepted

(This was published Friday, December 16, 2005)

Pathetic" was former Defense Secretary Fortunato Abat’s declaration of a revolutionary transition government, the Palace said the other day. So why did the Arroyo government have to round up the old man along with three other members of his "transition" Cabinet?

Abat has long been calling for the ouster of Gloria Arroyo. His call is an articulation of the people’s sentiments. They want Gloria out because of unbridled corruption, utter incompetence in running government and, the last straw, shameless stealing the 2004 presidential election.

But Abat’s campaign has so far not been able to generate the kind of critical mass that could threaten Gloria’s continued stay in power. Perhaps it is because Abat’s group is identified with retired generals and former members of the Ramos Cabinet. It has made no effort to link up with other anti-Gloria forces such as civil society, a section of business, the militants, the students and the mainstream opposition. It has not shown the dynamism that is needed to sustain the campaign for the removal of Gloria from power.

The arrest of Abat may just change that. The restiveness in the military, the natural constituency of Abat (a former Army commanding general), is nearing the boiling point. Recruitment for a coup is going on. The pro-Gloria military leadership, despite its bluster, is clearly losing control over field and company grade officers and, possibly, not a few generals.

Army chief Lt. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, for example, appeared ridiculous when he challenged coup plotters to make their move so the issue could be settled by force of arms. That ludicrous challenge – akin to saying "barilan na lang tayo" – was a clear sign of weakness. The chain of command is fraying. When it would snap is anybody’s guess.

Originally, we thought Abat was putting the cart before the horse when he insisted that only the military can remove Gloria. We were probably so blinded by the Edsa 1 and Edsa 2 model – a military-backed popular uprising, according to conventional wisdom – that we did not see that Abat was probably correct in giving a weightier role to the military.

We have only to go back to Edsa 1 and strip it of its mythology. It was triggered by a failed coup, followed by the withdrawal of support by then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and PNP chief Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos. The people power component came later.

Bearing this in mind, we probably just saw Gloria and her generals playing right into Abat’s hands.


Thursday, December 15, 2005

The people know better

Budget Secretary Romulo Neri recently scolded manufacturers and retailers for blaming government for the marked slowdown of sales during the traditionally brisk Christmas season.

He said overseas remittances are at a record level and the economy is doing quite well. There’s a lot of money out there. He said it’s business’ fault for not finding the right marketing tack to move their products.

"When you fail, review your strategy and, please, do not blame government," Neri said.

Neri’s advice is sound when applied to individual firms. But when everybody is suffering a downturn in sales ranging from 5 to 10 percent, there is definitely something wrong more than failed marketing strategies.

It’s true there’s a lot of money out there. But why are people not spending even during the holiday season? This is what has to be explained and, as we said, failed marketing strategies cannot adequately account for slower sales.

The source of the report that businessmen are bracing for a bleak Christmas season was Bernardo Villegas, vice president of the Opus Dei institution University of Asia and the Pacific. It must have run against the Villegas’ innate optimism to raise alarms over dropping sales. Remember that this is the guy who has been dubbed as the "prophet of boom" for always seeing the silver lining in the dark economic clouds of the past.

But facts are facts. Villegas is a professional economist who does consultancy work with the country’s leading corporations. He and his principals are puzzled by the slump in sales. The economist’s job is to seek an explanation for this phenomenon.

Villegas accepts that there is disposable money out there. He surmises that people are not spending because they "are afraid of the future and are saving more."

Why? Because of political uncertainties and soaring oil prices, according to Villegas.

Villegas has something there, although there are more specific basis for the consumers’ penny-pinching. Higher power rates will be collected starting at the end of the month. The higher VAT of 12 percent kicks in at the start of the year. Prospects are indeed bleak.

So consumers are right in bracing for worse. They are proving to be perfectly rational in their economic decisions.

Which cannot be said of Neri and his principal, Gloria Arroyo, who are sounding like a broken record in boasting about how well the economy is doing.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Self-delusion in the AFP

Generals loyal to Gloria are taunting officers plotting a coup to make their move so the issue could be decided now by the firepower available to both sides. These pro-Gloria blowhards, it seems, have not a whit of understanding of the threat they are facing.

Ousting a discredited regime is not a matter of the rebels fielding the most number of battalions. The lessons of Edsa 1 and Edsa 2 should have hammered this point home by now. In fact, the military component of these risings came after a long process – characterized by the natural ebb and flow of mass movements - of chipping away at the legitimacy of the regime in power. When legitimacy is lost, not all the tanks and cannons in the AFP can save a regime that has totally lost the people’s trust and support.

Let’s take a look at this alleged plot which was uncovered last weekend. The AFP and the PNP have leaked the identity of these alleged plotters. But the government cannot move against them because none has made any overt action that could fall under the crime of coup d’etat or rebellion.

There’s something seriously wrong if the Gloria loyalists believe these actions are enough to neutralize the coup plotters.

The alleged coup plotters identified by the military are mostly retired officers. Not a few of them are as corrupt and as lacking in credibility as the serving senior generals. They may be talking loquaciously about a coup. But they don’t have the capability.

Our suspicion is that the AFP and PNP are throwing a smokescreen to hide the real demoralization and disgruntlement in the officer corps and in the ranks,
There are indisputably officers in key positions whose loyalty to Gloria as commander-in-chief ends where their loyalty to the Constitution and to the people begins. The AFP and the PNP leadership knows these officers. But again, the brass cannot move against them on mere suspicion of disloyalty to Gloria. The leadership cannot even resort to the simple expediency of stripping them of command and sending them to the freezer.

Why? Because running after these officers might yet trigger precisely what the Gloria loyalist generals fear most – a mutiny within the ranks or a rebellion against the corrupt and incompetent Arroyo regime.

Remember the first Edsa uprising? Months before, General Fabian Ver knew what the Reform the Armed Forces Movement was up to. He could not, however, round up the RAM leaders because it might further polarize the military. Ver believed, fatally to the Marcos regime, that RAM was just a nuisance that could be swatted like a fly by the full might of the AFP.

That’s where we are right now. And the Sengas and the Esperons are sounding exactly like Ver.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Lying is contagious

The government line that there is no need to investigate reports that the Intelligence Service of the AFP was behind the "Hello Garci" wiretapping has changed overnight.

The previous line of Malacañang was that Gloria was too busy presiding over an economy on the verge of takeoff that she could not be distracted by calls to order the AFP to conduct an investigation. Yesterday, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said the AFP is already dealing with the alleged wiretapping, implying that there is already an ongoing investigation and, thus, there is no need for Gloria to order the mounting of one.

Camp Aguinaldo was as quick to change tack. Immediately after the testimony before the Senate of Marietta Santos, the No.3 of alleged wiretapper T/Sgt. Vidal Doble, AFP chief Gen. Generoso Senga said the AFP could not open an investigation because the claims of Santos were "unproven facts." (If a statement is a "proven fact," what is there to investigate?)

Col. Tristan Kison, AFP spokesman, added that Santos should go to the "proper forum," which he said is the courts, and present her allegations.

Yesterday, Kison, echoing the Palace line, said an investigation, in fact, was mounted six months ago and is still going on.

So there we have it. Malacañang and Camp Aguinaldo are not treating the taping of the conversations between an election official and the commander-in-chief lightly. A military running amuck is recognized as a grave threat to the Republic.

So why are we not believing the claims of Malacañang and the AFP? The reason is that on the part of Malacañang, it has been consistently lying since Bunye’s "I-have-two-tapes" press conference in early June. On the part of the AFP, Isafp officials stated under oath during the House’s "Hello Garci" investigation that the unit did not have the capability to listen on in cellular phone conversations. Senga, who ought to have recognized a lie when he saw one, should have court martialed the Isafp officials for lying there and then.

Six months into the investigation and the AFP probers have yet to reach a finding? Military intelligence might be an oxymoron, but there must be a modicum of plain sense in the AFP. It would not take a day to determine whether Isafp has the equipment for electronic surveillance. It would not take a week to interview Doble and the other operatives of Military Intelligence 21 to determine whether they indeed wiretapped Garcillano. Given a month more, the chain through which the order to conduct the surveillance flowed could be established.

The AFP leadership, it seems, has caught the virus of lying from Palace. No wonder its credibility even among soldiers – make that especially among soldiers – is as shot as Gloria’s.


Monday, December 12, 2005

AFP should stop stonewalling

Last July, then AFP chief Gen. Efren Abu ordered an investigation into the alleged AFP’s wiretapping operation during the 2004 elections that yielded the "Hello Garci" tapes. The results of that investigation should now be made public.

It is more or less established that the Isafp indeed conducted what is called in spook speak "electronic surveillance." Former NBI deputy director Samuel Ong, who claimed he has the "mother of all tapes" in his possession said he got the tape from Isafp operative T/Sgt. Vidal Doble. The No. 3 of Doble, Marietta Santos, recently identified the unit, Military Intelligence Group 21, which conducted the wiretapping. She even named the members of the 14-man team.

The AFP simply can’t duck, weave and sidestep such specific allegations.

At the height of the House inquiry into the "Hello Garci" tapes, Isafp chief Brig. Gen. Marlu Quevedo categorically said his unit does not have the capability to tap cellular phone communications. He appears now to have been lying through his teeth.

The second question the AFP must answer is who ordered and authorized the electronic surveillance. We don’t believe speculations that rogue members of Isafp did it on their own. This should also clear up questions over who the real target was.

It could not have been President Arroyo. The tapped cell phone was indisputably Garcillano’s as all the conversations had the former election official at one end. Arroyo was just among at least a score of callers.

It is at this point where we don’t agree with the reason why some legislators are seeking AFP’s full disclosure. The legislators said listening in on the commander-in-chief is the highest breach of national security. The implication is that had the wiretappers shut down their recording equipment when Gloria called or erased portions where Gloria was caught on tape, then it would have been all right.

The result of the investigation ordered by Abu ought to answer these questions. This is assuming an honest-to-goodness investigation was conducted, an assumption we are not prepared to accept.

The person directed by Abu to handle the investigation was Rear Adm. Tirso Dangan, the J2 or deputy chief of staff for intelligence who has supervision over Isafp. It so happens that Dangan was concurrently J2 and chief of Isafp during the 2004 elections.

So what we have is a case of the suspect investigating himself. This doesn’t mean, however, that the results of the Dangan investigation are useless. They are, in fact, priceless.

Gloria has been desperately seeking to cover up the "Hello Garci" tapes. Let’s see how the AFP, in parallel, has been covering up the use of its men and assets in stealing the 2004 election for Gloria.


Mongers of war in season of peace

(This was published Saturday, December 10, 2005)

For the first time in memory, there will be no Christmas truce with communist rebels if the military leadership would have its way.

"Year in and year out, we have been coming out with suspension of military operations or SOMO around Christmas. But this time we are really studying seriously whether to go through it again," Army chief Lt. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said. "If asked as a commander…I will not recommend a cease-fire or SOMO this year."

Since the 78,000-strong Army serves as the backbone of the counter-insurgency campaign, Esperon’s recommendation carries weight. And AFP chief Gen. Generoso Senga appears predisposed to go along with Esperon’s no-truce proposal.

We hope better counsel would prevail. It is the political leadership’s call after all. But with Gloria Arroyo’s tottering administration becoming more and more reliant on military support to stay in power, the mongers of war during Christmas and New Year might yet get their way.

The main objection by the military to a truce was succinctly explained by Esperon. "The CPP-NPA-NDF takes advantage of this period to reorganize, consolidate and then finalize plans for their offensives," he said.

That’s not a bad justification for not declaring a truce. But Esperon would not let go at that. He said the rebels are being resolutely pursued by government forces. They are now on the run. They do not deserve a breather.


Every Army commander and AFP chief has been saying that "year in and year out," but the communist insurgency remains alive and kicking.

Senga has a slightly different take from Esperon, saying local cease-fires might be adopted depending on the "prevailing circumstances."

OK, let’s classify every province. Where there’s intense NPA activity, the province goes into list A. Where there is none, the province goes into list B. Where does the military intend to declare a truce? In areas on list A or on list B?

Logically a truce should apply to the areas on list A, for a stop in fighting is precisely predicated on the fact that there are hostilities going on. It’s a logical nonsense in declaring a suspension of operations in list B where no fighting is going on in the first place. It’s like saying, as former Defense Secretary Orly Mercado noted on another unrelated issue (log ban), "bawal magpagupit ang kalbo."

But let’s stop talking about policies and strategies. Let’s talk about the ordinary soldier. He’s not only a cannon fodder; he’s a human being too.

This Republic will not crumble if he is allowed to go home and celebrate Christmas and New Year with his family.


Friday, December 09, 2005

Garci’s a distraction

Former election commissioner Virgilio Garcillano is a liar. That much was clear during his appearance the other day at the House inquiry into the "Hello Garci" tapes. That makes the "grand palabas" over his appearance after five months in hiding a sorry flop.

The Garcillano script appears to be aimed at smearing opposition leaders while clearing Gloria Arroyo.

Garcillano might indeed have taken calls from opposition as well as administration candidates. But that’s the problem with a liar. In the instances he is telling the truth, nobody believes. So the parallel goal, that of clearing Gloria, is also missed by a wide mark. On the contrary, Garcillano’s lying reinforces the belief that Gloria stole the elections.

Let’s take a look at yesterday’s proceedings at the Senate investigation into the national security implications of the "Hello Garci" cases.

Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, chair of the panel, said he was not yet ready to conclude that the wiretapping was conducted by the Intelligence Service of the AFP. He said he would wait to hear the side of ISAFP first.

The problem is EO 464 which bars national security officials, among others, from accepting invitations from the legislature without the permission of Gloria.

EO 464, it will be recalled, was issued after national security adviser Norberto Gonzales was cited by the Senate in contempt for withholding information on the Venable lobby contract. Now, there is good reason to believe EO 464 is meant as an umbrella for hiding any and all crimes this administration has committed.

The pattern is all too clear. The administration will lie, shamelessly and consistently, on the electoral fraud charges hurled against it.

The pieces of the puzzle, however, are starting to fit. The ISAFP tapped Garcillano’s conversations. The tapes were sold to former NBI deputy director Samuel Ong who, in turn, gave copies of the tapes to the opposition. So there’s no question about its authenticity.

In the tapes, 14 separate conversations between Gloria and Garcillano were recorded. The conversations unmistakably centered on how to doctor the results of the elections. Documentary and testimonial evidence received by the Senate corroborate in detail the specific cases of election rigging mentioned in the conversations between Gloria and Garcillano.

We are back to where we started when Press Secretary Ignacio "I have two tapes" Bunye made public the existence of the wiretapped conversations, this time with the moral certainty that the "Hello Garci" tape – not the "Hello Garry" tape – is authentic.

Gloria stole the elections. She is an illegitimate president. What to do with her is the question. Garcillano is a distraction.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Economic meltdown?

Cielito Habito, planning secretary in the Ramos Cabinet and currently head of an Ateneo University-based think-tank, early this week dismissed glowing statistics touted by Gloria as proof that the economy is on the verge of take-off.

Habito said the economy, on the contrary, is headed for a meltdown and the outlook is worsened by lack of credible leadership.

Malacañang’s response? The economic managers will refute Habito’s pessimistic assessment soon enough. Just wait.

Well, we’re sitting on the edge of our seat. We just wish Gloria’s economic managers – and Gloria herself who has a PhD in Economics – would go beyond the improvement in the peso-dollar rate and the rise in the PSE index. But we may be in for a long wait.

There are no credible economic spokesmen, for starters. Not Finance Secretary Margarito Teves, Budget Secretary Romulo Neri or Trade Secretary Peter Favila. The only credentialed and practicing economist in the Cabinet is Planning Secretary Augusto Santos. But Santos, a career NEDA man, is only serving in an acting capacity. If Gloria could not make his appointment permanent for whatever reason, how could she expect us take Santos as her administration’s authoritative spokesman?

There’s Bangko Sentral Gov. Amando Tetangco Jr. and Deputy Gov. Diwa Guinigundo, highly articulate both. But by constitutional fiat, they are supposed to be non-political. They might trot out glowing statistics once in a while but they would not allow themselves to be a party to outright lying about the economy.

So back to Habito.

He said economic growth has been slowing down the last six quarters. He cited figures on investments, government spending, personal consumption spending, exports, imports, and equity and foreign exchange markets.

He added that inflation is significantly up, unemployment and underemployment are up and the outlook is cloudy due to oil price uncertainties. He said the credit outlook is down and business confidence is largely pessimistic.

He said even the growth of telecommunications, which has been taking up the slack, is slowing down.

"I used to say that the economy is being propped up by the Filipinos’ love affair with text but even that is slowing down," he said.

The debt problem, moreover, is growing worse.

In 2005, he said target tax revenue collection is P750 billion but debt service payments total P646 billion.

He said this means that for every P10 collected in terms of revenues, P9 goes to debt service and only P1 goes to government expenditures. "This is unprecedented in history," he said.

We can go on and on, quoting Habito.

But enough. Can we hear, as promised, the side of the administration soon?


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Bolante off the hook?

Joc Joc Bolante, Mike Arroyo’s former man at the agriculture department, arrived from the United States the other day.

Let’s see what will happen now to Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr.’s directive to Senate security personnel to "fetch" Bolante so he can answer questions from the committee on agriculture on the P728 million fertilizer fund which allegedly was diverted to the campaign chest of Gloria Arroyo in 2004.

Bolante has twice snubbed the Senate hearing. The first time, his lawyer said Bolante did not receive the invitation. Senate staffers later succeeded in tracking down Bolante to a meeting of Rotary International officials at a hotel by the bay. His lawyer received the summons and the understanding was that Bolante would make an appearance during a hearing scheduled in the afternoon of October 26.

Two o’clock in the morning of October 26, Bolante took a plane for the United States. With him was Luis Lorenzo who was agriculture secretary at the time the alleged raid on the fertilizer fund took place.

Why Lorenzo took off with Bolante was inexplicable. Lorenzo for sure knew of the alleged scam which was about to be pulled off by Bolante, his undersecretary. But agriculture department insiders said Lorenzo scrupulously kept his distance from the project. And Senate investigators knew it.

Former Budget Secretary Emilia Boncodin told the Senate panel it was Bolante who requested funding for the project. Agriculture department documents show it was Bolante who supervised it. State auditors testified that there were no actual purchases in most cases and in instances that there were, the fertilizers were overpriced by 10 to 20 times.

The Senate wants to know how and why it happened. So it invited Bolante.

Bolante’s answer? Charge me in court. That’s where I’ll answer your questions.

He’ll probably get his wish one of these days, but in the meantime the Senate should not let his defiance pass.

Gloria Arroyo’s EO 464 barring officials from appearing before Congress without her permission has undercut the legislature’s power to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation and to exercise its oversight function.

For the Senate to let Bolante thumb his noise at a legitimate inquiry amounts to an act of self-castration.

The ball is in the Senate’s court. The word going around is that some senators have struck a deal with Malacañang. The price for letting Bolante off the hook is reportedly the appointments of the senators’ nominees to important posts.

Magsaysay, who carries one of the nation’s most honored names, should know how to decisively put a stop to such stories. Magsaysay should order the arrest of Bolante and keep him under Senate custody until he has answered questions to the satisfaction of the members of the agriculture committee.


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Gloria, not Garci, is now the issue

The lawyer of Virgilio Garcillano yesterday offered a sneak preview into the former election commissioner’s appearance before the joint hearing tomorrow of five House committees into the "Hello Garci" wiretapped conversations.

The lawyer, Eddie Tamondong, said among candidates who called up his client, presumably during the 2004 elections, were House minority leader Francis Escudero and Representatives Roilo Golez and Peter Allan Cayetano. It’s no coincidence, of course, that Escudero, Golez and Cayetano were among those who relentlessly pursued the investigation into the wiretapped conversation between Garcillano and Gloria Arroyo, and were among the architects of the impeachment complaints which were "massacred" by Arroyo’s allies in the House.

Well, Tamondong’s preview was not unexpected. The grand script is for Garcillano to clear Gloria of allegations of rigging the results of the last presidential election. That the conversations between Garcillano and Gloria took place can hardly be controverted. Gloria admitted as much in her "I’m story" speech.

So the next best thing to do is portray the conversations as harmless. Gloria was just seeing to it that her votes were protected. And all other politicians – administration and opposition – were calling up Garcillano for the same purpose. We would not also be surprised if Garcillano also starts naming opposition senators as among his phone pals.

Pareho-pareho lang sila. At least that’s what the script calls for.

We’ll know soon enough if the script will fly. At this point, Garcillano has zero credibility. A really good scriptwriter could adorn Garcillano’s story with just the right touch of verisimilitude to give it a patina of truth. The risk is that piling lies upon lies might only reinforce the widely held belief of a grand cover-up of Gloria’s widespread buying of votes and systematic rigging of the results.

In bringing in Garcillano from the cold, his handlers might have been to smart for their own good. The issue now is not Gloria’s cheating and Garcillano’s role in it. For the people, that case is closed, with guilty on all counts as the verdict.

What is on top of the national agenda is what to do with a lying, cheating and thieving president. Gloria has escaped impeachment. She has ridden out the storm of protests at the height of the "Hello Garci" scandal. But Gloria, it seems, is not content with mere survival.

She wants "closure" on her terms, meaning we forget everything. And if that means more lying and more cheating, then that’s exactly what she is bent on doing.

Truly hopeless. She must go. No nation can survive governance by deceit.


Monday, December 05, 2005

Curious movement at the Navy

The Navy is getting a new flag-officer-in-command today. As this piece was being written, there was no word yet from the Palace on who would succeed Vice Adm. Ernesto de Leon. But the word was that Vice Adm. Mateo Mayuga, AFP inspectorate general, is it.

And there lies another tale of inexplicable contortions to shoehorn a senior officer into a post he would not, in the usual course of events, get.

De Leon reaches the mandatory retirement age of 56 in September 2006. But he is facing forced retirement in March next year because under the up-or-out provision of the attrition law, a three-star officer should get a fourth star within three years of his last promotion. There is only one four-star post in the AFP, that of the chief of staff. The current chief of staff, Gen. Generoso Senga, however, is turning 56 in June next year yet, so De Leon is almost sure of being "attrited" in May.

It seems unfair to De Leon. It appears he is being kicked out of the service for ironically reaching the top Navy post at a relatively young age. But those are the breaks of the game. The rules could not be changed to accommodate him.

Now for the more curious part.

De Leon himself said he was taking early an early exit because he wanted President Arroyo to have a wider pool from which to select his successor.

What De Leon meant, it turns out, is that there are currently one three-star officer (Mayuga) and four two-star officers, namely Rear Admirals George Uy, Alfredo Abueg, Constancio Jardeniano, and Tirso Danga.

Mayuga, however, is turning 56 on December 9 next year and Uy on December 20 next year. Had De Leon decided to wait until he would be attrited in March, Mayuga and Uy would have been knocked out of contention. The reason is that an officer with less than a year in service is not eligible for promotion to head a major service like the Navy.

Perhaps De Leon’s sacrifice was all for the good of the service. Mayuga is described as a no nonsense officer who is seen as De Leon’s natural and logical successor.

Now, for some questions. De Leon is going on "terminal leave." That means, as we understand is, that he continues to be Navy FOIC while on terminal leave. His replacement only serves in an acting capacity. So how can the replacement get the permanent position before De Leon’s actual date of retirement?

The GHQ probably will invoke the Adan precedent. When the Southern Command slot became open a few months back, AFP deputy chief Lt. Gen. Edilberto Adan, got the post even as he had less than year remaining in service. The GHQ said there was no promotion involved because there was only a lateral shift from one three-star slot to another.

But that’s precisely the point. Why mess up the promotion system and throw askew the career paths of the senior officers below?

Guess, we will never understand how the military mind runs. Assuming, of course, that this not-so-bright idea was concocted by the brass and not by the political leadership.



(This was published December 3, 2005.)

The arrogance of the justices of the Supreme Court appears to be without bounds. In a letter to the Judicial and Bar Council, 11 justices demanded that the JBC scrap a public interview of the nominees to the post soon to be vacated by Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. The JBC, not surprisingly, bowed to the justices’ wish.

Of the seven members who voted, only Sen. Francis Pangilinan, the proponent of public interview, cast a "no"vote.

We have reservations over a public interview of the nominees.

First, the proceedings are good as useless inasmuch as the JBC has only three candidates. They are Associate Justices Reynato Puno, Artemio Panganiban and Norberto Quisumbing. They are automatic candidates under the JBC rules, along with the two other most senior justices. The fourth and fifth candidates have withdrawn. So the JBC at the moment has exactly the minimum number of names - three - for submission to President Arroyo.

Second, a public interview is not the only way, much less the best way, of finding out the judicial philosophy of the nominees. The views they hold on crucial issues are best gleaned from their opinions that are on record.

That said, the justices have no business telling the JBC how to do its job.

The JBC is a constitutional body that took over the role of the Commission on Appointments. The framers of the 1987 Constitution adopted the set-up to insulate appointments to the judiciary from politics.

The experience with the JBC, sad to say, has been disappointing. There is a perception that the JBC is run by an old boys’ network. Horse trading, it is said, is the norm during deliberations behind closed doors.

A public interview, as proposed by Pangilinan, was meant to give the public a peek, as it were, into the proceedings. It does not exactly translate into transparency in JBC deliberations, but it is a small step towards that.

But no, the justices would have none of that. And they have gone beyond the two objections cited above.

They said, for example, that since the JBC is under the Supreme Court, then it cannot pass judgment on the members of the tribunal. How the justices confused the institutions with its members was not explained.

They also claimed the candidates from the court are all qualified, for the very basic reason that they are senior members of the court. The unstated claim is that in the selection for the post of chief justice, the JBC can scrutinize only the candidates who are not sitting members of the tribunal.

If this is not arrogance, we don’t know what is.

But it is par for the course for the Davide court. Remember the self-serving rulings on the attempt to impeach Davide over the Judiciary Development Fund? And that laughable doctrine of "constructive resignation" to justify Arrooyo’s usurpation of the presidency?

The justices piously speak about the need for reforms in the judiciary. We have a suggestion. To redeem the institution, they can, for starters, all resign.


Friday, December 02, 2005

Look who’s talking

IT takes one to know one, so there must be something in the Thai accusation of Philippine cheating in the ongoing 23rd Southeast Asian Games.

A Bangkok newspaper reported that Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has expressed concern about the officiating in the games as host Philippines started pulling away during the first few days in the race for gold.

Thaksin was quoted as saying he would bring up the issue during the summit of the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asia next month.

Among the results questioned by the Thais was the defeat of taekwondo Olympic medalist Yaowapa Boorapolchai to the Philippines’ Loraine Catalan. Also the defeat of Patiwat Thongsalap to Filipino taekwondo Olympian Donald Geisler.

There were also murmurings from the Malaysians. They suspect biased judging was the reason Malaysian World Championships finalists Bryan Lomas and James Sandayud failed to win the gold in the 10-m platform synchronized diving.

The Philippine Olympic Committee, through chairman Robert Aventajado, had a ready answer. It said no countryman of competing athletes is tapped as judge or referee in any event or contest.

Moreover, Aventajado said, "(The conduct and) officiating of each and every contest are solely under the supervision and control of the Southeast Asian Games Federation and its pool of international referees and judges…"

The rules may be so, but it’s a fact that during international competitions, referees and judges usually weigh in in favor of the host country when the results are inconclusive. No outright bribery is involved. It’s the equivalent of Filipino "pakikisama." So "biased officiating" is a fact of life.

As we were writing this, we received reports that Thai sports officials have apologized, saying the allegation of biased officiating was "inappropriate and baseless."

That should be the last word on this controversy.

But we cannot help but go back to Thaksin, who should not have shot from the hip. Two disputed events do not make for intentional or systematic cheating. There are also established procedures for filing protests. The Asean leaders must have more important things on their plate during their next meeting than a few perceived lapses in the officiating.

The irony of it all is that Thailand is not exactly known for scrupulously clean officiating. Ask our boxers who have had the misfortune of facing Thai opponents in Bangkok.

And for more irony, Gloria Arroyo has ordered an investigation into the alleged cheating.

"Hello, Garci? Hello, Garci?"

"Can you help Robert and Peping clear up the mess?"


Thursday, December 01, 2005

Institutionalizing transactional politics

THE House the other night overwhelmingly passed a resolution seeking to convene both chambers into a constituent assembly that would craft proposed amendments to the 1987 Constitution. The aim is to shift from presidential-unitarian to parliamentary-federal form of government.

Following the House resolution’s adoption, Senate President Franklin Drilon promptly announced that he would refer the resolution to the "proper" committee.

There, very likely, to sleep the sleep of the dead.

The numbers are simply not there for Senate concurrence to the convening of a constituent assembly. For two good reasons.

Even the senators who favor a shift to the parliamentary-federal form are wary of amending the Constitution at a time of a continuing leadership crisis. Charter change is seen as a smoke and mirrors trick to distract public attention from election fraud and corruption. They want so see the legitimacy crisis of the Arroyo administration resolved first before the fundamental law of the land is tinkered with.

The other reason is the fear that a parliamentary system might be a cure worse than the disease it seeks to cure.

What is the disease? The purported instances of a deadlock between the executive and the legislative departments. Has there ever been such a deadlock that has led to paralysis of government. None. The nearest case of paralysis we can think of is the current crisis where Gloria is seen, first, as an usurper and, second, as a thief and, thus, unworthy of being extended cooperation.

Given this background, one should not wonder why many people continue to believe the presidential form is superior.

The presidential form is characterized by check and balance among the three departments. Even in Congress, a similar check and balance is ensured by the existence of the two chambers. Could one imagine the disaster that would result if we were in a parliamentary system with Gloria as head of the party in power?

There would not be any check to her abuses. During elections, she would simply buy votes to help her toadies keep their seats. She did it for herself in 2004, she would certainly do it for her kept members of parliament.

After that Gloria and her gang would have a free hand at raiding the treasury and dividing up big-ticket projects. Political power yields huge dividends. Part of the dividends is pocketed; the rest is used to ensure continued stay in office. A parliamentary system would be a recipe for the institutionalization of transactional politics and systematic corruption.

Charter change? Let’s forget it.