Government News Analysis

Secretary Marcos?

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Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte fired his interior secretary on Monday. The coverall reason for the sacking of Ismael Sueno – no details have been made public at this time – was given as “loss of trust and confidence,” a non-specific label that will doubtless be elaborated on at some later date.

Keeping it vague, Presidential Spokesman, Ernesto Abella, said in a statement: ”The summary dismissal served as a warning that Mr. Duterte would not countenance any questionable or legally untenable decisions by any member of the cabinet,” adding that the dismissal was in line with Duterte’s “drive for a trustworthy government by addressing issues like corruption.”

But that’s only half the story.

For while that’s big news in its own right, what’s likely to be bigger news is who becomes Sueno’s replacement. And already one name is emerging which is likely to really set the cat among the pigeons – not just with anti-Duterte groups locally, but with critics of the president in the international arena. For that name is the one they hate above all others; a name they will use to further discredit Duterte; a name that will help them sow further division in the country by stirring up old emotions. That name is Marcos.

Former senator, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr (photo, right), son of the Philippines’ longest-serving president – in office from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s – is the person being tipped in some quarters as Sueno’s successor. The son of the man who imposed nine years of martial law; Ferdinand Marcos Sr seen by many as the most brutal and corrupt dictator in the country’s history.

The anti-Marcos movement is sworn to scuppering any attempt to create a Marcos dynasty. It matters not that “Bongbong” was only seven years old when his father came to power and just 15 when martial law was imposed. His name is Marcos and that’s enough for them; they maintain his father’s sins – real or perceived – are his to pay, in perpetua.

Marcos haters believe his blood is contaminated; that he’s the recipient of some foul doomsday gene that will become activated by public office. Like the superstitious pitchfork-armed, torch-carrying mob that sought the destruction of the monster, Frankenstein, they are equally determined to extinguish the “Marcos curse”. Sounds fanciful, we know, but believe it or not those are the sort of images that are conjured up by anti-Marcos fanatics.

Coming back to reality, the post of Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) is a big portfolio; having supervision over the Philippine National Police and local government units the length and breadth of the country, it’s a major executive department position.

If Marcos is appointed, it would put him right at the heart of the administration. An active government role, it would give him a far bigger voice in government than Vice President Leni Robredo (photo). Her power and influence within government is virtually non-existent. It’s exclusively enshrined in the Office of Vice President which for all practical purposes is little more than ceremonial at this stage.

She relinquished her Cabinet post on 5 December after stepping down as chairman of Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council. This followed a directive from the president for her to “desist from attending all Cabinet meetings”. The reason given was “irreconcilable differences between VP Robredo and the administration”. Consequently, she has no advisory function in government and plays no part in the formulation of policy. To use an English phrase she’s virtually been ‘sent to Coventry’ by the administration.

Since her resignation, Robredo has gone on to carve her own unique position in the government – as its internal opposition. And she’s used every opportunity to create divisions including attending marches and gatherings opposing the president’s decisions.

If indeed Marcos is found to be in the running to head the DILG, we can expect charges from Duterte’s opponents that he’s getting Marcos into government via the back door. Duterte has never concealed the fact that he admired much of what Marcos Snr accomplished. He also allowed the former president to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the Hero’s Cemetery at Fort Bonifacio, Taguig, Metro Manila – a decision which Robredo railed against as she joined street demonstrations to prevent the burial. Furthemore, Duterte and Marcos Jr are close.

And then there’s that other dimension – Marcos’s court challenge to Robredo over the outcome of last year’s vice-presidential election which he claimed he rightfully won. Last June, Marcos filed an electoral protest with the Presidential Electoral Tribunal at the Philippine Supreme Court challenging the veracity of Leni Robredo’s claim to the vice presidency. Her “victory” came from the slimmest margin in the history of the race. Robredo asked to have his protest thrown out but in February the Tribunal ruled that the case would proceed.

But of course, as with all things in Philippine politics little is straight forward and everything is contentious. And so already Marcos opponents are saying that if he accepts a government post, his claim to the vice presidency through the courts becomes null and void – by accepting he automatically withdraws his case, they argue. Marcos supporters, meanwhile, say that as an appointed government official he will still be able to pursue his claim.

All that though we can safely leave to one side; it’s been nine months since Marcos filed his petition with the Tribunal and it’s still nowhere near coming to court, even though both contending parties claim they want the matter settled. In fact we have a new simile for things that take a long time; rather than saying “it’s like watching paint dry”, we say “it’s like waiting for a Philippine court to hear a case”.

Government appointments are certainly quicker; although the Commission on Appointments – the cross-Congress body responsible for confirming presidential nominations to the executive branch – doesn’t exactly move like lightening either. And particularly in cases as controversial as this one is likely to be.

Marcos has been a two-term governor of Ilocos Norte, a two term member of the House of Representatives and was a member of the Philippine Senate from 2010 until he stepped down in 2015 to make his run for vice presidency. By contrast, Robredo became the House of Representatives’ member for the Camarines Sur 3rd District in 2013 and stepped down after becoming VP in 2016.

In the Senate, Marcos chaired a number of committees, among them Public Works, the Oversight Committee on the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao Organic Act, and – significantly – Local Government. As a senator, he authored 86 Senate bills and co-authored a further 21.

Few would deny that “Bongbong” Marcos has been a conscientious member of Congress while the family name – like all of us – he’s stuck with.

But the wound which Marcos Snr is alleged to have left is one that his opponents – and Duterte’s opponents – never want to heal. Robredo and her followers and backers regularly depict Duterte as the second coming of Marcos in the vain hope that the people will turn away from him and seek sanctuary with them. They believe that simply by invoking this name they can get the people stirred up and running to their cause. Indeed, at times, it’s the only card they have to play. Unfortunately for them, it’s increasingly being seen as a joker.

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