Government News Analysis

A paler shade of yellow

More turmoil in the Philippine Congress as Liberal Party (LP) senators are ejected from the ruling coalition – losing their committee chairs in the process. This comes in response to the Liberal Party’s building campaign to embarrass, thwart and – many believe – bring down the government of Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte.

Looked at dispassionately however, given recent events, not least Liberal Vice President Leni Robredo’s vow to work from within the government as an opposition to it – effectively admitting to being a fifth-columnist – and the increasingly noisy campaign by Liberal senators to paint Duterte as a dictator, this move was not altogether surprising. What’s also not surprising is that the fatal blow which left the LP machine in the Upper House lying on the canvas was delivered by senator and boxing hero, Manny Pacquiao. He proposed the motion to have them removed.

It may also have been exactly what the Liberal Party wanted, however, in order to create yet another international outcry – to build on their well-publicised outrage over the arrest of fellow LP senator, Leila De Lima, who was removed from the Senate building last Friday morning by officers of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group. She’s now in Camp Crame, the Philippine National Police headquarters, where she’ll be detained as she awaits trial on charges of profiteering from the trade in illegal drugs. The seat she occupied at the Senate is alleged to have been paid for with drug money.

Certainly, we can expect a furore from the international press. Robredo and Co will certainly get their backing. This story will be plastered across front pages from the US to Europe and down to Australia. That, though, will have little effect on the president and, as far as the electorate is concerned, the majority will welcome the move to get rid of what they disparagingly refer to as the ‘Yellowtards’ (retards that sport the Liberal Party yellow).

The fact is, it doesn’t really matter to the government or to the people it represents what the mainstream media’s editorial writers put in their columns and how the anti-Duterte media skew their Philippine news coverage. He’s the legitimate leader of this country; he won a landslide election victory for change – to scrap the old business-as-usual status quo as represented by the previous Liberal Party administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino – and he’s determined to deliver. And the people are determined to make sure he does.

What may have decided the timing of this event was the extremely low turnout in anti-Duterte rallies at the weekend called to mark the 31st anniversary of the 1986 People Power Revolution. By contrast, crowds at pro-Duterte gatherings swelled. This itself could be read as a mandate from the people and could have emboldened the Senate to act. Furthermore, it confirms what we’ve been saying for months – that the Liberal Party’s persistence in trying to undermine Duterte could consign it to a political wasteland. Within the legislature, this development virtually neuters it.

And it’s already suffered considerably. Following the May election which swept Duterte’s PDP-Laban Party to power, there were mass defections to PDP-Laban from the Liberal Party – dozens of them. To our knowledge there were no ‘turncoats’ going the other way. In short, today the LP is a skeleton of its former self. The heady days of the Aquino admin are over. Unfortunately, though, that’s something the rump of LP-remainers is having difficulty in adjusting to.

Classic among these are the two women from the Bicol Region – De Lima, who under Aquino presided over the Justice Department like a dowager empress, and Robredo, the VP Without Portfolio whose now little more than a pretender to the throne. There’s also a dark cloud hanging over her. Shortly, she’ll be expected to attend a court hearing of the Presidential Electoral Tribunal at which evidence – and plenty of it – will be offered by VP candidate Ferdinand “Bongnong” Marcos Jr to show that he’s the rightful vice president and that he was robbed of that position by means of electoral fraud. Indeed, if that’s ever proved and it can be shown that Robredo was complicit in any of that, the VP Without Portfolio could be reunited with De Lima in Camp Crame.

In the shake-out, the biggest loss to the Liberals will be Frank Drilon, whose now been replaced as the senate’s President Pro-Tempore by Ralph Recto – even though Recto himself is a Liberal Party member. But he’s in a very different mould to Drilon who’s regularly gone out of his way to press the Liberal agenda and play partisan politics.

In this appointment then, it’s clear that this isn’t a purging of the Liberal Party for its own sake – Recto’s been elevated to the second most powerful job in the chamber – it’s a move to remove disruptive forces that threaten the legislature’s work and the government’s progress.

This is how Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III explained what took place. “Work in the Senate has been hampered by the blurring of the lines between the majority and the minority to the detriment of public interest. There have been instances where the majority, instead of closing ranks, ended up divided. The majority of senators decided that to best achieve the Senate’s legislative agenda, clear lines have to be drawn”.

There’s no question that the attention-seeking De Lima was an extremely unruly influence in the Senate. Last September, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano directed that her behaviour was “destroying [the Senate’s] integrity and reputation”. That was the day that Manny Pacquiao delivered a blistering knockout, proposing a motion to have her removed from the chair of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights; 16 supported his motion, four were against, two abstained. In boxing parlance it was virtually a unanimous decision.

De Lima’s prime mission in the Upper House was to have the president impeached. All other work including passing or rejecting legislation took a back seat – thus, hampering the legislative process at a time when the government is endeavouring to put in place a number of much-needed reforms.

Others who lost their committee chairs yesterday include: Francis Pancratius “Kiko” Nepomuceno Pangilinan, Agriculture and Food who’s now replaced by Cynthia Villar; Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aguirre Aquino IV, Education, Arts and Culture (cousin of the former president), replaced by Francis “Chiz” Escudero; and Risa Hontiveros, Women, Family Relations and Gender Equality, a firm De Lima supporter, a member of the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party and an LP ally, replaced by Joseph Victor Gomez Ejercito.

Villar, wife of former senator, billionaire businessman Manny Villar, and mother of the Secretary of Public Works and Highways, Mark Villar, is a member of the Nacionalista Party; Escudero, who was presidential candidate, Grace Poe’s VP running mate last May, is an Independent; Ejercito, the son of former president Joseph Estrada, is a member of the United Nationalist Alliance and affiliated to PDP-Laban.

Given her scathing attacks on Duterte, Hontiveros was always going to be on shaky ground. Recently, of the charges against De Lima she said this: “I believe that this is the culmination of a more than half a year campaign of sexism and misogyny against Senator Leila De Lima”. The charge she said were “pure harassment” and a “mockery of the country’s justice system”.

Spoiling tactics by the LP in government, however, have continually backfired and if they were intended to win the hearts and minds of the people, their architects portray an amazing lack of understanding – actually an abundance of ignorance – of what those hearts and minds desire. The consequence of this ill-thought strategy is that the Liberal Party will remain utterly impotent without the people’s support. To date, all its members’ tactics have succeeded in doing is hardening the resolve of the masses to support Duterte and despise them. And now they’re suffering from chair loss.

The Liberal Party’s “enemy,” if we can put it like that, is not simply this president but all the people he represents. This is a hard, cold reality which LP members – especially the ambitious Robredo – are in denial over. So we’ll say it again. If the Liberal Party persists in its attempts to bring down this government, it will be a very long time before it gains power again – if ever.

But, even at this late stage, the LP – and particularly its leader – is somehow unable to get its head round any of that. It’s not that it’s got a death wish; it simply can’t accept reality. Here’s what Robredo had to say after her colleagues lost their committee chairs.

“Despite our sincere efforts, it is now clear that the Duterte administration is incapable of tolerating dissent, no matter how constructive … What happened in the Senate today is characteristic of an administration obsessed with monopolising power and intent on marginalising those who have opposing views”. She added that the Liberal Party “put national interest over politics” and was “determined” to work with the administration. And concluded: “We will not be silenced. Our nation deserves no less. Democracy demands dissent”.

Now let’s do something which Robredo’s tame media don’t do when they get a statement like that. Let’s step back and take a critical view of it – not blindly accept it as some oracular truth as they seem to.

First of all her dissent and that of her LP pals could never by the widest stretch of the imagination be described as “constructive”. And the only thing sincere about it has been the LP’s sincere attempts to foment opposition to the president – both locally and internationally. And often in a very emotional and vulgar fashion. What does she think, that we’re all asleep out here? The Bicol sisters, in particular, haven’t missed a single opportunity to drag the president’s name through the mud. If that’s them being constructive, we wouldn’t want to see them being destructive.

As for the government’s tolerance of this dissent, we – and we’re pretty sure most of the country – believe it’s been tolerant for too long. As for “monopolising” power, in case she somehow missed it, the government is the party of power – that’s what the electorate decided when they exercised their democratic franchise in the May 2016 vote. Remember now? This is politics; there are no consolation prizes for those whose team lost. Unlike Little League now in the US, everyone isn’t a winner.

Her claim that the LP has giving politics a back seat to national interest and that her party has been ‘determined’ to work with the government – really? We’re not the Walking Dead out here, though evidently she thinks we are. What’s been on show from the Liberal Party, most notably from the LP Sister Act, is that Liberal Party interests have regularly been put above national interests. For example, LP financier and Fil-Am billionaire, Loida Nicolas-Lewis, asking Duterte to step down and instate Robredo in his place was a blatant attempt by the LP to snatch back power. We heard no objection from Robredo to that suggestion. That was certainly against the national interest; it was against the will of the vast majority of the nation. And her claim of being ‘determined to work with the government’ – how? As an opposition from within it?

On her last point, what the nation deserves – and no less – is the government it voted for, not the party it rejected usurping its role.

For Saturday’s meager anti-Duterte demonstration around EDSA in Quezon City, ground zero of the 1986 People Power movement, the Liberal Party organisers had urged their supporters to wear black, rather than their traditional yellow. Looking back now, as the party’s demise in terms of the chairs it once held sinks in, funereal black could have been a prophetic call.

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