The appalling state of Philippine political and government institutions was painfully on display via what was happening to and in the Philippine Senate barely a week ago — on the eve of an election campaign that promises to be no better in the results than past electoral exercises.
As in the case of the Presidency, the House of Representatives and even the Supreme Court, Senate prestige and credibility has been on the decline since 1990. From the 1950s to the declaration of martial law in 1972 among the most respected entities of government, the Senate when revived after 1986 enjoyed only a brief period of public esteem, among other reasons because of the election to that body of incompetents and clowns who slept their way through its sessions, but at least one of whom managed to be President.
The Senate has since been in free fall, and its recent woes, the echoes of which will resonate during the campaign period, are prime indicators. One of its members has in effect rejected legitimate demands for accountability before his peers and the nation. Another, while denying it, has become an international fugitive.
Both blame politics for their predicament. Senator Manuel Villar saw a conspiracy among his fellow senators, several of whom are also running for President, to damage his own candidacy. On the other hand, Senator Panfilo Lacson claims he’s being linked to the Dacer-Corbito murder case in retaliation for his exposure of the scandals that have haunted Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s nine-year rule.
It’s tempting to dismiss both claims as a convenient means of evading responsibility and preventing the exposure of what could be their respective failings. But neither Lacson’s nor Villar’s argument is entirely without basis.
The Philippine government through the department of justice has acted with unwonted speed in issuing a warrant of arrest for Lacson and in alerting the law enforcement agencies of other countries, through the Interpol, of his allegedly fugitive status. This compares unfavorably with government inaction in the case of Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano of “Hello Garci” infamy, whose arrest was ordered by the House of Representatives in 2005 in the wake of the 2004 election scandal. Garcillano managed not only to leave the country; the NBI also claimed to be clueless as to his whereabouts throughout, and he returned to the country with the apparent assurance that he would not be arrested.
On the other hand, three of Senator Villar’s fellow senators — Benigno Aquino III, Richard Gordon, and Consuelo “Jamby” Madrigal — are running for President. Senator Jose Pimentel “Jinggoy” Estrada’s father Joseph (“Erap”) is also a candidate for the very same post he was ousted from in 2001, while the Liberal Party’s Manuel Roxas II is the vice- presidential running mate of Aquino.
The current Senate President, Juan Ponce Enrile, supposedly an Arroyo administration ally, is supporting Joseph Estrada’s candidacy and is himself running for reelection in Estrada’s Partido ng Masang Pilipino. All three candidates for President as well as Enrile, Estrada and Roxas are in the majority of 11 who signed the Committee of the Whole report that finds Villar guilty of benefiting from the C-5 road project.
Meanwhile, the so-called minority that claims that Villar’s getting a raw deal are, almost to a man and woman, united by support for his candidacy, among them the brother and sister team of Allan Peter and Pia Cayetano. Former Villar critic Aquilino Pimentel is another ardent Villar partisan whose daughter Gwendolyn is in the Villar Senate slate together with reelectionists Miriam Defensor Santiago and Ramon Revilla Jr. Revilla’s been his usual silent self, but Santiago has been a spirited defender of Villar, while pretending to be sick of politics, refusing to be interpellated after delivering a privilege speech, and walking out of the Senate session hall.
To ascribe what was happening to politics is to reduce its worth to its meanest: to a contest of interests no larger than personal ones and, as has often been said of Philippine political parties and politicians, without any basis in ideology or conviction. But that was exactly what was happening, and that is exactly how the Philippine political class, in word as well as deed, has defined politics for this country.
If the minority position was so obviously driven by party and individual interests, so was that of the majority. Despite Madrigal’s progressive claims — she has more than once recalled that Pedro Abad Santos, founder of the Socialist Party, was the brother of her grandfather Jose — she was profuse in her praise for Marcos era Defense Minister and martial law administrator Enrile during the Senate sessions that tried to take up the Villar C-5 issue.
As odd, or perhaps even stranger, was Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s being in the same faction as Enrile, whom his mother Cory fired as defense secretary when she was President for his alleged involvement in the various coup attempts that nearly removed her from power, and, in at least one instance, threatened her own life.
The result of all this is a credibility problem not only on the part of the individuals and factions in the Senate, but more crucially on the part of the institution itself, which after all is indivisible from those who comprise it.
And yet to save themselves from condemnation as traditional and unprincipled politicians, and the institution’s being perceived as no more than a vehicle for personal ambitions, the members of the majority bloc — they were after all in the majority — could very well have set aside for another time the Committee of the Whole’s report given the volatile political context in which a web of partisan interests prevented rational debate. As it turned out, virtually the same result was achieved through the minority boycott of the voting on the Report, with the added consequence of pending and urgent bills’ not being passed.
That the statesman’s option did not seem to have occurred to the senators of the Republic speaks volumes about the mindset of politicians used to advancing the narrowest of self-interests and who have never acted out of bed-rock conviction or principle. If Philippine political and governance institutions are damaged goods, it’s because their stewards have been especially proficient in undermining them.