Those who argue that the President of this country has the prerogative to hire and fire whomever she wants from the Cabinet make it sound as if that prerogative were as absolute as the Divine Right of Kings.

Leading this pack are the usual voices from Congress and Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye, who’s urged the public and the media to stop talking about Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s recent choices for the Cabinet, specially Vice President Noli de Castro, who’s going to assume command over the Department of Social Welfare and Development this October, replacing Corazon “Dinky” Soliman.

Other Arroyo apologists also say that Mrs. Arroyo has an obligation to pay back her political debts, and that, should she want to—and she apparently wants to—she can do so by distributing Cabinet posts to one and all as if they were thank you notes for favors received.

Certainly the President is not legally accountable to anyone in her choice of Cabinet officials—not to Congress, not to the Supreme Court, and certainly not to those whose resignations she’s accepting. But because the Philippines is supposed to be a democracy—a proposition that the conduct of every election has almost completely demolished—Mrs. Arroyo’s decisions are nevertheless subject to citizen and media scrutiny.

Unless her mandate of 12 million votes is an illusion—or, as the Poe wing of the opposition claims, a bogus one based on fraudulent Certificates of Canvass—Mrs. Arroyo is first of all accountable to the people.

Over 12 million Filipino voters allegedly voted for Mrs. Arroyo. Even if we assume that she’s President of only those 12 million in the same way that she seems to think herself the President of Cebu, that’s still over a fourth of the electorate to whom she has to explain her decisions, including her choices for Cabinet secretaries.

It is not true that her performance should be judged only on the basis of her ten-point agenda either. That view would make the President of the Philippines subject only to the standards and criteria she herself has chosen. If that were the case, she could very well have said “Let them eat cake” in reply to the brutal poverty of some 60 percent of the population. That way she wouldn’t have to seem concerned over the lack of jobs, the peace and order problem, low agricultural productivity, the inadequate medical services and educational facilities, and all the other ailments Filipino flesh is heir to.

Filipinos nevertheless must look at the bright side and consider themselves lucky. That Mrs. Arroyo didn’t do a Marie Antoinette did say that even from her standpoint this country is not yet a monarchy and that the President must do something else other than toasting foreign dignitaries in vins d’honneur. What that “something else” is, is to make the decisions that can turn the country around and make it a halfway decent place to live in. Among those decisions is that of appointing to the Cabinet people who can help her do the job she’s promised to do.

Mrs. Arroyo indeed has to pay back her political debts—but primarily to the people who elected her in the first place, and only last to those who helped her get their votes either through the power of their hold on their local fiefdoms, or through the celebrity status their reading of the six o’clock TV news endowed them with. The only way she can do that is to demonstrate within the next six years that she’s worthy of their trust.

The hope among the middle classes who were willing to ignore charges that she stole the elections out of fear of the alternative (a Poe victory) was that Mrs. Arroyo would now act the leader and stateswoman by making the hard decisions that would ignore political expediency, debts of gratitude, her own ambitions, and the political and economic interests of various groups.

In the next six years, they hope, Mrs. Arroyo will, among other acts, truly strengthen the Republic by making national rather than class, familial and personal interest the basis of her policy and other decisions.

Those six years are beginning to seem like a very long time. Mrs. Arroyo has not completed her first month since her inauguration, and here she is, demonstrating instead that she’s probably no more likely to change from trapo to stateswoman and leader than a leopard’s changing its spots.

The occasion for this disturbing discovery was not solely her decision to appoint Noli de Castro Secretary of the Department of Social Work and Development. It was also her appointment of Angelo Reyes to the Department of Interior and Local Governments, and her re-appointment of Virgilio Garcillano and Emmanuel Barcelona to the Commission on Elections

Among these four appointments one is hard put to say which is worse. Although de Castro’s is so far on top in the public mind, Reyes’, Garcillano’s and Barcelona’s should at least be in equal contention for worst, so far.

The appointment of Reyes to the DILG puts the militarist wing of the Arroyo government in charge of the police and empowers it with supervision over local governments. It is also a slap on the faces of the reformists among the junior officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, who blame the Reyes clique for much of the corruption in the military both during and after the Estrada administration.

Reyes’ purely military viewpoint was evident in his decision—apparently made without Mrs. Arroyo’s consent—to attack the MILF camps despite ongoing peace talks early in 2003. In July last year the mutineers of Oakwood also accused him and his sub-altern Brig. Gen Victor Corpus of complicity in the bombing of Davao.

Although never proven, that accusation and Reyes’ decision to attack the MILF in an act that virtually sabotaged the peace talks were enough to cost him his job. To keep his goodwill, the ever political Mrs. Arroyo, who at the time continued to believe that Reyes’ support in 2001 was the decisive factor in her getting the Presidency, put him in one job after another, finally assigning him the task of heading the task force on anti-kidnapping and anti-smuggling.

Although heading the National Anti-Kidnapping Task Force is far from a low-profile, token job, Reyes is making a comeback that can only be described as spectacular. Reyes will not only have control of the police, but also supervision over local governments.

Given his militarist viewpoint, his additional post is more than likely to have a negative impact at the local level on human rights (never a strong police suite) and on the way local governments deal with the Muslim and leftist rebellions. That impact is likely to have repercussions on the success or failure of the ongoing government peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the National Democratic Front.

The implications of the Reyes appointment to the Arroyo policies not only on police and military reforms, but also on human rights and the peace process, should be clear even to the long-distance commentators who think that the objections of human rights and other organizations to Reyes are “bankrupt.”

Meanwhile, the appointments of Garcillano and Barcelona to the Commission on Elections returns two people to a supposedly neutral body, but who talk and act like card-carrying members of the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for President Movement. From his interviews with the media, Garcillano for one seems totally clueless about what being a Comelec Commissioner entails, and seems to think that it’s to make sure Mrs. Arroyo was reelected.

Although one can argue that the next elections are no more likely to be credible as the May 10 elections were, thanks to Garcillano and Barcelona, that catastrophe is at least three years away, unlike the immediately catastrophic consequences Reyes’ appointment is likely to have on human rights and the prospects for peace in our communities North and South. Maybe something will happen before then, like an act of God?

The appointment that should actually be the least of our worries is that of Noli de Castro to DSWD. Among other reasons because Corazon “Dinky” Soliman seemed to be doing a good job, this is at least one department where de Castro could do the least damage.

Sure, it would enable De Castro to campaign for 2010 up and down the entire archipelago during the typhoon season while distributing “noodles on a wet day,” as the Today editorial yesterday put it. But that wouldn’t be as bad as screwing up the country’s foreign affairs, given the sorry state it’s in after Blas Ople’s disastrous term and Delia Albert’s lackluster occupation of Padre Faura. It’s certainly ten times less damaging than, say, putting de Castro in charge of the Department of Education, where he can tinker with the intellectual formation of at least one generation.

On the matter of de Castro Filipinos should actually consider themselves lucky. At least he doesn’t have to look for solutions to the country’s teacher, classroom, and textbook problems—or have to deal with the US Pro-consul (otherwise known as Ambassador) to the archipelago of our frustrations.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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