Two issues plague President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s 90-day antidrug campaign even before it has begun. The first issue is Barbers; the second is Barbers. Add to that presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye’s statement that the 90 days might need more than 90 days, and even the brainless will realize that this administration doesn’t quite know how to go about doing things. Or that its decisions are so shaped by partisan politics it is impossible for it do anything well.

Former Manila policeman, now Sen. Robert Barbers, has been named “czar”–once the absolute ruler of the Russian empire, but in these parts the most favored cliché to refer to anyone endowed with vast powers–of the Arroyo antidrug campaign. The way Mrs. Arroyo describes his role, however, it appears to be anything but absolute.

Barbers is first of all no czar, but a senator of the Republic. That means he can’t be making laws while running after drug pushers at the same time. To do both would be the equivalent of Blas Ople’s retaining his somnolent presence in the Senate while pretending to conduct the country’s foreign relations (nowadays limited to nodding in agreement with the United States–something Ople can do in his sleep).

It incidentally violates the separation of powers principle, which in a presidential system is there for a reason called the need for checks and balances. By being both czar and senator, Barbers would be both checked and checker, the balanced as well as the balancer.

In apparent recognition that that kind of confusion is permitted only in a parliamentary system of government, Barbers did offer to resign, but in exchange for a powerful–and high profile–post in the executive branch.

His resignation from the Senate and his heading such a body instead would have solved the sticky problem his being both “czar” and senator would create. But Mrs. Arroyo said instead that Barbers need not resign, and struck down Barbers’s suggestion that he head an antidrug superbody.

Instead Barbers would continue to have “oversight” over the drug problem as chairman of the Senate Oversight Committee on Dangerous Drugs–which, she said, empowers Barbers to direct the fight against drugs (it doesn’t). In that capacity, Barbers would have oversight over the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, whose head, insisted Mrs. Arroyo, would now “heed the directions to be given by Barbers” (there is no reason why he would).

Mrs. Arroyo nevertheless insisted that Barbers would have all the power he needs as antidrug “czar.” “He can do as he pleases. I will not shelve (sic) his initiatives. I will not cramp his style.”

Mrs. Arroyo either hasn’t heard of the separation of powers, or she’s being excruciatingly clever.

As everyone knows by now, Barbers has his eye on the vice-presidency at least, and wouldn’t mind being president. Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who has staked his claim on the law-and-order issue as the centerpiece of his program of government, might be the opposition standard-bearer in 2004. Barbers would be his logical counterfoil, and a high-profile post his route to the same popularity Lacson enjoys.

Everything being possible in Philippine politics including Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr.’s compromising his patrician tastes by pretending to like gin, and teetotaler Lacson’s advertising brandy, Barbers could end up cutting down Mrs. Arroyo’s own possible candidacy in 2004. Thus Mrs. Arroyo’s seeming support for Barbers, while at the same time limiting his capacity to do much of anything–and cleverly neglecting to mention that unless he resigns as senator, his antidrug “czardom” would be a reign doomed before it starts.

The antidrug campaign is thus burdened from the very beginning, like an overloaded single-engine plane on a short runway. And it is burdened not only by perceptions that it’s meant to link Lacson to the drug trade, but by the intrusion of the 2004 ambitions of at least two of its principal players.

On the other hand, Barbers’s putative czardom over the antidrug campaign itself raises questions. The first and most important is: assuming the campaign does get off the ground at all, is Barbers, or someone like him, what such a campaign needs?

Many would say yes, and they would base their answer on Barbers’s record as a policeman, among whose achievements was the controversial shooting of a suspected drug lord while the latter was in his custody. And yet that record is precisely the very same thing that would invite a resounding “no.”

Barbers belonged to the same category of policeman as Lacson did–the kind that shoots first and asks questions later–and, assuming he has the power to do so, is likely to turn to people of the same mind and methods for help.

Barbers has in fact already met with three such men–former Manila mayor Alfredo Lim, former police colonel Rey Jaylo and former police major Lucio Margallo–to, reports one newspaper, “plan their course of action.”

Before he met with Lim et al., Barbers told reporters that “we are confident that we can produce tangible results,” and promised a “dramatic solution” to the problem.

Barbers’s teaming up with Lim, Jaylo and Margallo has met with the usual nods of approval from, among others, the media’s law-and-order advocates. At least one columnist has warned that the “bleeding hearts” in the human rights organizations are likely to protest this group’s favored, shortcut approach to the drug problem, which he himself apparently favors.

That hair-raising approach has basically consisted not only of apprehending suspected drug dealers, but also of judging them guilty–and, wink the cynical, dumping their bullet-riddled bodies onto Manila’s mean, sewage-choked streets.

The latter part is widely suspected though unproven. But what is of record is that Lim used to paint the houses of drug suspects red, thus naming them without benefit of trial as drug dealers, a recourse the Supreme Court has ruled is unconstitutional; and that Jaylo figured in a shooting at least as controversial as Barber’s own involvement.

Assuming Barbers, Lim and company will end up in command of Mrs. Arroyo’s antidrug campaign despite her obvious reservations, once the bodies start piling up à la the Thaksin campaign in Thailand (that campaign resulted in a three-month bloodletting that very likely cost hundreds of innocent lives), naturally the human rights organizations will protest as predicted.

They will protest not so much because they’re “bleeding hearts” (the phrase is right-wing American, and refers to unjustifiable pity for criminals), but because the shortcuts the police and military favor in this country don’t stop lawbreaking. They add to it by undermining the very system of justice of which the police is supposed to be a part.

Neither do those very same shortcuts solve the problems they’re meant to address. Lim and company’s campaign did not stop the drug problem from escalating, among several reasons because they targeted small-time dealers and even users rather than the big drug lords and their protectors in the police Establishment (except in those rare instances when intrapolice rivalry led to policemen killing policemen).

As for Bunye’s announcement that 90 days might not be enough for the 90-day campaign, we can safely assume that he was speaking for Mrs. Arroyo. We can thus surmise that Mrs. Arroyo is having second thoughts after she made such a big fuss announcing the campaign. That suggests that the campaign was not as well thought out as Filipinos sick of the drug problem should expect, but rather driven by the need for the kind of dramatic announcements the media love, and which make headlines.

That one nagging possibility alone makes the campaign problematic from the beginning–and helps explain why, after the Arroyo announcement last Friday, it’s this early foundering on the shoals of Philippine politics and its handmaidens Confusion and Incompetence.


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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