Monday, August 13, 2007

The circus comes to town again

It’s only been only a month since Congress officially opened and barely three months since the mid-term elections were conducted. The 2010 elections is still a long way to go. Yet here we are already in the thick of political machinations that only serve to bolster our disillusionment with our political leaders and our political system. Rather than focusing energies on more productive pursuits such as sustaining the economic momentum or solving the problem in Mindanao, our leaders are preoccupied with fortifying their political stock.

Jose de Venecia and Manuel Villar reclaimed their old posts as speaker of the House and Senate president, respectively, through processes that leave a bad taste in the mouth. Their resumption to power was characterized by the worst ever kind of political power play imaginable. It involved lots of backstabbing, conniving, horse-trading, wheedling, and other types of behavior generally discussed in political science classes under the topic “last-resort political behavior of the desperate.” Let us focus more on the Senate in this piece.

I am not a fan of Senator Jamby Madrigal, but in this case I cannot help agreeing with her condemnation of the Senate’s transformation into “one big stock market and [the] session hall into a trading floor, where committees, like futures, are given to the highest bidder in exchange for political loyalty and favors.” Madrigal thinks that Villar’s gambit “has made statesmanship, principled stand, ethical considerations, word of honor and good faith obsolete.”

The kind of horse-trading involved in Villar’s naked quest for power was immediately noted. Political machinations enabled him to form a coalition composed of administration and opposition senators. This was a feat of staggering proportions as it produced unprecedented results in terms of redefining the political divide in the Senate.

The mad scramble that ensued brought to the fore the political animal instincts of our senators. This resulted in a convoluted merry mix-up resembling a pit of snakes during mating season. No one knows who is opposition and administration anymore.

The results of the mid-term senatorial elections—where, in case anyone has forgotten, the opposition mercilessly clobbered the administration—left no doubt whatsoever that the Senate would be an opposition stronghold. But in one sweep, the dominance of the opposition in the Senate became a thing of the past. Villar’s quest for the Senate presidency changed the mandate of the electorate.

Villar’s triumph worked like manna from heaven for administration senators who suddenly found themselves the majority once again. It is developments like these that make us question the relevance of voting according to political parties. What’s the point when elected officials change loyalties quickly, anyway?

While the administration senators failed to grab the plum committees—the ones with the resources to fiscalize and in general make things difficult for the administration—they nevertheless succeeded in ensuring that these committees do not at least go to the senators renowned for being unfriendly to Malacañan Palace. So in the end, Malacañang won by default and only because our senators just can’t see beyond self-vested interests.

All these can be justified within the context of “power being the last dirty word.” What rankles, however, is that our senators insist on obfuscating the issue. The “opposition” senators who joined Villar’s camp remain adamant that they have not changed political color even if the whole setup has become anomalous. The disgruntled opposition senators who did not support Villar and who are now referred to as the “solid eight,” on the other hand, insist that they are the genuine “opposition.” To simplify things, the terms “majority” and “minority” are now being used to describe the political affiliations in the Senate.

As if things aren’t complicated enough, there is now talk of political parties asserting “party” rights. I have always believed that political parties in this country do not represent anything ideological or distinct in terms of platforms. They simply serve as convenient launching pads for political careers. But there is power in numbers, so the Liberal Party, the Partido Demokratiko ng Pilipinas, and the Nationalist People’s Coalition have sent word that they would prefer that division of the spoils be apportioned according to party representation. What a circus, indeed.

Not that it really matters who is with which side of the political divide if the shifting of loyalties and changing of hearts is driven by something nobler rather than as a consequence of a brawl for spoils. If our senators and representatives were voting on a landmark bill of grave national importance, I would understand if they jumped party lines and ditched personal loyalties. But this is not the case here. One cannot help but compare what is happening in the Senate as an absurd version of the party game “the boat is sinking” which calls for ditching old teammates and latching on to new ones simply for the sake of survival.

Necessarily connected to the foregoing is the unexpected rise of the political stars of certain senators not exactly renowned for their qualification for certain posts. Thus, we now have Senator Jinggoy Estrada as Speaker Pro Tempore (his first performance in the role became an occasion for hilarity). Neophyte Senator Alan Peter Cayetano is chairman of the powerful Senate Blue Ribbon Committee (he reportedly has to be trained for the post that he never wanted in the first place). Does this mean we can look forward to a more constructive relationship between the executive branch and the Senate? The answer, unfortunately, has nothing to do with substantive issues but with the state of the relationship between Cayetano and the Arroyos.

Have they really buried the hatchet or are we seeing the proverbial calm before the storm?
Estrada, Cayetano, and other “lucky” senators jumped over the heads of senators who are more senior, more competent, and better prepared for the posts. Expectedly, there is now grumbling and widespread discontent in the Senate over the distribution of committee chairmanship. There is persistent talk of revolt within the Senate, which indicate that Villar’s hold on the Senate presidency is tenuous at best. Hardly surprising, actually, given the circumstances.

Is the Senate presidency really worth all that? Only Villar and his lackeys can answer that. But everything makes sense when viewed in the context of the 2010 presidential elections. So President Arroyo was right all along, the campaign period for 2010 has already begun. But contrary to her assertion, the frontrunners in the presidential derby are not standing in her way of whatever it is that she is trying to do for the country. In fact, it looks like many among them are bent on getting on her good side.

It is in this light that we make sense of Senator Loren Legarda’s sudden change of heart. The two Assumptionistas publicly kissed and made up last week. Like a true political animal, Legarda regurgitated gobbledygook in an effort to explain what happened. But her body language said it all: She was tickled pink that the President confirmed that the “she” referred to as a potential presidential successor was indeed her.

And over at the House of Representatives, two of the three Arroyos who now sit as congressmen managed to grab the chairmanship of important committees. As if it is not enough that there are actually three of them in the House, they also have to get chairmanships of committees.

One wishes that the President’s kin would do everyone (the President included) the favor of simply fading into the woodwork. But I guess the lure of power is truly irresistible that it makes people grossly insensitive to certain realities, such as the fact that the President remains unpopular. The last thing this administration needs is additional negative publicity; particularly those about family members who are perceived to be the cause of alleged nefarious activities.

At any rate, it now appears that the relative calm emanating from the House of Representatives has been mainly due to one reason: They’ve been quite busy with hush-hush negotiations on how best to divide the spoils. The circus is truly back.

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