POSTSCRIPT / July 13, 2003 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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How will Danding fight without his coco funds?

CONTROL IS KEY: He who controls the coconut levy fund controls the United Coconut Planters Bank. He who controls UCPB controls San Miguel Corp. and other businesses formed with the use of UCPB funds.

And whoever controls San Miguel and the coconut levy-funded companies — and knows how to work around the money-driven system — has enough advantage to win a big fight like a national election.

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WAR CHEST: With the Sandiganbayan ruling the other day that the coconut levy, now estimated to be around P100 billion, is public fund, the government could wrest control of that mountain of money from private persons, including a big chunk of it from San Miguel chairman Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr.

While the Sandiganbayan said that the coconut funds belonged to the coconut farmers (represented by the government), President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who does not look a bit like a coconut farmer, will suddenly have at her fingertips that much resources.

In the face of the crippling court decision, what is Cojuangco to do after he moves for the de cajon reconsideration and, failing that, appeals (expectedly to no avail also) to the Supreme Court?

The exciting days ahead will tell us much about the character of the woman who sits as president in Malacanang and the man who is chairman at San Miguel.

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DOMINO EFFECT: Although late in coming, the blockbuster decision settled, at least for now, the 16-year-old question on the nature or ownership of the coconut levy. The fund, collected over a 10-year period ending in 1983, has ballooned to about P100 billion from its original amount of P9.7 billion.

The decision of the anti-graft court centered on the ownership of the United Coconut Planters Bank, saying that 72.2 percent of the bank equity is owned by the Republic of the Philippines. Part of that, around 17 percent, is equity claimed by Cojuangco.

The decision will have a domino effect on all companies and businesses that had sprouted from the money vault of UCPB. The bank is the mother of several coconut levy-funded companies, some of which have been within the sphere of influence of Cojuangco.

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WHAT’S GMA GAME?: Through its subsidiaries, the UCPB controls directly or indirectly such companies as San Miguel, Cocolife (an insurance company), the Coconut Industry Investment Fund (CIIF) that owns various oil mills, Cocochem (makers of coconut-based chemicals for laundry soaps), among other firms.

At UCPB, Cojuangco has three seats and considerable influence. In San Miguel, where he had returned as chairman, he has 20 percent that, together with the 27 percent held by the government, gave him virtual control of the food and beverage giant.

Depending on how President Arroyo plays her cards and how far (not that far, we dare say at the risk of being slapped down for contempt) the courts are able to distance themselves from Malacanang and a Makati law firm, Cojuangco is either kicked out or locked in.

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DOUBLE-EDGED BLADE: The political implication of the Sandiganbayan decision on Cojuangco’s expected presidential bid is double-edged. With his influence over UCPB, and therefore also with his control of San Miguel, now in question, Cojuangco’s back is against the wall.

Feeling that the judiciary has failed him, he may be forced to try political redress beyond and above the Supreme Court – meaning making a direct appeal to the people through the electoral process.

Winning the presidency in 2004 would bring in dividends much more than his interests in UCPB, San Miguel and his other coconut levy-related businesses scooped together.

Having lost the last major battle in the war for control of coconut funds, he may just start to feel that there is nothing else to lose — so he might as well jump into the presidential derby earlier than expected.

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NO MONEY, NO HONEY: On the other hand, there is the fact that victory in national elections depends to a large extent on machinery and money, assuming the candidate himself is a reasonably saleable item.

If Cojuangco is perceived by local officials, who form the backbone of any national political machine, as having been financially emasculated , he may be in deep trouble.

Even in politics, or even more so in politics, it’s no money, no honey. Cojuangco will soon know who his real friends are.

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IMPEACHMENT: Sufficiently provoked, Cojuangco might just pull out 60 or so congressmen allied to him from the administration coalition blocking the impeachment complaint filed against Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. and several justices of the Supreme Court.

The Cojuangco allies, members of the Nationalist People’s Coalition, could muster by themselves enough numbers to push through the impeachment complaint from the committee level to the plenary floor for a fast decision.

That possibility has pressure value in relation to Cojuangco’s cases pending before the courts, including the Supreme Court.

Before the Sandiganbayan decision came out, some of Cojuangco’s political associates told us that he wanted as much as possible to stay with the administration coalition. If President Arroyo is now unable or unwilling to help him, will his party leave the coalition?

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VOTING EXPECTATIONS: Traveling politicians, including those nursing presidential aspirations, better be careful about building up expectations that all overseas Filipinos will be able to vote in 2004 with the passage of the Absentee Voting Law.

The Supreme Court has upheld the validity of the new law, but there are still a myriad kinks that could prevent most Filipinos working or residing abroad from being able to cast their ballots.

The more realistic observers estimate that only about 20 percent of the estimated seven million potential Filipino voters in foreign lands will be able to vote. The rest, who had been mesmerized by the assurances of traveling politicians, could just end up frustrated.

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COMELEC CRAWLING: First problem is the doubtful ability of the Commission on Elections, saddled with lack of funds and trained personnel, to plan and execute the presidential election of May 2004 to include overseas Filipinos.

At the rate the Comelec has been crawling, it will never be able to reach and register all qualified Filipinos scattered all over the globe, Most of them usually do not have the means or the time to go to a registration center. The Comelec is not yet organized or funded for that task.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, nobody can say with certainty who among Filipinos abroad may cast absentee votes.

There are private volunteer groups who are helping out, but their well-meaning efforts will be wasted unless matched by government.

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NO PEOPLEWARE?: After registration, there must be validation to ensure that every person to be listed in the registry of voters is qualified to vote.

Comes Election Day and the problem will be compounded. The votes will be cast in varying degrees of difficulty depending on the peculiar situation in various places. Then the votes will have to be counted, tabulated and reported back to Manila on time.

The Comelec is acquiring computers and counting machines, but hardware is just a part of the entire process. What about the software and measures to safeguard its integrity?

Assuming we have the hardware and software needed, what about the peopleware? Do we have the trained personnel to ensure proper use of the equipment? The computers and the rest of the hardware will be useless without the right operators, not only in urban centers but also throughout the country and all over the globe.

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PILOT IT FIRST: With our meager resources and the lack of time, what should have been done, we think, is for the computerized voting and counting to have been set up only for selected urban centers and key towns.

Only after we have gone repeatedly through a live computerized voting environment can we safely say that the men and machines that had been networked will function as desired.

After the successful piloting in selected areas, we can polish the system, acquire improved equipment and train more people for an enlargement of the area of coverage. We go nationwide only when we are ready.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 13, 2003)

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