POSTSCRIPT / August 1, 2006 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Tricky options testing, tempting Manny Villar

PRECARIOUS PERCH: The real challenge to the new Senate president, Manuel Bamba Villar, is neither the passage of Malacanang-certified bills stuck in the Senate or the bicameral conference committees — such as the 2006 national budget — nor the way he should balance the interests of the parties and personalities that gave him the Senate presidency.

Some senators are already saying that Villar is sitting on an unstable throne, and could be unseated any time. But they know too that the grizzled businessman-turned-politician is no pushover.

Villar’s real challenge is how to make the Senate survive as an institution in the face of the call for a shift to a unicameral legislature.

It is not enough for him to declare that he is independent from Malacanang or the powers-that-be. After all, Villar is the head of a seriously divided Nacionalista Party, and is not a partymate of President Gloria Arroyo.

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MAVERICK: But Villar is known for being a maverick of sorts. That streak in him showed, his followers said, when he as Speaker in 2000 was faced with the problem of impeaching then President Joseph “Erap” Estrada.

The inside story, however, was that Villar was actually not part of the secret endgame plan for the presiding officer to proceed to read into the record the impeachment complaint right after calling the session to order, when most of the congressmen were not paying attention.

That task was assigned to then Deputy Speaker Alfredo Abueg Jr. of Palawan. But when Villar learned of it, he reportedly grabbed that historic role of railroading the complaint over the angry objections of Estrada partisans on the floor.

There are many ways of looking at the perceived inconstancy of Villar. Many of those who do not believe in his sincerity have described him as an “opportunist” ready to shift loyalties just to advance his personal politics and ambition.

But his apologists say that he shirks personal loyalties — especially in relation to whoever sits in Malacanang — only if the national interest (or his perception of it) is at stake.

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VARIED OPTIONS: How Villar might save the Senate, now demonized as the primary reason for the gridlock in national governance and the main obstruction to Malacanang’s dictatorial tendencies, from being deleted out of a revised Constitution makes for a good case study in power politics.

From his perch, unsteady as it is, Villar still has the luxury of weighing various options. As No. 3 in the constitutional line of succession, he would have to be factored into any power equation pertaining to the presidency.

He could accede to the appeal of Lakas leaders, notably Speaker Jose de Venecia — who backed up his campaign for the House speakership then and the Senate presidency now — for him to convince 12 senators to co-sign the resolution proposing omnibus amendments to the Constitution.

Such a move, which his predecessor Sen. Franklin Drilon loathed to consider, would make the Constituent Assembly mode of charter revision a fait accompli. The country could then suddenly move toward a parliamentary system.

Or Villar could strike a deal with House leaders for the creation of a new Senate, as in France and Japan, even with the shift to a parliamentary system, with the senators coming from regional constituencies. This could pave the way for a federalized setup in 10 years.

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GMA’S CABALEN: If the House ignores him, Villar could very well do what Drilon had done, which was to block the exercise of People’s Initiative and stop charter change through holding action in the Supreme Court.

This may delay the timetable, but the end would still be the abolition of the Senate. The big question here is whether or not Villar would be willing to preside over the death of the body he now heads.

Another option of Villar is to swim with the current, play the loyalty game with President Arroyo — assuming they can trust each other.

(Btw, Villar can claim to be a cabalen of the daughter of the poor boy from Lubao, Pampanga, who made it to the presidency. His late mother Curita Bamba, a seafood dealer, was from Pampanga and Bataan.)

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DERBY PLAYER: Villar’s being up for reelection in 2007, the make-or-break year for charter change within the term of President Arroyo, is another key point to consider.

If he agrees to the charter change timeline, the 2007 election would be for members of the interim Parliament, and not for senators or congressmen, as both chambers of the Congress would be abolished by the creation of a unicameral Parliament.

The Senate boss may just decide to convince his supporters to go for charter change, and maybe, just maybe, dim Jose De Venecia’s dream of becoming Prime Minister of the transition or interim Parliament.

Any way the dice roll for Villar, it is clear that his becoming Senate president has thrust him into the limelight as a key player in the presidential derby. Even President Arroyo will have to contend with him.

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STRANGE SILENCE: It has been a month since former agriculture undersecretary Jocelyn “Joc-joc” Bolante was refused entry and detained when he arrived at the Los Angeles airport with a cancelled US temporary visitor’s visa (B1-B2).

Yet the US embassy in Manila, which reportedly recalled his visa, has not said a word to clarify if indeed it was the entity that did it, and, if so, why.

The stranger thing is that the Philippine government is not showing any official interest in this case that potentially will involve corruption, misappropriation of some P500 million in fertilizer funds, among other crimes.

Neither is the government seeking an explanation from the US on its judgmental action (such as canceling Bolante’s visa and detaining him). The Arroyo administration is not interested in getting to the bottom of this big case?

Bolante has been linked to the allegedly criminal handling of government funds, yet the government does not want to get the full story from him and will not try to bring him back to explain?

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FUNDS COMMITTED: With the absence of official information from the US government as to why Bolante’s visa was cancelled, many of us speculate that such action resulted from the reported diversion of more than P500 million in fertilizer funds to election spending in 2004.

With that lack of interest in possible big-time corruption, why did we sign days ago an agreement that would bring in $21 million from the US, entailing a matching amount from the Philippine government, to improve revenue administration and anti-corruption efforts?

The agreement was signed by Finance Secretary Margarito B. Teves and acting USAID mission director Frank Donovan, with President Arroyo, Charles Sethness, MCC vice president for accountability, and US Ambassador Kristie A. Kenney as guests.

“Not only is corruption an obstacle to an open and free democracy, but it frustrates equitable growth and stability,” said Sethness, whose office is responsible for monitoring and evaluating MCC-funded programs.

Sethness should have talked a little louder and looked Ms Arroyo in the eye while saying that.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 1, 2006)

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