L’Affaire DQ

It is a storm in a teacup but a storm nonetheless.

I refer to the disqualification (DQ) case of BBM pending in the First Division of the COMELEC. A petition was filed to disqualify BBM for his alleged failure to file and pay income taxes for 4 consecutive years during the Marcos years. BBM was reportedly found guilty and fined which fine he apparently did not pay.

The First Division is presided by Atty. Rowena Guanzon with Commissioners Aimee Ferolino and Marion Casquejo as the two other members. Atty. Guanzon, a feisty Miriam Santiago wanna be, was appointed by ex-President Nonoy Aquino. Her term expires this Wednesday Feb. 2 2022. The other two Commissioners were appointed by Pres. Duterte. Atty. Ferolino was designated as “ponente” meaning she is tasked with writing the majority opinion of the Division.

As the Presiding Officer Atty. Guanzon has been chasing Atty. Ferolino to finalize her ponencia so the case can be decided before she retires. It is a matter of professional pride that she leaves her office with “zero backlog” in cases under her oversight. Atty. Ferolino has apparently been dodging her calls which prompted Guanzon to release her own opinion without waiting for the collective decision of the Division. Atty. Guanzon opined that BBM should be disqualified for “moral turpitude”.

The ”premature” release of Atty. Guanzon’s opinion was attacked by the Partido Federal of BBM. The party’s lawyer, George Briones, accused Guanzon of politicking and seeking to publicly influence the First Division’s decision. He called her resolution a “minority opinion”. Why did Briones term it so when there was still no decision from the other two Commissioners? Did he have inside information how the latter would vote?

This is the stuff of Deep Throat. Who is behind the shenanigans? Who would benefit from a delay in the release of the majority decision? Is it BBM?  Nobody accused BBM of meddling until Briones lost his cool. Sir, thou protesteth too much. Atty. Guanzon said a Senator has reached out to Ferolino to slow walk the proceedings but it was not Imee Marcos, her “friend” and seat mate in law school. 

There are only two possible outcomes to the COMELEC petition: Either BBM is upheld or not. If the former BBM would want the decision penned earlier not later.  If unfavorable, BBM will immediately challenge it in the Supreme Court and the sooner he does this the better. An early SC decision even if unfavorable would give BBM enough time for say Imee or Liza to substitute for him. In short it is not in BBM’s interest to delay the COMELEC proceedings.

Did the President have anything to do with this messy affair? Presidential legal counsel Panelo denied his client had anything to do with it. Hmmm. In this town very little goes down politically without PPRD knowing about it. Malacanang may not have instigated the matter but probably let it run. Let BBM sweat for the seduction of his daughter. Ultimately, however, he would probably want Marcos upheld. The latter’s DQ could usher the victory of Leni who is polling second in the surveys; which would be his nightmare. The votes of BBM could move to Isko or Pacquiao but this is not a sure thing. His best bet now is settling up with BBM. For Duterte, better the devil you know than the one you don’t.

(The President still has another shot but a long one. That would be for the elections to take place with BBM and Sara winning, BBM getting disqualified by the SC after May which would mean Sara becoming President. That still leaves his henchmen in the lurch in a Sara Administration but a least he would have a family member in the Palace.)

 If not PPRD nor BBM then who? Atty. Guanzon hinted at the involvement of a political party with no presidential candidate. This would suggest the Cusi faction of PDP Laban. The word on the street is that this faction is negotiating with BBM for protection in his Administration. This faction has some influence on Ferolino and Casquejo, the two other Commissioners in the First Division. They were instrumental in securing their appointments. As the story goes, in exchange for BBM’s protection the PDP Laban cabal will get the two do throw out the DQ case. The deal is possibly not yet finalized which explains the delay in the release of the opinion.

The stick in the mud is that Sara is against any clemency for this Macanang lot. It is possibly the one condition she extracted from BBM before agreeing to be his partner. BBM is therefore caught between a rock and a hard place. A gun, albeit admittedly small bore, is being put to his head by one side but he is committed to his running mate on the other. 

Speaking of rocks (or its translation in the vernacular) Guanzon intimated that the Senator who intervened with Ferolino to delay the case has ties to the PDP Laban Cusi faction. There is only one who fits that description. He is the same person who was hauled in at the last minute to be its presidential candidate but subsequently dropped out.

Incidentally, this is not the first time that PDP-Laban has sought to seek COMELEC relief. They recently filed a case in this august body for something or the other but this was thrown out. These guys are desperate as the clock ticks down and they see their options run out.

The action of Atty. Guanzon will not change the electoral landscape. Ultimately the DQ matter will be decided by the Supreme Court with the voting public in the backdrop. What Atty. Guanzon accomplished is to highlight the opaqueness in our judiciary and the corruption that it hides. For this she deserves to be commended.

The BBM camp made the mistake of reacting to the Guanzon affair. Why get riled up with a minority dissenting opinion whenever released? It is not their fight yet they are making it theirs. This is seemingly an issue between certain members of the PDP Laban and the COMELEC, about possible pay-offs in exchange for party favors. So, Liza, restrain your attack dogs. Their barks simply reinforce the negative narrative on the Marcos’.

 BBM’s best defense is in the court of public opinion, the higher his poll numbers the harder it will be to overturn the national will. The BBM camp should therefore focus on expanding his base but equally important on reaching out to the unconverted. If he truly wants to unify the country as he claims BBM should engage those who fear what he represents, who see in him the evils of his father. I refer to the Makati Business Clubs of this world. His message: I come in peace. I know you do not like me for what you believe my father has done; but let us have a conversation. I do not fear you but neither should you fear me. Tell me your concerns and your suggestions, bring me your best and your brightest to work for the nation and let us see if we can move forward with that. We will not always agree but we must try if we want to make this country great again.

I do not know if BBM has it in him to do that, to enter the lion’s den and possibly be rebuffed. If Jessica Soho was a bridge too far maybe that is too much to ask. But that is what leadership is about. We shall find out whether he truly is the leader he wants to be.

The Vice-Presidency: A Lonely Dead End Job, Get Used To It

It is not Batman and Robin. It is, actually, just Batman. Sara should know this, that there can only be one Superhero when she signed up to be BBM’s side-kick on the journey to Malacanang.

I mention this because of a recent pronouncement from Sara that as VP she would push for the adoption of compulsory military service. This seems innocuous enough –  85 nations have military conscription – albeit not fully formed: For example should we not train our youth for technical skills rather than fighting an armed threat that does not exist? 

But that is not the point. 

The point is not the message but the messenger. VP aspirants are to be seen, not heard. They are not to embark on their own policy quests, to address problems that are not there nor questions nobody has asked. Her proposal could affect electoral sentiment among the 18 year olds who vote, the poor who often rely on adult children as bread winners and farm hands and families who do not appreciate their sons going off to war.

This was a rookie mistake, one she may be called out for. Fortunately the damage is containable, better to mess up now rather when it matters like in the vice-presidential debates on national television. Sara must understand she can no longer fly solo. She is now in the big leagues where everything she says is magnified and needs to be cleared with the head office. If driven to produce original content she should speak in the collective as in “The President and I propose ..” or “The Boss and I believe .. ” Otherwise her job is to keep her head down, speak when spoken to and follow the script. There will be enough opportunities in the future to consider her ideas, but not now, not when the stakes are so high and the prize so near.

The muzzle will extend if she assumes office. There is a reason Vice-Presidents are called the fifth wheel of a Presidency. Like a spare tire they are kept in an enclosed space to be brought out only in an emergency and for a limited time. Some Presidents are more courteous to their VPs than others. PPRD treated Leni like a mushroom, kept in the dark and fed with manure.  BBM will not be that way, that is not who he is. However the reality is the reins of power will be shortened once he is in office and kept to a handful of players which could well not include Sara. BBM will take her calls but these could get shorter with time. Malacanang is a small place which in a BBM Administration will get smaller with two strong women running the show who are tough, adept and related by family to the President. That leaves little room for a 43 year old provincial mayor with no national experience who was needed to win the elections but not to govern.

This may not be easy for Sara to take. She was the genesis of a potential BBM presidency. The Marcos’ owe her big time. Had she not stepped down she could be the next President with BBM in the second slot which he would probably have gladly accepted at the time. Sara may therefore feel she has the right to say what she wants, when she wants and how she wants. Unfortunately it does not work that way. She must understand she is now at best the opening act and not the main event.

The challenge for Sara is how to define herself in a a lions’ den crawling with sycophants and power players. As a Duterte Sara was always guaranteed a spot in the Administration’s starting line-up. That umbrella is gone so she should get used to the idea of sitting on the bench for extended periods of time.

The Vice-Presidency could be a lonely place for Sara. There is nothing in common between her and the Marcos’ outside of work. They do not share the same interests, the same friends, nor the same humor. They could not live in more disparate worlds, she raised modestly in a provincial city by a single, working Mom, they opulently by Imelda. She is a reserved hometown girl with a small circle of lady friends. The Marcos’ are worldly, witty, fun loving, foreign educated and fashionable. They move in a fast crowd and have their own private jokes. They are cosmopolitan posing as locals. Sara will be invited to the Palace parties but it will be awkward.

What can Sara look forward to in a BBM presidency? One, she can travel for free, attend state funerals of foreign leaders and ribbon-cut. Two, she will initially sit at the right hand side of the President but understand seating arrangements could change. Three, she may be offered a Cabinet portfolio but these tend to be technical positions which are seemingly not her style. DILG could be a good one but Presidents like to reserve this for trusted lieutenants with no political aspirations. Four, she can take up a hobby like knitting.

Sara was perhaps assured of Marcos’ support for President in 2028 but she should not hold her breath. Contrary to common wisdom the Vice-Presidency is not a stepping stone to Malacanang. The last time a VP was elected President in the following term was 24 years ago in 1998 with Estrada vice FVR; and before that 60 years ago with Diosdado Macapagal in 1961. GMA, a former VP, was elected President in 2004 but was already in office having replaced Estrada following his resignation. Jojo Binay, Benigno Aquino’s VP, lost as President in 2016 and could not even make it as Congressman in his Makati bailiwick in 2019 which shows how the post can be the kiss of death.

Like all worthy political families the Marcos’ intend to rebuild a dynasty that was interrupted by People Power. They have enough raw material for this. Imee, age withheld, is a Senator; her son Matthew Marcos Manotoc, 33, is Governor of Ilocos Norte; BBM’s son Sandro, 27, is running for Congress and his siblings and cousins could well follow once they come of age. Over the next six years somebody in the family – Liza, Imee, the kids – will be groomed  to take on the presidential mantle. This leaves little room for Sara as she finds herself isolated, without a political identity, without allies, and without a base. I am not privy to what sweet nothings may have been whispered to her ear but the truth is that in politics promises are there to be dispensed but not there to be fulfilled.

Sara’s Dad knows this which is why he was fit to be tied upon hearing the daughter he so loves had accepted a position beneath her standing. One cannot quite count him out. He has threatened to reveal (but not prosecute?) “the most corrupt presidential candidate”. But whatever the outcome PPRD must by now recognize that his presidential family run is over and know that he had a part to play in it.

BBM: Keeping His Eye On The Prize

Boring is beautiful.

This sums up the campaign of BBM as he and Sara make their way to Malacanang.

BBM has been disciplined on messaging avoiding anything that might disrupt what has been a well oiled and fully funded operation. He has kept to over-arching and uncontestable themes like unity, happiness and progress and avoided specifics at least until the Presidential debates when he may actually have to flesh out the issues. Even then expect his advisers to trot out the well-worn priorities of agriculture, education, infrastructure, manufacturing, foreign investments, health and exports and anything else that moves.

BBM’s opponents and pundits are perplexed by his popularity given his limited track record, his life style and his family name. In fact the more stuff thrown at him the better. His numbers jumped when the President hinted at his cocaine use, weakness and incompetence. Interestingly PPRD’s crass attacks on Isko Moreno as a bikini boy had the similar effect of swelling Isko’s popularity suggesting that Duterte is losing his touch.

BBM is now polling at close to 60% on all surveys including those of his opponents and that is without the President’s endorsement. More important he has a bedrock of voters of about 48% which in a multi-party race will be enough to tide over any mishaps in the presidential debates or negative personal revelations going into May.

BBM’s popularity is a combination of name recall, the legacy of his father as a visionary and a doer (forgetting everything else), a charming enough persona who everyday is growing in confidence, the partnership with Sara, the failure of his opponents to score, a message of hope however bare-bones; and a well-run organization led by his wife Liza, a lawyer. Liza is the ideal politician’s wife: Soft spoken, discreet, dedicated, smart, discerning, tough, organized, dogged, ambitious – she could well want it even more than her husband – and the laser instinct to get it done. She seemingly loves the power game even if she may deny it.

BBM is not a person nor an ideology. He is an aura, a political identity, a brand, a representation of a time and a legacy. History was ready, Sara stepped down and he showed up. BBM and Sara are alike in that they are undefined which makes them elusive political targets. We know their fathers, we do not know them nor what they stand for. The enigma and opaqueness works so why fix it? With her announcement of a compulsory military draft Sara is starting to drift on the messaging so she may need to be reined in.

Robredo and 1Sambayan have chosen to attack BBM for the sins of his father. This one dimensional approach has not gained traction other than with the bourgeoisie, the idealists and the intelligentsia. The public seems bored with the narrative: What they want is a better life and, after 2 1/2 years of COVID and a messy leadership, order and stability. Leni is arguably too angry, Isko too slick and Manny too etherial. Filipinos want steadiness and clarity and BBM in their minds provides this.

To beat BBM one has to identify a unique narrative which invariably means moving out to the extreme wings of the ideological spectrum like what the Leftists in South America and Rightists in Central Europe have successfully done with populists measures like universal income, free housing, taxing the rich and fomenting class warfare. But even that could be too little too late. Leni is not an extremist. Isko has the DNA to go there but he is fearful of antagonizing his capitalist donors. 

We are approaching the official 90 day run to the election. The only imponderable is the disqualification of BBM. The COMELEC has thrown out the challenge to his Certificate of Candidacy. Still undecided is the disqualification of his person which is a legal nuance. Without a CoC BBM was never a candidate and therefore has no electoral standing. However, if disqualified as a candidate he may be replaced by a substitute with the same surname (Lisa, Imee?). If the disqualification happens after his election as President, the winning VP (Sara?) likely becomes President although we are in uncharted legal waters. BBM’s focus now is to keep his numbers up which is his main defense against his ouster.

Duterte has that disqualification card to play but he is likely to hold it until he can secure from BBM the safety of his buddies Bong Go, Cusi, Duque & Co. That conversation I imagine has already started. Sara will be opposed to any clemency for the Malacanang boys so that is a delicate discussion with BBM and Dad. 

The opposition will continue to run until their bank account tells them otherwise because Number Two still gives them a shot albeit a long one in the event of a legal technicality or an act of God.

Already there is talk of what a BBM presidency will look like. There is trepidation among those who remember Martial Law. Will darkness once again return to this nation?

I am not frightened – maybe the result of six years of Duterte twilight – but admittedly somewhat uncomfortable. Times are different, we are more aware today, our free press has been shackled but replaced with an active social media. The Marcoses know the world will be watching so they will be mindful. They crave the power and the revenge on the liberals but are not as ruthless nor as politically savvy as the Dad. They may even seek to redeem the past and build back better except the family never believed they did anything wrong nor ever apologized.

Malacanang will be light and fun in keeping with the personality of its prospective occupant. BBM is unlikely to do much heavy lifting and like his father will rely on technocrats to run the country. His biggest challenge will be attracting good talent who actually care, a Cesar Virata, and could end up instead with city slickers with their own ideas. GMA will offer her economic team but the family may prefer their own since they have come to distrust outsiders.

The economics will be Neo-Classical, policies centrist and Government better managed than the current one. BBM may even surprise us with a vision but expect little compassion since empathy was never a family trait. As with all new regimes the elephant in the room will be corruption, how soon, how widespread and flagrant will it be.

BBM will control the House with the traditional migration of the herd with GMA or Martin Romualdez as Speaker. The Senate is more challenging depending on the incoming members. PPRD will retain his influence in the Supreme Court so he will not be powerless.

The center of the political universe will return to Manila. Malacanang will be a collective with Liza and Imee I imagine running many of the plays, vetting the key appointments and ensuring everybody sticks to their lane.

Business will, as always, be a backdrop to the politics. The cronies of the father are mostly gone but there could be some retro-active accounting. New players will emerge from the friends and relatives but that is to be expected. Most of the lucrative opportunities have been largely taken by the established tycoons and Duterte friends so the action could be in the reshuffling and in the creation of new economic enclaves. A prominent Duterte ally is already said to be peddling his enterprises. The biggest plum remains ABS-CBN with a Marcos relative reportedly already eyeing it.

The loser, as always, will be the Filipino whose life will not change, the rich will get richer, the poor poorer. This is the tragedy of our presidential elections that the outcomes never match the promises and the hope.

Coming To You Soon, Omicron

This sounds facetious and politically incorrect but there are some things to be said for Omicron.

For example, did you know that to visit Canada (which is no slouch on health protocols) you only need either a negative PCR test or, get this, proof of having contracted COVID 15-180 days before arrival? I am not suggesting you go get it but if you do make sure to officially document it. No more annoying and expensive tests. Omicron could be your Get-Out-Jail card to easy travel, super-spreader events and a normal life.

Father Nicanor Austriaco, an OCTA fellow and molecular biologist, said Omicron could be “the beginning of the end”. It acts like a booster protecting you from all prior variants. Incidentally, he is the same person whom Duterte reportedly offered the post of DOH Secretary, vice Duque; not that, as Sara will tell you, a presidential endorsement matters nowadays.

My three granddaughters ages 8-11 who are fully vaccinated just tested positive in the U.S. They are jumping around so happy to be out of school. The parents are unconcerned even if they know they are next. My daughter asked the school nurse whether my grandson who is still negative should attend classes and the answer was: “Eh, whatever, it does not matter, everybody will get it anyway.”

Sec. Ano, head of the IATF COVID Task Force, has contracted the virus for the third time and he is, thank God, still around.

Novak Dyokovic is unvaccinated and was positive but successfully argued he is therefore no longer a health threat and has been allowed to play in the Australian Open.

So maybe Omicron is not all that it is feared to be. Could Omicron be the white knight which will slay Delta and lead us to the promised land of herd immunity? It is reportedly up to 70 times more transmittable than Delta but it is unlikely to attack the lungs and therefore less deadly. In the Philippines we are seeing a big uptick in cases but the death rates and infections while significant could rapidly drop as in South Africa and the UK. The 1918 Spanish Flu substantially eased when the H1Ni virus weakened.

Omicron has hit the U.S. with a vengeance but, after an initial blip, the stock market has rallied back to record highs. Investors are more concerned about inflation and rising interest rates than the rising virus. The CDC pointed out COVID fatalities are almost entirely in the unvaccinated.

Omicron is still not the dominant variant in the Philippines with the deadly Delta still spreading. There is also the danger of long COVID and the possibility that massive transmission will lead to potentially more deadly strains. So we still need to be responsible, vaccinate, mask, wash, social distance but we also need to have a life. Let us remember there are arguably worse things than COVID like being without a job, seeing your family starve or being unable to travel to work.

Speaking of which, the new public transportation restrictions on unvaccinated passengers are unfair and insensitive (and I am restraining my adverbs). I get the idea but there are over 50 million Filipinos who are still unjabbed not for lack of desire but for lack of the vaccines. Why punish the ordinary folk for the incompetence of our officials? We can introduce such restrictions once there are enough vaccines for those who want it. Incidentally the new rules are coming from the same Dept. of Transportation which gave us the “shields” for riding motorcycle passengers which have no basis in science or intelligence. 

The same lack of logic applies to international airline arrivals. The IATF just reduced the number of arrivals in NAIA from 4,000 in December to 3,000 for vaccinated and PCR tested passengers who then have to quarantine for 5 days (up from 3 days) after which they will again have to be PCR tested. As a perspective the number of arrivals pre-pandemic was 30,000/day.

Think about it: Before flying to the Philippines from say the U.S. one must take a ($300) PCR test 72 hours prior to departure. Assuming travel day is Day Zero passengers generally test themselves on Day -3 because it takes a while to get the test results. On arrival that passenger must then quarantine and re-test on Day +5 or 8 days after first being tested. Now the virus has an incubation period of an estimated 3-4 days. Assuming the worst case that the passenger contracted COVID on Day 0, the tests will show this on Day+3-4 (probably the earlier number) so why the need for a Day+5 quarantine? At worst, the latter should be lowered back to Day+3 which would vastly lower stay costs, increase quarantine capacity, encourage international arrivals and, very important, enable more OFWs to return home. Many of these are stranded abroad with little money and no accommodation. Airlines that violate the arrival restrictions are fined $200/passenger but to accommodate the plight of our countrymen, some airlines have opted to fly them in on humanitarian grounds and assume the fine which now runs to millions of dollars.

Some provinces have re-imposed PCR tests even for vaccinated air travelers impacting internal tourism and returning OFWs. You need a test to arrive by air but not by land or sea. Go figure.

We need to review our health protocols so they are based on evidence, on risk probabilities, and on their impact on the economy. The policies should be granular, flexible, targeted, and mindful of the peripheral damage.

We know most of the deaths are among the unvaccinated. They are taking up hospital beds and draining our health workers (To alleviate the shortage the IATF reduced the quarantine for frontliners from 10 days to 5 days despite rising infections. Fortunately most are vaccinated and unlikely to die). Government should segmentize the vaccinated from the unvaccinated and tailor policies accordingly. It should dispense with varying blanket alert levels which just confuse the public and business. Instead it should go all in on vaccinations and leave most everything else alone so the economy and people can breathe.

On international travel, absent significant evidence to the contrary, the arrival limit on the vaccinated and double tested should be raised to 10,000/day or one third of pre-pandemic levels. The current number of 3,000 is an arbitrary and unreasonable chokehold on the economy, tourists and returning Filipinos.

Omicron is showing itself to be transmissible but also manageable as we ramp up our vaccines, our anti-virals and our herd immunity. We have had 3.1 million COVID cases of which 52,654 have died. Unfortunately we also have 4.3 million officially unemployed, 6.2 million underemployed and over 20 million living below the poverty line. The virus is dangerous but recoverable unlike economic lives and mental health which too often are not.

There is a real probability we will all get infected. If we accept that we can then move on, look to a future of hope rather than a nightmare of fear. Let us manage COVID and not, as our authorities prefer, have COVID manage us.