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The great divide

by Karl Allan Barlaan and Christian Cardiente With Congress on recess, there is a lull in the continuing saga of Balay and Samar. Observers predict that this is but the calm before the storm, a pause that provides an opportunity for the forces and factions within the incumbent administration to regroup for yet another battle —the public hearings on the confirmation of appointments for Cabinet members at the Commission on Appointments. A week before the resumption of sessions, tell-tale signs of an impending clash are evident. Senator Francis Escudero, identified with the Samar group, has been quoted to have said that he would block the confirmation of Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, a member of the Hyatt 10 and an influential personality from the opposing group Balay. Escudero also recently criticized yet another member of the Hyatt 10, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles, for her supposed arrogance towards Lanao del Norte Rep. Aliyah Dimaporo in the House of Representatives. “Parang langaw na nakatungtong sa kalabaw [Like a housefly atop the carabao’s back],” he referred to Deles in a radio interview. For many, it is of interest how Liberal Party stalwart and another CA member, Senator Franklin Drilon, would parry the assaults directed at his allies from Balay. The senator from Iloilo, according to insiders, is also expected to launch an offensive of his own against the appointees from Samar, specifically Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, whose post the LP allegedly covets for defeated vice presidential candidate Mar Roxas after the one-year ban on his appointment expires. Whose will ends up imposed on the other in the CA, insiders predict, will not be the last of these political power plays. The feud started during the campaign of 2010 and carried over to the “division of spoils” following President Benigno Aquino III’s landslide victory. A few believe it will find resolution only in the national elections of 2016, with a resumption of the Roxas-Escudero faceoff for the presidency, which circumstance -- the death of a popular former President, and the rise to power of an unlikely one—have momentarily put on hold. Frozen fates When former President Corazon Aquino succumbed to colorectal cancer in August 2009, the events immediately following her death put a stopple to the presidential run of Roxas and Escudero. Both had methodically planned their careers to culminate in a conquest of the country’s highest elective post in 2010. As early as 1998, when Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo were elected President and Vice President, respectively, Roxas and his party had already planned the course of Roxas’ political career: He would coalesce with Arroyo to be her vice presidential running mate in 2004, when she runs for the presidency. The tandem would showcase LP’s illustrious past with two national candidates, each of select political pedigree. Gloria was the daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal and Mar was the grandson of former President Manuel Roxas. Intervening events would alter the plan, but Roxas, an economist and seasoned banker who knew deadlines and deliverables, would have stuck to his timetable—if it were solely up to him. On the other hand, Escudero’s ascent was meteoric but no less systematically forged. He first became congressman in 1998 at the age of 28; was campaign spokesperson for Fernando Poe, Jr. in 2004; and House minority leader until 2007, the same year he won a seat in the Senate at the age of 37. Escudero, who keeps memorabilia bearing the seal of the Office of the President, given to him by Estrada, has never been timid about his dream of becoming president. “Wala namang masama sa mangarap (There’s nothing wrong with dreaming),” he would often say. His personal campaign headquarters was at a condominium unit in Quezon City: President’s Tower, unit 2010. If it were up to Escudero, 2010 would have been his year, as well. BALAY: The house of Mar On Sept. 1, 2009, Roxas finally gave in to the so-called clamor of the majority, joining calls for an Aquino candidacy. On Sept. 10, at the Club Filipino where Roxas had first publicly announced the end of his presidential bid, Aquino declared the beginning of his quest “to lead the nation in its battle against corruption and poverty.” Theories abound as to Roxas’ withdrawal from the presidential race. Some say he was pressured by a “mafia” of leaders from within his own party. Others claim that he had willingly made the supreme sacrifice for the good of the nation. Still, a few analyze that he had simply taken the graceful exit from an otherwise losing cause. Roxas, despite numerous advertisements, had consistently lagged behind then-Vice President Noli de Castro, Senators Manny Villar, Loren Legarda, and even Escudero in 2008 and 2009 surveys conducted by both the Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations. However which way one views it, the announcement marked the transformation of Roxas’ personal Balay headquarters into a Noy-Mar (Noynoy Aquino–Mar Roxas) command center. As is public knowledge, the new Balay would host factions zealously supporting the Noy-Mar partnership though a Palace insider affiliated with the Samar group refers to them as “defectors from the Arroyo regime.” Personalities from Balay include: • Secretary Butch Abad (Hyatt 10), overall campaign manager and member of the Noy-Mar campaign executive committee (ExCom); formerly Arroyo’s Education secretary; reappointed as Aquino’s Budget secretary • Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima (Hyatt 10), also an ExCom member; reappointed by Aquino to the same post • Social Welfare and Development Secretary Dinky Soliman (Hyatt 10), ExCom member; reappointed to the same post • Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos Deles (Hyatt 10); reappointed to the same post • Former Trade Secretary Juan Santos (Hyatt 10), rumored to have been promised the Foreign Affairs post, consequently vetoed by Aquino’s sisters in favor of Sec. Alberto Romulo, a close family friend and the first of Arroyo’s cabinet secretaries to openly support Aquino’s candidacy; Santos was instead appointed Chairman of the Social Security System (SSS) • Former National Anti-Poverty Commission Secretary Imelda Nicolas (Hyatt 10) • Former Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz, founding partner of “The Firm” (Villaraza Angangco Law Office), which was rumored to have wielded considerable influence during the Arroyo regime; ExCom member and head of election watchdog “Bantay Balota” •Former Education undersecretary Chito Gascon, Excom member and LP director-general • Julia Abad, Butch’s daughter and Aquino’s senate chief-of-staff; ExCom member; appointed as Presidential Management Staff (PMS) Chief • Local Government and Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, LP / ExCom member and long-time ally of former governors Ed Panlilio (Pampanga) and Grace Padaca (Isabela) • Lawyer Edwin Lacierda, ExCom member and co-convenor of the anti-Arroyo civil society group Black and White Movement; eventually appointed presidential spokesperson • Former Bukidnon Rep. Neric Acosta, losing LP senatorial bet; ExCom member; and rumored future Environment Secretary • Quezon province Rep. Erin Tañada, LP veteran and ExCom member, who according to sources, had wanted to be Speaker of the House of Representatives but had to give way in favor of new LP convert and veteran politician Sonny Belmonte. • Cavite Rep. Jun Abaya, LP stalwart and ExCom member •Former Education undersecretary Mike Luz, who was instrumental in crafting Aquino’s campaign platform for education • Internal Revenue Commissioner and Aquino classmate Kim Henares • Customs Commissioner Lito Alvarez • Aquino family friends Margie and Popoy Juico, both members of the ExCom, and organizers of Noy-Mar volunteer group, “Yellow Ribbon movement” • Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang, who even as a professional broadcaster during the campaign, had allegedly been partial towards the Noy-Mar tandem. The Hyatt 10 and the LP, including Aquino who had at one point lauded Arroyo’s now-infamous “I am sorry speech,” were allies of the former President until they withdrew support in July 2005 amid allegations of massive electoral fraud and corruption against the embattled Arroyo. SAMAR: Where common interests converge While the activation of Balay as a Noy-Mar command center was almost simultaneous with Aquino’s announcement of his candidacy in September, it was not until two months after, in November 2009, that Samar as a predominantly-Aquino campaign headquarters started to formally operate. Aquino, who allegedly did not want to fully entrust his fate to Roxas and the LP campaign machinery, had sought the help of lawyer Jojo Ochoa, a close friend and consultant from Aquino’s days in Congress, to be part of his personal campaign team. This was in September when Roxas announced his withdrawal from the presidential race. Ochoa, who at that time served as then-Quezon City Mayor Feliciano Belmonte’s administrator, brokered the deal for Belmonte’s transfer from Lakas-Kampi-CMD, Arroyo’s political party, to Aquino’s LP. Part of the deal, in exchange for taking other congressmen and local government officials with him to the Noy-Mar camp, was the speakership of the House—the post which Belmonte now holds. Belmonte was also supposed to deliver votes for Aquino and Roxas from his bailiwick, Quezon City. Despite victories however, for most LP and Belmonte allies in the city, Roxas would not be as fortunate. But the Speaker, in a text message to Christine Herrera of Manila Standard Today, denied he was ever part of a faction that had junked Roxas in 2010: “I was comfortable working from Samar where a room was assigned to my group. Being QC mayor, nobody interfered with me. I was Noy-Mar all the way. His loss in QC was despite my effort.” Still, past and prevailing political and familial connections from among Samar’s occupants are undeniable. As soon as Belmonte had jumped fence to LP in November, Ochoa commenced operations in a mansion on Samar St. in Quezon City. The property was owned by New San Jose Builders Chairman Jerry Acuzar—Ochoa’s brother-in-law and Belmonte’s “consistent campaign contributor,” said a source. Ochoa would also head “Pinoy Lawyers,” which had served as another election watchdog distinct from the “Bantay Balota” of Nonong Cruz. Ochoa’s volunteer group, aside from the day-to-day operations of Samar, was reportedly funded by Acuzar. Curiously, Acuzar’s name did not appear in Aquino’s official list of campaign contributors submitted to the Commission on Elections. Escudero, whose numbers had plummeted from a high of 23 percentage points in SWS’ February 2009 survey to 15 in September 2009, following the announcement of Aquino’s presidential bid, eventually abandoned plans of his own presidential run and found a home in Samar. Again, the connections are easily established: Escudero was an old friend of both Aquino and Ochoa, as well Acuzar, for whose company —NSJB—he had once been a commercial endorser. Escudero’s entry into the Aquino campaign and his consequent endorsement of a Noy-Bi (Noynoy Aquino—Jejomar Binay) tandem vocalized growing dissent to the Noy-Mar partnership. “It’s not about where we held office—Balay, Samar or Parc House—it’s about loyalties. They (Balay) wanted Noynoy-Mar wholesale; we wanted Noynoy and reserved the right to choose our own vice president. If you look at it, the President’s closest and most trusted friends are (with) Samar,” he said. Following this logic, the so-called “Kamag-anak, Inc.,” “Schoolmates, Inc.,” and Local Government Undersecretary Rico Puno’s newly-coined “Times group,” are generally more sympathetic to Samar then they are to Balay. Personalities from within these camps are: • Aquino sisters Ballsy, Viel, Kris, and Pinky who were part of the ExCom • Cousin Maria Montelibano, ExCom member and titular head of the Communications group but had specifically, concerned herself with special events. Montelibano has repeatedly denied campaigning for Binay, though husband Boy, and son Joey did so, and openly • Uncle Peping Cojuangco, who had founded the Council on Philippine Affairs (COPA) with the Montelibano couple, Boy Saycon, Billy Esposo, Louis and Triccie Sison; but whose participation in the campaign was grossly overestimated according to sources • Cousin Mikee Cojuangco, Peping’s daughter, whose volunteer organizations “Yellow Force” and “Tuloy PNoy” had allegedly campaigned for Noy-Bi • Cory administration veterans: Voltaire Gazmin, appointed as Defense Secretary; and Sonny Coloma, appointed Communications Secretary • Aquino’s classmates from the Ateneo such as: former Tagaytay Mayor Francis Tolentino, appointed Metro Manila Development Authority chairman; former Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority senior deputy administrator Chito Cruz, appointed National Housing Authority general manager; and Galland Diaz, named Land Registration Authority administrator • Other classmates also belonging to the “Times Group” are: Bong Naguiat, appointed Chairman of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation and Rene Almendras, appointed Energy secretary • Columnists Conrad de Quiros, whose brother Emilio was appointed SSS President and Lito Banayo, appointed National Food Authority administrator • Ochoa recruits such as Ed de Mesa, law partner in the Ochoa in De Mesa and Ochoa Law Offices, appointed Chief Presidential Legal Counsel; Peter Manzano, junior partner in the Marcos Ochoa Serapio Tan law firm (MOST Law), appointed Customs Deputy Commissioner; Mario Montejo, brother-in-law, appointed Science and Technology Secretary; and Ed Serapio, law partner, reportedly an informal member of Aquino’s transition team at the beginning of his term. A class of his own Department of Interior and Local Government undersecretary Rico Puno, who refuses to identify himself with either Samar or Balay, deserves special mention as arguably one of Aquino’s most influential advisers aside from Ochoa. As had been published, Aquino’s and Puno’s friendship started in 1986 when Puno started to give marksmanship training to Cory Aquino’s Presidential Security Group. Eventually specializing in security, Puno went on to establish a business supplying firearms and ammunition. This happened at about the same time the young Aquino was vice president and treasurer for Best Security Agency, a company that carries his initials. BSA had Antolin Oreta Jr., Aquino’s uncle, as its chairman and president. According to reports published in this paper (26 March 2010), “at one point, the agency had close to 1,000 security guards, but now has only about 300, according to Aquino.” “In those days, business was good for Aquino’s agency, which secured government contracts with the likes of the Philippine National Construction Corp. and the facilities and buildings of sequestered companies under the Presidential Commission on Good Government. Its other big clients were AsiaTrust, the Tanduay Distillers of taipan Lucio Tan and Uniwide,” the report went on to say. Aquino was criticized during the campaign for supposed conflict of interest in securing these contracts with government while being a member of the First Family. But a source alleges that what was never reported—in this paper or in any other—was that Puno had supplied firearms and ammunition to BSA as well as conducted trainings for its security personnel during that period. “Ganun kalalim ang pinagsamahan nila (that’s how deep their relationship goes),” says the source. Puno, who allegedly “thrives in anonymity,” had opted for an undersecretary post supposedly to elude confirmation by the CA. His brother, Patrick—a known cockfighting enthusiast and breeder —was appointed PAGCOR Assistant Vice President for Logistics and General Services without any media outfit taking notice. And while Rico Puno denies allegiance to any of the factions from within the Aquino government, it was Samar lawyers Ochoa and de Mesa who had absolved him of any criminal liability in the Luneta Grandstand hostage crisis. The battle/s ahead Unfortunately, however, for the President, the same hostage crisis had already called attention to deepening cracks of political infighting from within the Palace walls. Aside from incidents of miscoordination between Coloma and Carandang as well as the rift between Robredo and Puno in the DILG, a Palace aide claims that at the height of the hostage crisis, Ochoa and his staff were preoccupied with rumors of a Balay-funded P100-million vilification campaign against Aquino’s trusted friend and “little president.” Amid continuing reports of pushing and shoving for government positions and higher appropriations are talks of a Mar Roxas comeback as Executive Secretary—allegedly to redeem the power-sharing deal sealed with Aquino, resulting in the Noy-Mar partnership of the 2010 campaign. The problem however, is whether those whose fates and fortunes—current and future—rest upon Samar’s continued hold on power, will allow it. And as the divide between Samar and Balay continues to become more pronounced, so degenerates Aquino’s promised straight and narrow path into an aberration of political engineering—with two criss-crossing lanes, both too ambitious for either to be righteous.
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