“THE President shall nominate and, with the consent of the Commission on Appointments, appoint the heads of the executive departments, ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, or officers of the armed forces from the rank of colonel or naval captain, and other officers whose appointments are vested in him in this Constitution,” states Article VII, Section 16 of the Constitution.
With the presidential power to appoint comes the power to dismiss. The oft-repeated maxim is that Cabinet secretaries serve “at the pleasure of the President.” William Safire wrote about it recently in the New York Times magazine – the “pleasure principle” descends from the “supreme royal executive power” of English and French monarchs, who had the prerogative to dismiss commoners in their service at any time.
It should not come as a surprise that the Chief Executive wields enormous powers; after all, Section 17 of the same article cited above states that “the President shall have control of all the executive departments, bureaus, and offices. He shall ensure that the laws be faithfully executed.”
And so dismiss the President did two of his most ardent supporters less than a year into his presidency: Peter Laviña as head of the National Irrigation Administration in early March and just last Monday, Ismael “Mike” Sueno as secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).
The very public and unceremonious firings make good the President’s repeated vow to kick out any official of his administration at the slightest whiff of corruption.
In the case of Laviña, it was supposedly the acceptance of bribes from the irrigation agency’s contractors. In the case of Sueno, it was the purchase of Rosenbauer fire trucks from Austria, allegedly without public bidding, that did him in.
Both have denied any wrongdoing; Sueno wished that the information that was said to have been fed to the President by three undersecretaries in the DILG had been validated first.
But validation at this point is beside the point. Duterte apparently subscribes to the criterion for Caesar’s wife when it comes to his alter egos: They must be above mere suspicion.
That Laviña and Sueno were in the inner circle of the Duterte presidential campaign underscores the gravity of their firing. It absolutely didn’t matter that Laviña, a former journalist and Davao City councilor, was the Duterte campaign spokesman, and that Sueno, a former mayor of Koronadal and South Cotabato governor, was instrumental in convincing Duterte to run for president. This brings us to yet another maxim: “No one is indispensable.” Supporters (sycophants?) can be stripped of their sinecures.
Duterte thus comes as a breath of fresh air compared with his predecessor Benigno Aquino 3rd, whose stubbornness in sticking it out with ham-fisted members of his clique (remember Transport Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya and Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno?) was legendary.
It’s also refreshing to note that Laviña and Sueno did not go down with guns blazing, and instead meekly acquiesced to the President’s final word. Said Sueno after his sacking: “I wholeheartedly accept the decision of the President. It is his call if he wants me in his Cabinet or not.”
The speed with which Duterte kicks out and replaces his officials seems proof of his seriousness in keeping a clean government, a standard Aquino and other former presidents had set but failed to meet.
We understand that more Duterte appointees could be axed soon for corruption and ineptitude. Duterte seems to recognize that the time given to him to fulfill his campaign promises – six years – is too short and that he cannot afford to be stymied by allegations of malfeasance. If Cabinet officials and other government executives serve at the pleasure of the President, the President, in turn, serves at the pleasure of the people.