PRESIDENT-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s Cabinet nominations have prompted some people to wonder how he is forming his Cabinet. I heard this last from a foreign diplomat who said one key nominee was chosen for his post after acting as official driver for the outgoing defense secretary during a big regional security conference. One other observer wondered why instead of identifying a particular nominee by her proper name, the press identified her as the sister of two media-famous personalities.
A Japanese question
This was not the first time I heard the question. In 1970, a Japanese lady researcher came to me to ask the very same question. This needs a short backgrounder.
In 1969, at 29, I was appointed Secretary of Public Information. The following year I traveled to Japan for the Osaka Expo. I arrived in Tokyo on a very cold morning, to the warm welcome of an official party from the Gaimusho—Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But as soon as I stepped out of the plane and shook the hand of the welcoming officer, he said, “And, where’s your father?”
“I’m sorry, sir, ” I said, slightly taken aback. “Why do you ask about my father?”
“Aren’t you traveling with him, sir?” he asked.
Only then did I realize that he didn’t think I was who I was. In Japan at the time, you only found seniors in the Cabinet. The outgoing Prime Minister Eisaku Sato was 70, and the incoming Kakuei Tanaka was 52, one of the youngest to become PM. I was pushing 30 and looked very much younger. I had to explain that my father was long gone, and that I was traveling alone, as the Philippine secretary of information.
“Ah, so sorry for the mistake,” the officer said with a deep bow.
Apparently, this incident was noted well, and within that year I was visited by this lady researcher who wanted to know how Cabinet members were made in the Philippines. She did not belabor the age issue—some countries liked their leaders old, others wanted them young—but she wanted to find out whether there was a particular process involved in preparing future Cabinet members. It was very clear she didn’t think I was the product of such a process.
She pointed out that on the basis of how the young were being educated and prepared for life, one could almost predict that at a certain age, a particular individual would enter a chosen profession, and after a few years enter high government service. She said it was always better to have a pool of qualified men (and women) for Cabinet service rather than take one’s chances in a hit-and-miss process.
No deep bench
We didn’t have anything like it then, and we don’t have anything like it now. So the question arises: how is President-elect Duterte choosing his prospective Cabinet? Absent well-established political parties with a deep bench of professionally and technically prepared personnel, the appointing power is left with very limited resources outside the circle of his immediate friends and their relatives. Thus, the present eye sore.
A house divided
Except for Finance Secretary-designate Carlos Dominguez, Education Secretary-designate Leonor Briones, and Budget Secretary-designate Benjamin Diokno, none of the nominees have any notable previous Cabinet experience. None of them are suffering from an excess of gravitas; no one is likely to call the team “heavyweight.” The entry of communist nominees adds ideological color to their ranks, but that’s about all, it assures the nation of a house divided.
Duterte’s 20 years as mayor of Davao City has failed to provide him with a deep inventory of men and women of Cabinet caliber, and he has had to settle for those he seems to be most comfortable with. These include old acquaintances from Davao and other parts of Mindanao, though not Muslim Mindanao, former classmates at San Beda Law School, and nominees of the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front. Where B.S. Aquino 3rd had his “kaibigan, kaklase, kabarkada, kabarilan” (friend, schoolmate, gangmate, shooting buddy), Duterte has his own.
It is not known what kind of professional vetting his nominees had gone through, but so far the team seems to elude easy categorization. The late former Sen. Joker Arroyo famously described the Aquino Cabinet as a “student council government,” a description apparently resented by the President of some university student councils. No one has described the incoming Duterte Cabinet in any disparaging manner, but even the bumper crop of political turncoats and sycophants has avoided praising it altogether.
Despite Duterte’s take-no-prisoners policy on crime and corruption, Duterte may not be getting unanimous support from all his Cabinet members. The first heart-breaking news he reportedly got from his closest personal confidantes was about one of his most highly credentialed Cabinet nominees. Aside from reportedly not wanting to divest his large financial holdings, the nominee reportedly met with the top honchos of two telecommunication giants under questionable circumstances for no transparent reason.
This report has certain derogatory details, but we are putting them on hold for now, pending the presentation of the necessary evidence. In any case, this tends to show that some of Duterte’s favored choices are absolutely vulnerable, and this seems to be an early disappointment for President “Digong.”
Another reported heartbreak is Duterte’s apparent failure to thoroughly examine the bona fides of his good friend Foreign Secretary-designate Perfecto Yasay, Jr. (our good friend too), who is supposed to help him calm the all-important West Philippine (South China) Sea dispute between China and the Philippines.
Yasay is a highly competent lawyer who used to live, teach and practice law in the United States. He is a member of the Bar of the US Supreme Court and the US Circuit Court of Appeals, and is both articulate and personable. Despite his total lack of experience in diplomacy, his initial statements on China-US-Philippine relations have been helpfully dignified, independent and constructive. There are no derogatory reports about him.
Like Poe Llamanzares?
But some sources close to the appointing power say he may have become a US Green Card holder, which is one step away from becoming a naturalized US citizen. These sources fear the “Green Card issue,” if there is any basis to it at all, could explode like the Grace Poe Llamanzares US citizenship issue before the Commission on Elections and the Supreme Court. This could be exploited by some and ultimately set back Duterte’s diplomatic efforts to make a breakthrough on the maritime dispute with Beijing. That would be a terrible shame.
The biggest potential problem related to the Cabinet has to do with the CPP/NPA/NDF nominees, and the general public reaction to them. Four major departments have been assigned to these nominees—the Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Agrarian Reform, Department of Labor and Employment, and Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
There are, in fact, more, except that the rest are not underlined as part of the concessions to the Left. For instance, the Cabinet Secretary-designate Leoncio Evasco, Jr. has been, for years, the most widely known communist stalwart in Duterte’s entourage. Some people remember that before the election he was the only one in his group who proudly acknowledged his membership in the CPP, while other spoke of their traditional political parties. In addition to the Cabinet secretary, a number of undersecretaries have been proposed from the Left.
In addition to these, the secretary-designate for economic planning seems to believe he will be in charge of central economic planning, with the power to order families how to breed, as in some communist states.
All together, they would constitute the most powerful Cabinet bloc, because of their common ideological beliefs and programs. Despite the end of the Cold War and the fact that international communism is now a relic of the past, they have not given up their end-goal of controlling the state. Under the most favorable circumstances, they could initiate and bring about a communist takeover of government. In fact, some analysts are convinced it is their ultimate objective.
A discussion paper written by former National Security Adviser and Defense Secretary Norberto B. Gonzales points out that these Cabinet appointments “grant the communist insurgency a quasi-coalition status and, consequently, a direct opening to billions of disposable public funds and vast access to strategically important government services.
“With these, the communists will have all they need to organize the critical mass necessary to counter any institutional opposition to their coup scheme. They will have the sufficient mass of the largely uninformed poor to orchestrate the societal conditions favorable to the imposition of a communist-led revolutionary government. Both cities and countryside will not be spared from organized turmoil.”
“The objective of a communist takeover is not limited to the takeover of government. Communists aim to stay perpetually in power. To achieve this, they will also need to change society’s way of life. Most essential is to break down strongholds of independent public sentiment and spiritual beliefs. Churches, the press and almost all forms of organizations and institutions that can address the people will be tolerated or allowed only if they remain subservient or useful to the Communist Party.”
Fast-tracking the talks
Ever since I pointed out in this space that the nomination of communists to the Cabinet, no matter how necessary and desirable Duterte may find it, cannot possibly precede a comprehensive peace agreement with the CPP/NPA/NDF—it must instead flow from it—the incoming regime has decided to fast-track the peace negotiations abroad. This explains why our good friend Jess Dureza, the presidential officer-designate for the peace process, is now in Oslo, Norway, to negotiate the terms and conditions of a “coalition government” with the CPP/NPA/NDF.
By what authority?
The rush is understandable because no power on earth can, or should, put this particular cart before this particular horse. But there is one small legal problem. By what authority is Jess Dureza negotiating alone with Jose Maria Sison, Luis Jalandoni or whomsoever else? Although Dureza is not a communist himself, shouldn’t he have gone there with Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, the National Security Adviser-designate, beside him to make sure that “the Right” sector is also represented, instead of allowing the Left only to negotiate with itself? If Dureza is but following instructions from the President-elect, by what authority has the latter directed his emissary to sit down with the communists to discuss the terms of a coalition government?
The key word here is “authority,” legitimate constitutional authority. The world knows Duterte has been proclaimed President-elect. But he will assume office as President only at high noon of June 30. He cannot, therefore, exercise any presidential powers until after he has taken his oath. Neither can any of his proposed Cabinet nominees act on anything related to their prospective offices, until after they are officially sworn in.
Cabinet in crisis
How the Cabinet behaves will ultimately depend on how the President will lead, and what programs and policies he will adopt. So far Duterte has managed to show his imperial cursing style, which will brook no opposition from any source. Roma locuta, causa finita est—Rome has spoken, the cause is finished. Once the President has spoken, none of his minions will dare speak. Except perhaps for his communist allies, who have their own ideology, their own programs, and their own armed forces, unless they are now demobilized, disarmed and disbanded.
Given our multiple crises, Duterte needs a crisis Cabinet. But I do not see such a Cabinet. All I can see is a Cabinet in an unending state of crisis.