ON the evening of Tuesday, March 14, 2017, 15 senators gathered at the Malacañang golf clubhouse for a secret supper with President Rodrigo Duterte. These senators largely make up what is now known as the “majority bloc”. Conspicuous absentees were the President’s detractors, who weren’t invited anyway, and a few who had probably begged off, like old police veteran Ping Lacson and experienced coup plotter Gringo Honasan. A single, rather titillating snapshot of the event was posted on social media by one of the attendees, J.V. Ejercito, who described the gathering as “intimate,” which is an interesting choice of word that does the trick of underlining the select and exclusive in-ness of the in-crowd.
Ejercito’s picture shows a convivial enough group—guests were seated at a long table decorated with flowers and flickering tea lights, but sans food and wine. It appears the evening was just getting started when the picture was taken: food is yet to be served (the white tablecloth is still pristine), the wine glasses stand empty, and people are looking just a tiny bit guarded. Unless the diners really blab, which none has done as yet, we’ll never know all the details of that night—what was eaten and drunk, whether anyone moved from their allocated seats, who whispered what in whose ear, who sat quiet, and what Duterte hoped to gain from playing footsie under the table with those who took oaths to rein in presidential power.
The following day, Spokesperson Ernesto Abella, his heavy-lidded eyes customarily half closed (does he think his eyes might otherwise reveal too much?), presented the official version of the occasion. He chided the media for calling the event a “loyalty check,” insisting instead that talk was about the “vital legislative agenda,” such as “the tax reform proposals”. What an excellent choice of topic to raise among a relatively young group of senators who happen to be as rich as Croesus and who, in the case of a few, face massive tax arrears or have in the past been accused of graft, corruption, and malversation of funds. World champion boxer Manny Pacquiao (worth over P3 billion), still owes the nation’s coffers a whopping P2 billion. Perhaps he would not have done much talking. He was seated farthest away from the President. Ejercito, also seated at the far end of the table, was probably quite bored of talking about the nation’s tax issues. He was alleged to have swiped over P2 million in calamity funds while serving as the mayor of San Juan. Aged 47, Ejercito has a P78 million personal fortune and offshore corporations in the British Virgin Islands whose worth he has never disclosed. He, with the multi-billionaire Cynthia Villar, who also owns various offshore assets, Ralph Recto (worth P531 million), Juan Miguel Zubiri, 46 years old, son of a sugar hacendero and worth P118 million, Joel Villanueva, aged 41, the baby of the group (and son of Eddie Villanueva, founder of the multimillion peso Jesus is Lord evangelical ministry), also alleged to have misused P10 million of pork barrel funds (his colleagues helped get him off the hook on a technicality), have attended “dinner briefings” on tax before, just last August in fact. These multimillionaire and billionaire dinner guests, with their myriad business interests and vast real estate holdings, were probably content to make small talk among themselves and had a relaxed time.
Guests who briefly spoke with journalists agree that the kwentuhan was amusing, light-hearted and fun. TV comedian Tito Sotto, who has mastered the art of affecting gravitas, said that nothing serious and nothing official was discussed. Former presidential candidate Grace Poe admitted it was the first time she had met Duterte since the election. As she recounted to journalists, she was chuffed that Duterte once called her a “good person”. Smilingher usual thin-lipped smile, she described the evening as “comfortable”. “I’ve proven to be a principal ally of whoever has the right intentions for the country,” Poe concluded, which is an oblique way of returning the compliment.
Of the other subjects so very lightly touched upon were the resumption of Duterte’s bloody anti-drugs war, the imprisonment of the President’s most outspoken critic, Senator Leila de Lima, the death penalty, and the Paris Agreement on climate change. It is to be hoped that Sherwin Gatchalian, chair of the Senate energy committee, 42 years old, did not repeat his idea that the police were not doing enough to restore order in the streets and bring vigilantes to justice, which was his stance on extra-judicial killings last year. The notion that rogue vigilantes are solely responsible for EJKs is now so thoroughly discredited by international human rights investigations, which have identified the police as the main perpetrators. At any rate, not even such matters could dampen an evening the senators claim was one of easygoing collegiality and good humor.
Environmentalist Loren Legarda (worth P40 million), shown positively beaming in the picture, might have brought up climate change if only to congratulate the President on acceding to the Paris Agreement. Nancy Binay, 43 years old, sat next to Legarda. With declared assets worth P61 million, she is wealthier than Legarda. She advertises herself as an advocate of poor pregnant women and abandoned children but hasn’t been excessive in demonstrating this will. She has also been tremendously reluctant to speak her views in public. She seems crippled with oratorical reticence and inaction. Legarda, in contrast, loves the podium and is a talented back-room operator. She has been astoundingly successful in cutting reproductive health measures for poor families. Quite how much good-natured chit-chat Binay could exchange with Legarda makes for tedious speculation. The dinner might have been a strain for these two for the common ground they seem to share is wealth and ambition.
The dinner was held at a time when rumors of destabilization plots swirled around Duterte. The first impeachment bid has been filed. The Vice President has sent out an inflammatory video message to the United Nations that speaks of Filipinos in a state of hopelessness and helplessness. International agencies have condemned the detention of Leila de Lima as political persecution and demanded she be released. Under these circumstances, it would seem that the President needs all the support he can muster.
But this was not the purpose of the dinner. Duterte does not need to make such overt solicitations. He knows he already has the support of the senators, in some cases vocal and in others tacit. These senators have chalked up debts and favors, are extraordinarily rich, ambitious, networked, influential, experienced, youthful, and already onside.
The occasion is a good warning to critics of the formidable power they are up against.