Recently, a well-known astrologer who correctly predicted the presidential election victories of Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump, said the Philippine leader faced uncertainty for some months. “But if he gets through March,” the astrologer allowed, “Duterte will be stronger.”
That scenario may now be unfolding.
With the resignation of Vice-President Leni Robredo from the Cabinet, the gloves may now be off between the current administration and the previous one.
No more mincing words and pulling punches between the Duterte and Aquino camps, just to maintain cordial relations between the President and the VP, who belongs to former president Benigno Aquino 3rd’s Liberal Party.
Now, if Robredo leads protests against Duterte’s bloody anti-drug war and his decision to let the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos be buried in the Libingan ng Mga Bayani (Cemetery of Heroes), she does not have to feel awkward in Palace meetings.
Similarly, Duterte and his officials won’t hesitate in filing graft cases against Aquino-era officials, including thousands named and shamed in Duterte’s lists of local leaders, police officers, and judges allegedly in cahoots with drug syndicates.
Already, Robredo has accused the administration of plotting to remove her as VP — a grave charge which seems to include the Supreme Court, headed by Aquino-appointed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and empowered to decide the election protest against Robredo filed by her rival Bongbong Marcos.
Meanwhile, civil society groups supporting Duterte, have filed with the Justice Department a corruption case against Aquino’s Department of Transportation and Communications Secretary Jose Emilio Abaya and other DOTC officials over the P3.7-billion contract to buy car license plates, which was awarded with no budget allocation.
And if that weren’t enough to signal the end of friendly ties between past and present regimes, the Presidential Spokesperson told media on Tuesday that more investigations and charges may arise, though the government was still more focused on its governance programs.
The LP is reportedly re-examining ties with Duterte’s Pilipino Democratic Party-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), which dominates Congress and local governments after dozens of legislators and local leaders switched over after elections.
Moreover, many local, police and agency officials accused or suspected of drug links would be glad to join a revitalized LP-led opposition. Also keen to see Duterte’s name-and-shame campaign against narco-graft stalled by fiscalizing politicians are hundreds of PNP officers and men accused of drug links.
Fight to the finish?
How will this political battle play out? The ongoing Senate and House hearings on drug trafficking and extrajudicial killings, and street protests against EJKs and the Marcos burial give a foretaste of what may be ahead.
Congress and national agencies under Duterte’s sway will likely intensify probes and prosecution of Aquino-era irregularities.
Besides narcotics protection by local officials as well as former Justice Secretary and now Senator Leila de Lima, other anomalies due for investigation are Aquino’s illegal Disbursement Acceleration Program, and pork barrel graft involving LP stalwarts. Both have long been in the hands of Aquino-appointed Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, who, by contrast, had fast-tracked cases against Aquino’s opponents.
For their part, the LP and its activist, academe and media allies would likely step up criticism of the administration in social and mass media, and mobilize more rallies in the hope of eroding Duterte’s record-high public approval ratings.
Plus: The Aquino camp aims to whip up public sympathy, if not outrage over the election protest against VP Robredo.
If her victory is sustained, she would be cheered for defeating the purported scheme. And if she loses, then more demonstrations would be mobilized, partly by capitalizing on the negative sentiment ignited against the Marcoses by the surreptitious burial of the late strongman.
There is talk that the High Court, sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, could come to a decision as early as January. The protest covers a limited number of tallies which swung Marcos’s 1-million-vote lead to a 200,000 deficit overnight, making a speedy PET resolution possible.
And if certain justices claim undue pressures and dubious proceedings in the tribunal, that could provoke public animosity and anger, which could be used to instigate broad dissatisfaction toward Duterte.
The ides of March
So is all this coming to a head in March? Well, the coming holiday season from December to mid-January would be a slow month for protests, especially with school out. Congress would also take a break from its hearings on narco-protectors.
But when universities resume in January, so would rallies. To head off such agitation, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre could file graft charges against Aquino-era officials before then.
The LP would likely try to portray such charges as harassment of the legitimate opposition, just as Sen. de Lima has won sympathy from some religious and university quarters by claiming to be the victim of false accusations for having denounced drug-related killings.
Will the public waver in its support for Duterte? Probably not.
The EJK and Marcos burial issues have not won broad public support. Approval ratings suggest that most Filipinos see Duterte’s tough measures against drugs and crime to be successful and warranted. And the anti-Marcos protests are largely confined to selected Metro Manila universities.
Working-class Filipinos remain satisfied with the administration, and that positive sentiment is likely to continue or even improve with economic growth tipped to accelerate, driven by continued consumer spending and more infrastructure outlays.
A further factor that could help Duterte is the coming takeover of US President-elect Donald Trump. The latter has reportedly expressed support for the former’s bloody anti-narcotics campaign.
Moreover, Trump has said he would like to reduce US military action abroad, which may temper those in Washington who may wish to see regime change in Manila amid Duterte’s shift away from America and toward China and Russia.
If the US won’t support anti-Duterte moves, then the LP would not gain a powerful ally. It would also undercut efforts to mobilize the uniformed services against the him.
Still, while ouster moves don’t look promising, for narco-syndicates and corrupt officials, it’s the only chance to escape prosecution, prison and death.
It’s Digong or them.