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Biggest Philippine Cabinet shake-up

Publication Date : 03-09-2012


The appointment of Manuel “Mar” Roxas II as secretary of the Philippines' Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) to replace the ill-fated (and somewhat overrated) Jesse Robredo signaled the biggest Cabinet shake-up of President Benigno Aquino’s administration since he took office in June 2010.

It not only upgraded the status and power of Roxas in the Aquino Cabinet; the revamp also put three key Cabinet portfolios in the hands of the President’s Liberal Party (LP).

Apart from Roxas, who is the LP president,  Aquino also appointed Rep. Jose Emilio Aguinaldo Abaya, the LP secretary general, to replace Roxas as secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications.

On his third term as Cavite representative, Abaya was chairman of the House committee on appropriations. He was an aide-de-camp, as a young naval officer (he graduated from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis), to then President Corazon Aquino. The third portfolio is held by Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, the keeper of the purse who was appointed early in the Aquino presidency.

From most indications, the revamp was a coup by the LP on the Cabinet. It clearly marked the expansion and consolidation of the influence of the Liberal Party in the policymaking of the Aquino administration.

This development is far less worrying to students of party-based democracy than one-man rule democracy, driven by political vindictiveness.

The demise of Robredo and the reshuffle that it triggered came at a time when the administration faces a midterm election in May next year for part of the Senate and local offices—a circumstance that highlights the strategic importance of the DILG in cementing electoral support for the administration when its popularity is shown by opinion polls to be waning.

The new appointments have been criticised as a preparation for Roxas in the 2016 presidential election—a criticism that does not address the relevant issue of what skills and expertise Roxas can bring with him to the DILG, a highly political job in view of the 2013 elections.

According to House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II, Roxas and Abaya were appointed because “they have the strength of character, integrity and administrative capability to handle their respective jobs.” Gonzales said the two would serve as an “effective bridge” between the President and local officials.

Both Roxas and Abaya enjoy the trust of the President, and their service records are not tainted with involvement in corrupt practices. As a redeeming feature of their appointments, both have a technocratic outlook and belong to the class of officials who have a modernising culture in public service.

In appointing Roxas to the DILG,  Aquino enhanced Roxas’ powers by merging the latter’s role as LP president with that as head of arguably the most powerful Cabinet portfolio which is in charge of the Philippine National Police and local governments for purposes of political control by the central government.

No stranger to political tasks

Before Roxas was appointed in June 2011 as secretary of transportation and communications, he was a senator, elected in 2004 with the highest number of votes, meaning he had a national popular constituency, although he lost the 2010 election as vice presidential running mate of  Aquino.

Roxas had been secretary of trade and industry in the Joseph Estrada administration, from which he resigned at the height of Edsa II in 2001 triggered by a corruption scandal involving the president himself.

This mixed experience in the legislative and executive departments goes to show Roxas is not a stranger to the political tasks demanded by his new appointment. He has therefore a political clout based on his national constituency to influence policy in the Aquino administration.

Roxas is a technocrat by educational training and background; he is a graduate of the Wharton School of Economics in the United States where he was an investment banker before he returned to the Philippines to take up government jobs.

How he will fare as a political troubleshooter for the LP is a big test for Roxas’ political skills. Roxas’ family is deeply associated with the LP, also the party of Aquino’s father, the martyred Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. Roxas’ grandfather, former President Manuel A. Roxas, was founder of the LP, which split from the oldest Philippine party, the Nacionalista Party.

Roxas has acknowledged to reporters he was stepping into the big tsinelas (slippers) of Robredo, referring to the leadership style of Robredo, who wore slippers to work and public meetings.

Cast in different moulds

It would be comical and ridiculous for Roxas to emulate the folksy style of Robredo, whose claim to fame rests on his outstanding achievements as Naga City mayor for 19 years rather on his impact on national politics, except as a catalyst of the current Cabinet revamp to revitalise the DILG as an agent of political reform and change.

Roxas and Robredo are cast in different moulds. Roxas cannot make a success of his job as DILG chief by acting as a clone of Robredo around whom the administration has spun a personality cult extolling him as a role model, from a myriad of anecdotal tales of his populist leadership style.

Despite Robredo’s close collaboration with the Aquino regime, and his being a Liberal, he suffered the humiliation of his appointment as DILG secretary being bypassed repeatedly by the Commission on Appointments for confirmation.

Robredo left a thin legacy of effectiveness on the national level in the DILG.

Roxas has his own strengths as a technocrat who has delivered results in his own expertise. But it is not even clear whether the President would revoke the power-sharing between Robredo and his undersecretary, Rico Puno, Aquino’s gun buddy, with Robredo responsible for local governments and Puno in charge of the PNP, the “hard” power of the DILG, reducing Robredo into a toothless tiger.

One wonders whether Roxas would be similarly undermined by the president. This is still a cause of uneasiness of Roxas to consolidate the position of the LP and make it the truly “ruling party” in the Aquino regime.


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