Thursday, September 25, 2008

Queenmaker, kingmaker?

After Joseph Ejercito Estrada was all but sworn in as the 13th president of the Philippines, his announced Executive Secretary, Ronaldo B. Zamora, instructed Elmer Mercado, Jimmy Policarpio and myself, among others I presume, to start working for the election of Joker Arroyo, the congressman of the first district of Makati, as speaker of the House of Representatives. This was a campaign commitment, as soft of course as political commitments go, made by then candidate Erap to Joker.

At about the same time, Mrs. Cynthia Villar of the landowning Aguilar clan of Las Piñas and Muntinglupa suddenly became a regular fixture at the incoming president’s Polk address in North Greenhills. Her husband Manuel was elected virtually unopposed for his third term as representative of Las Piñas, the family fiefdom. Villar openly supported Jose de Venecia of his party Lakas for president. Of course Erap swept all of Metro Manila including Las Piñas, but that was no thanks to the Aguilar-Villar clan. Erap maintained that Nene Aguilar "secretly" supported him, but then, even if the latter did not, all of Luzon except Pangasinan was swept by Erap. Surely the residents of the fiefdom of Las Piñas are not the unthinking robots of their landowners.

One fine Sunday, the exact date of which I have yet to check from a diary I am too lazy at the moment to retrieve from an antique baul in my den, Erap’s secretary asked me to proceed to Polk Street, and witness the mass oath-taking of 50 Lakas congressmen brought in by Lakas into LAMMP, the coalition that Erap used as flag of convenience for his successful presidential run. I did not feel like going, because I have always had a distaste for balimbings. But Erap was my president, and so I had to go. I was quiet all along the mass turncoatism ceremony, and didn’t even bother to stay for the food and drinks, always overflowing in Erap’s manse.

I asked confirmation the day after from Erap about my reading that Villar had become "it" for the speakership. He said, "Tamad kasi si Joker". And added, "besides, Villar is the choice of the majority. Pinondohan niya pala ang kampanya ng maraming nanalo."

I said, "Kung ayaw ninyo kay Joker, bakit hindi pa si Bibit (Duavit)?" And he chuckled, "Okay sana, pero tamad rin iyun, golf lang ng golf." And so Manuel Villar became speaker of the lower house, by the grace of Joseph Ejercito Estrada, who (chuckle), hated lazybones. Nobody becomes Speaker of the House in this country without the president’s imprimatur.

On August 17, 1998, a dejected Joker Arroyo rose on a question of personal and collective privilege, and began lambasting the man who beat him to Numero Quatro in Philippine officialdom, for clear conflict of interest between his dealings with government agencies as real estate magnate and his sworn responsibilities as a congressman under the laws of the land. Joker listed down some ten issues against Speaker Villar, including his sponsorship of a bill in 1994 that eventually became the Comprehensive and Integrated Shelter Finance Act of 1994. That law provided for the increase in capitalization of the NHMFC from 500 million pesos to 5.5 billion pesos. Joker charged that as head of the country’s largest low-cost housing conglomerate, Villar made piles of money from the housing loans that government provided, and which he "took out" and monetized out of future installments of Pag-ibig loan homebuyers. He also claimed that Villar and his family corporations had caused the conversion of some 60 million square meters of agricultural land in Southern and Central Luzon in contravention of the Agrarian Reform Law. He even made his peers visualize what 60 million square meters meant. All of Makati, he said, is 21 million square meters, and all of Las Piñas is 41 million square meters. "If you add the entire area of Las Piñas and Makati, that is the (size of the) residential subdivisions covered by the companies of Speaker Villar," Joker said.

And many other charges, made by Joker, ten years ago. Now Joker calls it "idiocy" to even discuss the same issues, which are at the core of what Ping Lacson detailed in a privilege speech last Monday in a Senate now headed by Senate President Manuel Villar whom he had accused of double insertion in the current budget for a road that would cut across his corporation’s properties. Now Arroyo has taken the role of being chief defender of the man he accused of far worse things ten years ago than Lacson is now charging his principal.

During the two years and a half of Erap’s stay in Malacañang, Joker played the oppositionist’s role, floor tactician even to the so-called "Spice Boys" led by Mike Defensor, Nonoy Andaya, Migs Zubiri and a few others.

Now let’s go back to those tense moments in the impeachment saga of Joseph Estrada. One fine afternoon in November 2000, right after the opening prayer, Manuel Villar suddenly segued into transmitting to the Senate the committee report signed by seventy or so congressmen, swelled by the same number of congressmen that Villar brought into the LAMPP from Lakas when Erap won in 1998. Oh, these balimbings.

Erap can’t say I did not warn him. Even days before the masterly transmittal of the impeachment complaint by Villar, I had told him that contrary to what his wheeler-dealer Danilo Suarez, the Quezon congressman, had been assuring him, Villar and company would bolt. (When I write a book, I will detail the classic words of Danny Suarez each time he would report to the Palace.) Mga balimbing before, balimbing forever.

Now everybody and his mother knows that it was Joker Arroyo who coached Villar on that sleight-of-hand railroad of the complaint, over the hoarse floor objections of Didagen Dilangalen of Maguindanao. Even Mala-cañang’s shepherd for congressmen, the PLLO, didn’t realize what hit them when Joker got Villar to turn traitor to Erap.

Arroyo led the prosecution team when the Senate trial of Erap’s impeachment by the House of Representatives began in December. And after the telenovela that gripped the nation, climaxed by the refusal of Erap’s Eleven to open the second envelope, Joker Arroyo and Manuel Villar succeeded in being queenmaker to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

In the aftermath of Edsa Dos, both became senators of the realm; Joker believed by a gullible nation as "uubusin ang corrupt" and Villar as "Mr. Sipag at Tiyaga." They became buddy-buddies since, forming a fine dining cabal called the Wednesday Group.

How did the man who would be speaker become the chief apostle of the Speaker by the grace of an Erap they both conspired against? How did the man who charged Villar with gross violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act in 1998 now become the chief apostle and defender of the credo of "Sipag at Tiyaga", even when indications point to "Singit at Taga"?

Someone who was close to Erap intimated to me and some friends the "real reason why Erap junked Joker and chose Manny for Speaker: "There were a hundred million reasons behind Erap’s support of Manny in 1998." He qualified – "for the party".

Now I will segue into speculative theory and ask you, my readers to think if this theory of mine is plausible: What impelled Manny Villar to play along with Joker’s desire to install Gloria as "queen"? Could it have been because, had Villar not been nimble-footed enough and abandoned Erap when all the signs showed that the conspiracy of an anti-Erap Cardinal Sin, big business and others would be inexorably successful, Joker Arroyo could have played sweet revenge on a Villar he himself had determined guilty of acts of corruption, and in sums so humongous that indirectly qualify as plunder? And assuming these could not be directly proven, what, pray ask, would have happened to a Villar whose real estate and banking fortunes had crumbled as a result of the 1997 Asian crisis that doubled his peso liabilities? If he had not jumped ship and become Joker Arroyo’s chief instrument in playing queenmaker to Gloria, could balimbing Manny have succeeded in re-structuring and rehabilitating his fortunes so quickly if he had not abandoned Erap and joined Gloria? Remember, Joker had the goods on him.

When the Hyatt Ten resigned in the wake of the terrible revelations of Hello Garci, where were Joker and his Manny? Did Manny and his Nacionalistas ask for the resignation of Gloria? Of course not. But nimble-footed, brinkman-ship expert Manny got his wife Cynthia, now congresswoman after him of the family fiefdom, to play "oppositionist" and vote against Gloria. Moro-moro or a woman’s conviction?

And yet, when re-election time was up in 2007, and the surveys were so dismal for Dona Gloria, what did Manny Villar do? He renewed his friendship with a so-forgiving Erap, and voila, he became an instant "oppositionist." Still, minding the now-resuscitated business empire that a hostile Gloria could throw a monkey wrench into, Manuel Villar styled himself throughout the campaign as an "independent" along with Kiko Pangilinan. But while Kiko maintained his independence admirably throughout, Villar saw the forthcoming sweep of the so-called Genuine Opposition (a phrase that made me puke when they coined it), and rode the bandwagon at the tail-end, after spending hundreds of his fabled millions.

These days I wonder how otherwise intelligent people could refer to Manny Villar as "opposition". He supported Joe de V as Lakas in 1998, then switched to Erap right after the latter’s victory, then dumped Erap because Joker must have reminded him of the many "bukols" he had exposed in that 1998 speech in the floor of the House. Then he ran successfully for senator together with his mentor-tormentor Joker under the flag of the Dona Gloria they had collaborated with to proclaim "Queen" at the expense of their "friend" King Erap in 2001. When Gloria’s fortunes soured in 2007, he allied himself once more with an Erap whose memory is as feeble as his forgiving nature, and metamorphosed as "opposition."

The balimbing aka be-lim-bing, is an elongated fruit with five star-like sides, that is so tart, "mapakla" in Tagalog. Only traditional politicians of the Filipino variety love it, and consider it "sweet", depending on the "juice" (read that as money) they could squeeze from its mushy pulp.

Now a gaggle of trapos, young and old, dream of making a certified balimbing "king" of the benighted isles. And Joker Arroyo, the man who made an administrative disaster out of a well-meaning President Cory’s first year in office, the man who was "out-bought" from the speakership of the House, and bamboozled the same Speaker into overthrowing Erap to install Doña Gloria queen of the land, hopes to play kingmaker in 2010 for his now beloved King Balimbing.

O tempora, o mores!