Thursday, January 29, 2009

The ethics of Mr. “Itik”

As far as anyone could remember, the Aguilars have ruled the municipality of Las Pinas --- from father to son to daughter to son-in-law. Who knows, maybe as far back as a grandfather? Of dynasts I do not care to research far better than my memory. Several times in the past, another offspring tried to grab the neighbouring town of Muntinglupa, but failed. Both towns south of the nation’s capital have now become teeming cities, which in turn grew the value of land owned by the Aguilars.

But not until Manuel Villar married Cynthia Aguilar did the family’s land ownership become base for a real estate empire that was to extend beyond hick southern suburbia into most of the entire country’s capitals. And beyond mere capitalist rent the way David Ricardo defined it for Economics 101 students, into venture capitalism, and banking, and high finance, and ahh --- politics. What a roll it has been! “Ratsada”, the gambling aficionados would describe it.

As far back as the mid-1990’s, the spouses Manuel and Cynthia Villar were listed as among the country’s wealthiest, entering rarefied circle previously reserved only for the Tisoy landowners and later the Chinoy taipans. Such huge wealth Manuel Villar parlayed successfully into political capital as well.

When he ran for the third time as congressman of Las Pinas, hardly anyone dared fight him any longer. By dealing with a new president, Joseph Ejercito Estrada, he became Speaker of the House of Representatives, successor to six long years of Jose de Venecia’s hegemony over the nation’s traditional politicians. Villar himself cut that speakership short, when in electrifying volte face, he endorsed with lightning short-cut, the articles of impeachment that began the demise of his political benefactor, Erap. In less than ninety days, the man who ordained Villar speaker was packing his valises and crossing the fetid Pasig into uncertain personal fate.

It is testament to Manuel Villar’s wheeling and dealing expertise that he not only returned into the graces of the disgraced Erap, but has become apple to the eye barely six years after. Not that he has even half the charisma of the movie actor turned successful politician. What he has is the grand ability of using money optimally for maximum political effect. And that political “virtue” was first noticed when he began executing his well-laid plans to become Speaker, then senator, and later, Senate President of the Republic.

One need not be in the public esteem to be speaker. One only had to capture the favour of the man in Malacanang. In short shrift did Congressman Villar and his spouse Cynthia obtain the newly elected Erap’s favour (I wrote about this last September 25, 2008, in an article entitled “Kingmaker; Queenmaker”). Ramon Mitra became the first speaker of the first congress after martial law, because President Cory chose him against the challenge of her own maternal uncle, Francisco “Komong” Sumulong. And FVR chose his loyal co-founder of Lakas, Jose de Venecia, also his kabaleyan from Bonuan Binloc in Dagupan. Erap, as our September article vividly portrayed, chose Villar over Joker Arroyo and Bibit Duavit. Nine hundred or so days later, his choice as speaker, Manuel Villar, impeached him.

But one has to capture public esteem to become senator of the realm. It is not just a matter of buying votes, as when congressmen or mayors buy their votes on retail. There has to be method in the use of money. And Manny Villar has always been methodical. Every fiesta in the land would have a “Happy Fiesta” streamer from the speaker of the House since 1999. If you hadn’t known better, you would think Villar was in your hometown, savouring the humble feasts of every Filipino home. By 2000, he was running his television teasers --- “ST” they were labelled. And who would stroke his knees in that commercial? Why the then ST queen herself --- Rosanna Roces in full frontal sexiness. But ST of course, sans prurient imagination, meant “Sipag at Tiyaga”. Which for years became Mr. Manuel Villar strategized.

The message was brilliant re-run of Diosdado Macapagal’s recollection of his “Poor Boy from Lubao” origins. Manuel Villar, as his story goes, used to be a poor boy from Tondo, who rose from early hardship to become a billionaire several times over, through hard work and perseverance. That tale never fails to stir the masa. And thus was Villar elected to the Senate --- in the ticket of newly-found patroness, La Gloria, approved by the same masa who idolized the Erap whose back he stabbed. (I keep telling you --- we Filipinos have memories as short as our pudgy noses).

Off to work Manny went when he became senator and chair of the powerful Finance Committee that holds sways over the budget of the land. And off to work he went to nurse and nurture to passage a Special Purpose Asset Vehicle law (SPAV) that helped distressed companies stuck with humongous liabilities in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian recession, of which, quite incidentally, his companies’ fortunes were also stuck.

In his very first term, he was able to get La Gloria to bless a term-sharing deal with then Senate President Franklin Drilon. As Drilon was in his second six-year term (first elected 1995, and re-elected 2001), while Villar was in his first term only, he wangled an agreement blessed by La Gloria, to be the senate president in the last 18 months of his first term, so that he would be “Mr. President” of the Senate when he goes for re-election. Another successfully negotiated transaction.

But hey, when crunch time came in the last months of 2006, he was making lagareng-hapon, from Tanay where he sought the forgiving Erap’s favour, and Malacanang, where his Wednesday Group confreres, Joker Arroyo and Ralph Recto, were negotiating for the group. In fairness, only Kiko Pangilinan, of the same Group could not stomach the transactions, and chose to remain independent of both the Erap he helped oust, and the Gloria whose resignation he asked in 2005, after Hello Garci unfolded in naked gore. And voila, after spending half a billion or more, and landing Numero Cuatro in the senatorial sweepstakes after Loren, Chiz and Ping, he got Erap to bless his transactions with the administration bloc to be re-elected senate president. He junked those who ran with him in the so-called GO, those he thought would be his competitors for the presidency of the land --- Ping, Loren, Mar, along with their friends Pong, Jamby and Noynoy, as well as veteran Nene Pimentel, and left them out in the cold, preferring to blend together his loyalists Alan and Pia, Chiz and Kiko, with pro-Gloria Joker, Edong, Bong and Lito, JPE and Gringo, Miriam and Migz.

When Lacson and company protested the transactional arrangement with Erap, who added his son Jinggoy to Villar’s caboodle, and said the public would not accept the transaction kindly, Erap merely quoted his new favourite Manny V --- “media play lang daw iyan”. And indeed, media, or most of it --- played along. Thus was neatly laid the predicates upon which Manuel Bamba Villar would anchor his quest for the presidency of the land.

Like his previous wont, he unleashed the power of advertising. First he re-launched the Nacionalista Party whose franchise he had earlier gotten from Doy Laurel in his California death bed. Full-page ads pictured him as the magnanimously successful entrepreneur who wanted to help budding entrepreneurs. Then came the TV infomercials, where he zeroed in on the plight of the OFW’s. And now, his new TV ads show him waddling into the muddy banks of a (Pateros?) estuary, in the company of itiks and a mag-iitik, who the storyline goes, Mr. Itik helped recover his entrepreneurial bearings. The final tagline sounded a bit poignant, where mag-iitik beside Mr. Itik says, “Kapag galing sa hirap, tumutulong sa mahirap” (Did I get that right?).

What do the surveys say the masa want in a leader? Galing sa hirap. Alam kung paano tulungan ang mahihirap. And finally, sadyang tumutulong sa mahihirap. “Mismo!”, the OFW and the Mr. Itik ads want to picture Manuel Villar, the man who, at all cost and no matter what, wants to be president of the benighted land. Such a great tale. Swak na swak. And the upward-inching surveys show that it pays to advertise. And it pays to have the money to advertise big.

Will Manuel Villar therefore methodically capture Malacanang? Will his optimal use of money buy him the post, as his optimal use of the same got him lower but powerful positions in the past? It seemed like that indeed. In early August, most everyone who wanted to be senator wanted to join the early Villar “bandwagon”. He had successfully invented and re-invented his loyalties from FVR to Erap to Gloria to Erap once more. He had a party that promised to capture the Lakas and Kampi partisans who would be orphaned by the end of La Gloria’s reign and the inability to find a champion among their ranks. The Nacionalista Party was to be the willing repository of the nation’s trapos, con mucho gusto.

Until one fine day when a Ping Lacson discovered a curious double entry of 200 million pesos in the General Appropriations Act of 2008, for exactly the same project, but for a change of name of the street. What was C-5 had been re-named Carlos P. Garcia Avenue, after the late Boholano president who preceded La Gloria’s papa. And for C-5 there was 200 million; for C.P. Garcia, another 200 million. (Incidentally, it was a Boholano who pointed to Lacson the double entry). So, when the first budget hearing came, where NEDA, DOF and DBM would jointly walk the Senate Finance Committee through the maze of their macro-economic justifications for 1.4 trillion in the President’s budget, Lacson sprang the double-entry question at DBM’s Rolando Andaya, thinking that Malacanang or the DBM had sprung another of its usual tricks upon the kaban ng bayan.

Andaya, after consulting his staff, and with a naughty smile upon his lips, threw back the onus at the Congress who would transact his President’s budget. “It’s a congressional insertion”, he averred, and in the process tripped a land mine that would explode in the boundary of Paranaque and Las Pinas. Thus did the road right-of-way transactions of Manuel Villar unravel, in yet suspended striptease. Whether it would be an ST episode like Rosanna Roces fifteen years ago, or a full monty like Rosanna Roces does before painters, depends on how the revelations will unravel. Whether these revelations can be covered up by slick advertising and tons and tons of money, nobody knows at this point.

Already, the discovery of the C-5 double-take has corrupted Sipag at Tiyaga into Singit at Taga, later, C-5 at Taga. It can no longer be used for communication purposes. And so to the market Villar goes, first into the company of hand-picked OFW’s his munificence have benefited, and now, to the mag-iitik’s of Alan Cayetano’s bearings.

Already the C-5 double-take has cost Villar the presidency of the Senate, when his peers got dismayed at the initial findings where insertion did originate from him, and more damaging self-dealing revealed by Jamby Madrigal brought the issue to one of ethics, as a senator of the realm. They banded together in stealth to elect Juan Ponce Enrile to replace him. His once formidable Senate team has been deserted by Chiz Escudero and mirabile! --- Erap’s Jinggoy. Left defending him are the Pateros siblings, Pia and Alan, the former grudgingly, the latter vociferously. And Wednesday Group confreres Joker and Kiko. Nene Pimentel, in the twilight of his senatorial career that has spanned almost eighteen years, has chosen not to side with Enrile.

Pia Cayetano used to head the Committee on Ethics, along with Accounts, and Health, and even Natural Resources. She never convened the Ethics Committee, much less organized it, even when in 2007, La Miriam lodged a complaint against the imprisoned Sonny Trillanes. To the end of Villar’s presidency, Pia never organized Ethics. Now, Ping Lacson, the man who stumbled into the double-take, heads Ethics, by the grace of the new leadership and the new majority. He has organized, and Villar’s minority senators refuse to be organized. But because the committee has to move on, and hear not just the complaint against Trillanes, but the more politically explosive Madrigal complaint against Villar, the drama should soon unfold.

Shall it be striptease, or shall it be --- all the way? Will C-5 unravel the naked truth about Manuel Villar and his transactions on the way to power, or can his “media play lang iyan” and his humongous advertising budget, and all the monies he earned when he consolidated his real estate companies into Vista Land, and sold them at the market when the going was good, be enough to buy the esteem of the masa, enough to make him, president of the Republic in 2010?

“The Ethics of Mr. Itik” --- coming soon to the nearest StarMall cinemas.


Philippine Vendors Association said...

PVA views this Itik-Politik AD as having an embedded message of a "lame-duck presidency in the making."