By Raïssa Robles
Taking into account two terms when he wasn’t elected he has sat in office a total of 17 years. He is now on his fourth term.
He has been Senate President for only four years – since November 17, 2008. Perhaps before that his fellow senators didn’t want to entrust Enrile, long linked to coup plots, with such a powerful position until he became safely old.
Even so, managing to stay as Senate President for four years is still a feat. That ranks him the third longest-serving official in that post since 1987, after Senators Franklin Drilon and Jovito Salonga.
He has made good on his election campaign slogan – Gusto ko happy ka [I want you to be happy].
He has kept everyone at the Senate happy – from the janitors to the senators in the minority bloc.
Lately, though, the Senate has been awash with reports that some senators were no longer happy with his leadership. Enrile has dismissed this as a “silly rumor” but said he was ready to stand aside anytime.
Later, I will discuss why this is likely to happen sooner than later.
But first, let me explain the peculiarities of the Senate Presidency.
The position is notoriously unstable: a Senate President is elected when he obtains 12 votes of his fellow senators, in addition to his own vote. The average shelf life of a Philippine senate president is one to two years only. The holder of the office has no fixed term and can be replaced anytime.
And for this reason, using the word “coup” to describe a turnover is not legally correct. Because a coup denotes an illegal removal. The media uses the term anyway because it’s shorter and more headline-grabbing.
The Senate President is powerful
The Philippine Senate is somewhat patterned after that of the United States but in the US, Senate “coups” never happen because the elected Vice-President automatically becomes Senate President. It appears to me that in the US, whoever is the VP-partner of the winning President is the one who gets elected.
The framers of the 1987 Philippine Constitution never adopted that set-up, perhaps because in our presidential system a Vice-President may come from the elected President’s rival party. If the VP automatically gets the Senate Presidency, that would skew the balance of power in government.
The Senate Presidency has the potential of making its occupant the second most politically powerful official in the land, depending on the force of his personality and the post’s built-in powers.
The Senate President has the following powers under the Constitution, the chamber’s own rules, practices and tradition:
- He has a big say on what laws and treaties the chamber should approve.
- He sets the political tone to take toward the President. His criticisms or praise of the President and his actions are carried on prime-time news.
- He controls the use of Senate funds.
- As ex-officio chairman of the bicameral Commission on Appointments, he has a big say on which presidential appointments are confirmed.
- He co-presides in impeaching a president and solely presides in impeachment all other impeachable officials.
The office could turn the occupant into a household name, making him a viable candidate for the presidency. The first-ever Senate President – Manual Quezon – became the first Philippine President under the American Commonwealth Period.
Seven other Senate Presidents in our history tried to use the office as a stepping stone to the presidency but only one – Ferdinand Marcos (1963-1965) succeeded. The rest failed: Jose Avelino (1946-1949), Jovito Salonga (1987 – 1991), Edgardo Angara (1993-1995), Ernesto Maceda (1996 – 1998), Aquilino Pimentel Jr. (2000-2001), Manuel Villar (2006 – November 2008).
I asked a veteran Senate insider, whom I will call “Omega”, when and why Senate Presidents get unceremoniously removed by their peers. Omega replied:
Whenever we had a Senate President with ambition for higher office or who was magulang (unfair) in the use of Senate funds.
Why Enrile replaced Villar
When Enrile replaced Villar on November 17, 2008, Omega said it was because Enrile was perceived by colleagues to be Villar’s exact opposite. Recall that before the housing magnate-turned-politician was unseated, Senator Jamby Madrigal had accused Villar of, among others,
allegedly using his position of power and authority to influence public officials in relocating the C-5 Road Extension Project to deliberately pass thru his properties…redounding in huge benefits for him to the detriment of the Filipino people thereby resulting in a blatant conflict of interest.
Villar dismissed this as a lie, but Enrile himself testified in a Senate probe that Villar had used his office to “earmark” P200 million in the 2008 national budget for the C-5 road project.
In his newly-issued autobiography, Juan Ponce Enrile: A Memoir, Enrile justified his action against “my friend Villar… (as) just part of the political landscape in the run-up to the presidential elections of 2010.”
Enrile’s long-time political ally and friend, Joseph Estrada, was running for president again. The two went back a long way – back to when they formed the Grand Alliance for Democracy (GAD) Party in 1987 and won Senate seats.
Enrile is a nimble survivor of political disasters. He lost his first Senate run in 1971 but returned to power as the dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ defense chief and Martial Law administrator for 14 years. In 1986, he eluded arrest for allegedly plotting against Marcos by going over to the camp of opposition leader Corazon Aquino. When the Marcoses fled, he became her defense secretary as part of the deal. Later accused of also trying to topple Mrs Aquino, he made himself politically invincible by winning a Senate seat.
Enrile is used to political intrigues. In his memoir, he revealed how he dealt with one that catapulted him to the Senate Presidency. He recalled that:
Around late September 2008, Senate President Manuel “Manny” Villar talked to me and to Senator Honasan. He said that a group of Senators were actively seeking his ouster as Senate President and he identified some of those involved in the effort – Senators Loren Legarda, Mar Roxas, Jamby Madrigal, and Ping Lacson.
In so many small conversations that we had, Manny Villar had said that he did not believe any move to oust him would succeed unless I myself got involved. I knew that he was thinking that if I was interested in the senate presidency, some variables in the equation could change, perhaps because of my relationship with Greg Honasan and the Estradas and to the other Senators as well. I assured him that I had no interest in taking the senate presidency…
Reading that last line made me imagine a purring cat, moments before lunging at a mouse. Because barely two months after Villar and Enrile started talking, Enrile had displaced him.
Villar only lasted two years; Enrile is about to complete his fourth year in the post.
How did he do that?
My guess is that he took his election campaign slogan to heart – Gusto ko, happy ka (I want you to be happy.)
Enrile’s happy moments
During his first Christmas as Senate President, he wowed all senate employees with a generous cash gift of P60,000 each, Omega told me. Every Christmas thereafter has been equally wonderful.
In contrast, the Christmas bonus during the Senate Presidency of Villar and Franklin Drilon was only P40,000 each and P26,000 each, respectively.
Omega also revealed that each employee gets an additional monthly allowance of around P10,000 on top of salaries. And Enrile “donated” P50 million pesos to the Senate Employees Fund.
His Senate peers, who fondly address him as Manong Johnny, are recipients, too. Enrile shares with them his own allocation from the Countrywide Development Fund, or pork barrel.
Unlike some previous Senate Presidents who showered their protegés in the Senate with more CDF, Enrile has not openly played favorites but has released senators’ funds in an equitable manner.
Omega’s revelations were confirmed by a Philippine Daily Inquirer story last Friday entitled Enrile may lose senate presidency anytime says senate insider. Veteran political reporter Cathy Yamsuan wrote that –
Fears of a Senate coup remain a hot topic among the chamber’s employees. A common sentiment is that Senate workers like Enrile because he is generous with year-end bonuses for them.
Yamsuan indicated that the plot against Enrile had moved beyond talk and a headcount was underway.
Ironically, it seems things are coming to a full circle for Enrile. Because it is Villar – who recently made an alliance with President Aquino’s Liberal Party – who may yet deliver the death blow to Enrile’s Senate Presidency.
Enrile, in his memoir, recalled that the magic number for replacing a senate president was 13. He said –
I always maintained that whoever had 13 votes would be Senate President. In that sense, the senate presidency has no fixed term. There is no other way to look at it, except if a majority of the senators were committed to such an ‘arrangement’.
But why replace Enrile who has made the Senate such a happy place to work?
I can think of 5 reasons
First, the 2013 electoral battle is shaping up to be a fight between:
- the bloc of Enrile, Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Vicente Sotto, Vice-President Jejomar Binay and Joseph Estrada
- against that of President Benigno Aquino III and Senators Villar (Nacionalista Party) and Angara (LDP)
Politicians of all stripes maintain that whichever political bloc attains control of the two chambers of Congress would have a head-start in the 2016 presidential race.
Second, whoever controls the Senate can damage political rivals with high-profile Senate investigations on corruption. It was what the Enrile-Estrada group did to Villar in early 2010, ahead of the presidential polls.
Third, the Senate President controls the legislative agenda. Enrile has been blocking the passage of a Reproductive Health Law and has been pushing for a highly watered down tax on liquor and tobacco. His bailiwick is the tobacco producing province of Cagayan.
Fourth, the Senate President controls the chamber’s sizable discretionary funds. You’d be amazed how much of the Senate’s money – OUR money – get disbursed without any itemized post-audit.
And fifth, when Congress goes on recess for the elections next year, the following 12 senators whose terms will expire in 2016 will be left as hold-overs in the chamber:
Enrile, Sotto and Jinggoy Estrada, who currently hold the top Senate leadership.
Three from the Liberal Party – Franklin Drilon, Teofisto “TG” Guingona III and Recto
Two from the Nacionalista Party – Pia Cayetano and Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos
Two from Lakas Party – Bong Revilla and Lito Lapid
And two Independents – Miriam Santiago and Sergio Osmeña
If Enrile stays on as Senate President – the way he did during the post-2010 election period – this could enhance his chances of getting re-elected to the same post when the new Congress convenes in July 2013. This would mean the Senate would continue to be controlled by the Enrile-Jinggoy-Sotto- Binay bloc.
This is not a palatable prospect for the presidential palace.
But, you might ask – does it really matter to the nation which bloc controls the Senate?
But right now it doesn’t, because whichever bloc controls it has no genuine political reform in mind. For instance, neither the Binay nor the Aquino bloc is prepared to enact a law barring political dynasties, in order to implement this 1987 Constitutional provision.