Arroyo fields her ‘Imperial Guard’
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo 2006-01-23
A SERIES of miscalculations leading to the French defeat in the Battle of Waterloo ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial ambition. Marshall Ney’s slapdash chase of the Duke of Wellington ended up in decimating the French cavalry. Marshall Ney found out too late that he had steered his cavalry into the enemy’s lair where a solid formation of British squares were waiting to mow them down with rifle fire and bayonet steel. In the horizon emerged a swelling horde of Wellington’s Prussian reinforcements.
In desperation, Napoleon fielded his finest troops—the Imperial Guard—for a final assault of the British position before the Prussians can reinforce Wellington. Until that time, these French elite troops had neither been vanquished nor had even retreated from the enemy. But even the Imperial Guard could not reverse the inevitability of defeat. Since then, the sleepy old hamlet of Waterloo in Belgium had become the catchword for describing devastating defeat.

The on-going Cabinet reshuffle of Madame Gloria M. Arroyo and her recent appointments in the military reminds me of Napoleon’s last ditch stand at Waterloo. In desperation, she now fields her most trusted ‘imperial guards’. Her 2004 campaign spokesman, Mike Defensor, has been designated Chief of Staff. An original Arroyo staffer, Rene Velasco (who is currently PIA Director General) is reported to be taking over the Presidential Management Staff while Arroyo political operator Ronnie Puno is leaving his congressional seat to call the shots at the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

Preceding these Cabinet appointments—Arroyo named Maj. Gen. Gabriel Habacon to the critical post of commander of the Southern Command and Rear Adm. Tirso Danga, Intelligence chief during the "Hello Garci" tapes episode, as chief of the Western Command. Former AFP Chief of Staff and now Senator Rodolfo Biazon immediately questioned the controversial promotions of these two generals who had been implicated for having a direct hand in massive cheating in the 2004 elections. Biazon said that the two promotions can trigger another round of restiveness in the military.

Last Wednesday, Senator Jun Magsaysay echoed Biazon’s warning about renewed restiveness in the military, one that is initiated by junior officers and coming at the heels of the jailbreak of four more Magdalo officers.

These recent developments lead us to wonder if the ‘imperial usurper’ in Malacanang is now unleashing her ‘imperial guards’ to brace her crumbling redoubt.

At a time when we are woefully breaching record poverty levels and social unrest, we are presented with these three cabinet appointees whose common credential is being an Arroyo political operator. So why is it so hard to believe her spin on economic reform? How can we then not conclude that her only agenda is political survival?

Of the three appointments, it is the DILG takeover by Ronnie Puno that stirs a lot of controversy. Mike Defensor and Rene Velasco are filling previously announced vacated posts. But Ronnie Puno is not. Puno is replacing a known trusted and important ally of Arroyo—Angie Reyes. Not only that, Reyes is perceived as a performing asset in DILG and reports say that Angie does not want to leave the department. So why fix what ain’t broke?

Under normal circumstances, if Angie Reyes (one of those to whom Arroyo owes her 2001 ascendancy) wishes to remain in DILG, then he will remain in DILG. Under normal conditions, a secretary who is perceived as a performing asset is never replaced, especially in an important frontline agency like local government. Therefore, there must have been a very abnormal, pressing and urgent need that prompted Madame Arroyo to remove Angie Reyes from the post that he neither wants to leave nor deserves to be relieved of.

The aberration is not with the DILG nor with Reyes but with Madame Arroyo’s compelling urge to survive the political crisis that had put her in tenterhooks since the first broadcast of the Garci tapes. Just what is that need that urgently begs to be filled? Senator Nene Pimentel gives us an insight.

In a January 13 press release, Nene warned that Malacañang may be
grooming Antipolo City Congressman Ronaldo "Ronnie" Puno to become the next secretary of the DILG in order to influence, if not to directly manipulate, the result of the proposed plebiscite on Charter change (Cha-Cha).

"If Puno gets to assume the DILG post, then we may be seeing a replay of GMA's appointment of Virgilio Garcillano to the Commission on Election (Comelec), which we all know led to massive cheating in the 2004 elections," Pimentel said.

Author of the Local Government Code and previously a DILG secretary, Nene Pimentel was the same person who warned us about the appointment of Virgilio Garcillano to the Comelec. Now Nene warns us of what Ronnie Puno can do in the DILG, citing Puno's scandal-tainted stint at the DILG during the time of President Joseph Estrada.

"I see something sinister in the appointment to the DILG of Puno which is currently being floated in the media. To appoint Puno to a post which he had dragged into controversy many instances in the past will be a very big mistake for the administration since he is known as an 'operator' in the shadiest meaning of the word," Nene added.

Pimentel’s fears are valid. More than the cases he mentioned during Puno’s stint in the DILG, Puno was at the center of the controversy surrounding the Sulo Hotel Operation that the late highly-respected columnist Teddy Benigno exposed in his column in the Philippine STAR in 1992. Teddy Benigno wrote easily a dozen columns about Ronnie Puno and his role in that operation for which Puno sued Teddy for libel, a case that never prospered.

The Sulo Hotel Operation is reported to be responsible for the victory of former president Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) in 1992. FVR won the presidential election in 1992 by the skin of his teeth over Miriam Santiago with a mere plurality of 24.9% of the votes cast, representing a close 800,000 vote margin. The Benigno expose of the alleged election fraud that was carried out by the Sulo Hotel Operation fueled the suspicion that Santiago won the election but was cheated in the counting.

This perception was fed by the findings of the last SWS survey before the 1992 elections that showed Santiago and FVR statistically tied when the margin of error is factored. But more than the statistical stalemate, the same SWS survey showed FVR losing points and Santiago winning points (compared to the previous survey). In a situation of a statistical dead heat, the candidate who enjoys the upward momentum is the likely winner, especially when the other candidate shows a downward trend.

There may be more though to Ronnie Puno’s appointment than just the use of the DILG to ram through the Cha Cha. Many share the belief that Puno is being placed in the DILG to cover a vital area of operation in a scenario where Madame Arroyo decides to impose martial law, called by any other term. Next to the AFP, the DILG is the most important instrument of State security because of its control over the local governments and the national police. “All politics is local politics” as the saying goes and control over the local governments will be crucial in such an attempt to monopolize state control.

The best laid plans of mice and men often come to naught and a good friend who is also an astute political analyst made a very interesting observation about Ronnie Puno’s reported return to the DILG and his supposed mission. He said:

1. Ronnie Puno was allied with fallen despots. Ronnie Puno was at the corner of Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada and both presidents were ousted by People Power in the most humiliating fashion. Whether it is a case of bad karma or plain and simple bad luck, Puno appears to be the last man an embattled despot would want to have.
2. Puno is over rated. FVR campaign insiders say that the Sulo Hotel Operation did not really deliver the winning margin in 1992. Puno’s sponsor, Joe Almonte, only wanted to make it appear that way in order to gain brownie points with FVR.
3. Puno cannot lay claim to delivering the 1998 victory for Joseph Estrada. Estrada was simply too popular in 1998 and would have won with or without Puno in his corner.
4. The best measure of Ronnie Puno’s over rated vote manipulation reputation is that he failed to make his own brother Dong win in the 2001 senatorial elections. If Ronnie was not able to get Dong elected as one of twelve senators, just how effective can he be in a presidential contest where only one position is being filled?

Indeed, an ‘imperial usurper’ calling on her ‘imperial guard’ can only presage Waterloo.

You may email William M. Esposo at:

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