COMMENTARY | Man of the hour

January 22, 2018 - 10:32 AM
President Rodrigo Roa Duterte shares a light moment with House Speaker Pantalon Alvarez as the latter celebrated his birthday at the New Tagum City Hall in Davao del Norte on Jan. 12, 2017. (Photo by Karl Norman Alonzo/Presidential Photo)

House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez has a lot of reasons to have a special birthday celebration this month — a week-long lavishly spent birthday celebration to be exact. He is the man of the hour, if not the man of the year.

This year, 2018, he holds in his hands the future of the country as he promises to bulldoze a new constitution through Congress, with or without the Senate, by May. The question of course is if he is capable of achieving this feat, given the complexity of the amendment process, the actors involved, and the political horse-trading that the activity entails. But Alvarez’s talent is not in horse-trading. His political skill does not rely on this traditional but tedious patronage game. He relies on pure shock and awe politics.

Alvarez’s penchant for blitzkrieg politics – the type that does not hard-sell as much as it force-feeds – can be traced to his faith on his ability to get away with things.

Earlier on as the Transportation Secretary of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, he has managed to squeeze through a criminal indictment in the Sandiganbayan for putting up a corporation that would eventually be awarded a NAIA Terminal 3 contract by his very own office.

Possibly encouraged by this experience — of how one can easily go around the system of accountability by sheer power and influence — Alvarez would have realized that the rule of law in the Philippines is a purely theoretical construct, and that what matters most is muscle, and the political will to do whatever one wants regardless of accountability or consequences.

The ascension of Duterte to power as President ushered in an age of impunity that would be a godsend to Alvarez and other like-minded politicians. There is a certain type of men and women that thrive in these waters, people of ambition and unscrupulous nature.

Our kind of elitist patronage politics has trained, nurtured, and rewarded them through the years, even while the formalities of the law and a relatively empowered civil society attempted to keep their abuses in check. But this time, it was to be different. This time there will no longer be laws or checks. It was only therefore appropriate that Duterte will take one among them – previously undistinguished in terms of national prominence — as his hatchet man in the House. Only Duterte knew his potential, to the eventual horror of those to be singled-out as their enemies.

To be sure, Alvarez is not alone in this mold of men crafted from what seems to be a 1970s workshop of bigotry and bad manners in the country’s forgotten boondocks, where political correctness or just plain common decency have never been heard of.

Shunning social refinement, proper decorum, and intelligent discourse which they reject as the misplaced “urbanidad” and pretentious decency of high society “oligarchs” of imperial Manila, they misconstrue ruffian behavior and gangsterism as the anti-thesis of, and therefore the only alternative to, the elitist upbringing of the comprador bourgeoisie and feudal landlords that controlled Philippine politics for the most part of their own lifetimes.

Unlike earlier social climbers into Philippine politics, Duterte’s gang, much like him, did not intend to mimic or ape the Philippine political elite of yore in their social graces and cultural refinement upon assuming national power.

They brought in their own type of unpretentious so-called “masa” politics with them to the national stage — in itself pretentious because of their own lavish lifestyles, and derogatory to the poor as they equate impoverished “masa” living with vulgarity and ill manners. This is the characteristic aspect of Dutertismo ascending on imperial Manila, and Alvarez was to be the poster boy of this brand of vulgar politics in all its revulsive brashness and unmitigated lack of civility, as much as — if not more than — its own namesake, Duterte himself.

Their type of politics was immediately displayed and demonstrated in a House of Representatives susceptible to all types of 20th century bigotry and misogyny, when they carried out a Salem-like witch-burning during the House hearings on the Bilibid Drug Trade.

Alvarez himself offered the halls of the National Legislature building itself as the venue for the exhibition of pornography in order to slut-shame me, and to serve as a warning to all women in positions of power who refuse to accept the resurgence of a violent patriarchy and its misogyny in Philippine politics. That is when we realized that Alvarez intends to out-Duterte Duterte himself, and that he was actually chosen as Speaker to make Duterte look good — not vicariously, but because when compared to Alvarez, Duterte might actually not seem so bad.

This is the Man of the Hour in charge of changing our Constitution and framing a new basic law for the country. This is the man who holds the future of our political life in his hands, a man who threatens not only individuals, but entire government institutions, like the Court of Appeals and the Commission on Human Rights.

He knows he is in power, and what his power is, and does not bother or care about the line between its use and abuse. Even close Duterte allies like former Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon are not spared from the abuse of this power, when Alvarez allegedly forced the appointment of favored individuals to choice Customs assignments.

The wanton display of power, privilege and indiscretion that characterizes Alvarez’s kind of politics thrives in the atmosphere of impunity created in the wake of Duterte’s EJK campaign against the poor and the marginalized.

With the breakdown of the rule of law, and murder having been introduced to the national consciousness as justifiable because it is necessary for Duterte’s so-called “social cleansing” project, the lines that must not be crossed in the exercise of power have not only been blurred. They have been made unnecessary.

The notion of the exercise of power for power’s sake has ceased to be a mere Machiavellian principle. Practiced under Dutertismo, it does not care about either the limits or standards of modernized society. Nothing is politically taboo. Everything can be pushed beyond the acceptance of civilized sensibilities, through a brand of politics that can be academically conceptualized as crass postmodernism.

That is how we can understand the hubris of the Speaker when he commits to ram down our throats a new constitution, and to hell with the Senate.

If he accomplishes this, he would have single-handedly made the Senate irrelevant, which is precisely one of the objectives of his proposed constitution — a nominal Senate tamed by a national assembly and ruled by Duterte and, upon his death, by Alvarez himself as Prime Minister.

Alvarez is still young at 60. He can still wait for the inevitability of Duterte’s passing.

There are of course the legal hurdles, but what is legal and justifiable can be easily managed through a pliant Supreme Court.

Alvarez is confident he holds the numbers in the Supreme Court. After all, the House has been successful in terribly compromising the institutional integrity of the Court when it succeeded in dragging down the justices from their perches to cast the dirt at their own Chief Justice before the congressmen – indeed a delightful spectacle for the enjoyment of what was previously the most derided assembly of politicians in the country — thereby undermining the Court’s imagined infallibility.

By prolonging the House hearings on the impeachment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Alvarez has managed to hold the Court hostage, with the high magistrates turning into a national curiosity in their own self-ignited bonfire. Suddenly, Alvarez’s own House no longer seems so dirty.

It is therefore no coincidence that the High Court is intentionally kept weak through the impeachment proceedings at a crucial time when it will also be called upon to decide on several crucial constitutional issues on the process of charter change, foremost of them being the constitutionality of the brazen act that Alvarez promises to perform: a constitutional assembly of the House, without the Senate.

Alvarez is the only House Speaker who has dared undermine the Senate as the House’s co-equal in a bicameral Congress, when he recently advanced the notion that one senator is no more than one congressman. This of course leads to the proposition that whether or not a single senator participates in the House’s constitutional assembly, the congressmen by themselves can muster the necessary three-fourths vote to draft a new constitution. Alvarez is confident he can convince a majority of the Supreme Court that it is in their best interest to see it his way.

Whether or not Alvarez will succeed is not difficult to predict. His record as Speaker speaks for itself. As former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban Jr. has already said, what Alvarez wants, Alvarez gets. Unfortunately for us, this time it is no longer about Alvarez managing to squeeze through an indictment for corruption in an airport contract, or Alvarez getting minions appointed to choice Customs assignments. This time it is already about the future of the nation, and the kind of society that our children will live in.