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Business Mirror - The ARMM bill, ‘realpolitik’ and Bongbong Marcos

In The News
23 May 2011

By Butch Castillo / Omerta Business Mirror

business-mirror-opinion-omertaIn my previous column this week (“No stopping ARMM polls,” May 17 issue, BusinessMirror), I hazarded the guess that the administration-backed bill to put off the elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to 2013 would fail to get approval in the Senate for a technical reason.

I had gone along with the view of a number of senators that there was simply too little time left for a plenary debate over the bill before the current session adjourns on June 9. Those senators even described the House-approved bill and the Senate bill (HB 4146 and SB 2756) as “dead in the water” or a TKO.

Latest developments, however, have shown that this may not be the case after all, or that I may have spoken too soon.

Malacañang, it seems, has won Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s support for the bill, and this means Senate approval of the measure by a majority of the coalesced forces in that body is now in the cards.

You can be sure that behind the scenes, the persuasive powers of both Malacañang and the Office of the Senate President would be applied to secure a majority vote for the bill.

That’s why it may be a tad too early for those vigorously opposing the bill (mostly the political leaders in Mindanao, including former senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr.) to celebrate the demise of the measure, which they even described last week as “dead in the water.”

Actually, there are only nine session days left in the current session before its adjournment on June 9. That’s a very tight time frame for any piece of legislation, especially the ARMM bill (SB 2756), which has yet to be reported out by the Senate Committee on Local Government, headed by Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos.

Senator Marcos is still in Marawi City, where he has been holding consultations to get a pulse of the sentiments of the voters in the region. But he was scheduled to submit his report to the plenary by Monday at the earliest, which is cutting it much too close.

But why is approval of the measure still in the cards just the same?

At the exclusive breakfast meeting the other day hosted by this paper in which Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile was our featured guest, he responded to a question I asked on what he thinks would be the fate of the two most controversial bills (reproductive- health [RH] bill and the ARMM postponement bill) now going through the legislative wringer.

His answer: “I am against the RH bill, and I think the Senate will approve the postponement of the elections in the ARMM.”

Elaborating on the Senate’s position on the ARMM bill, he said that despite the objections from many quarters, the bill would be approved by the Senate to give the administration a chance to carry out its program of reforms in that part of the country.

He said: “It was you who made him president when he promised change and reforms. Let’s give him a chance to carry out those reforms in Mindanao.”

Besides, he added, the government has postponed ARMM elections at least seven times in the past, “so what harm can be done by one more postponement?”

From his tenor and language, it was clear that, as leader of the Senate, he would be shepherding this bill through the plenary debates until it is finally passed by the majority.

Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, one of the three minority members of the Senate, gave me what clearly was an informed reading of the implications of Enrile’s statements at the BM breakfast forum.

“That means he would be cracking the whip to muster enough votes for the measure. Experience has taught me that when the Senate President cracks the whip, it becomes easy to secure approval of a measure. I guess that’s called realpolitik. He only needs 13 senators to obtain a majority vote, including the four Liberal Party senators and Sens. Ping Lacson and Antonio Trillanes IV, plus several majority coalition members.”

The young senator recalled that at the Ledac meeting with President Aquino, he had raised a number of “principled objections” to the idea of postponing Muslim Mindanao elections to 2013.

Senator Cayetano said:

“I told the Ledac meeting that if the idea is to institute reforms in the region, could such reforms not be carried out just as well through the officials elected by the region’s electorate instead of through the caretaker officials that the administration was planning to appoint? Those pushing this measure could not provide a road map of sorts showing what particular reforms could be possibly undertaken more effectively by a set of appointed officials.

“And if the other intention is to synchronize the regional and national elections by 2013, would it not be more practical and sensible to allow the elections to push through on August 8 as scheduled with the understanding that those to be elected would only have an abbreviated two-year term each.”

Senator Cayetano pointed out that whoever gets elected or appointed in the ARMM would be presiding over a budget of more than P13 billion a year, including the national-budget outlay and the foreign aid coming from different countries, including the United States. He did not elaborate on this point, however.

Those who are apposed to the idea of postponing the ARMM polls have several other principled objections, he said. “But the main point is let’s not mess around with the aspirations for autonomy or self-governance of our Muslim brothers.” So there you are. Realpolitik would be at work in the decision-making process of the Senate. What a big letdown for the antis.

In the face of all this, however, there lingers a naughty thought in my mind.

What if, after his consultations with our Muslim brethren in Marawi and other parts, Senator Marcos emerges convinced that a postponement of the elections in that area would be a very bad idea fraught with political dangers, what would he do? He could always hold in abeyance the committee report, among other things. Obviously, his role in the whole scheme is very crucial.

Would the young and aspiring senator have the courage of his conviction? Just asking, of course.