On Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol capped his victory over Secretary to the Cabinet Leoncio Evasco Jr. by releasing photos of a Monday night Cabinet meeting in which the media was pointedly informed that Evasco did not attend. Some reports said that in the meeting, agencies previously under the Department of Agriculture—the National Food Authority, Philippine Coconut Authority, and the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority—were declared returned to Agriculture, after having been previously placed under the purview of Evasco; but other reports said the NFA was going to be placed directly under the President. But it seems Evasco may end up having the last word—a memorandum he submitted to President Duterte on Monday, laying out his view that the NFA administrator has some explaining to do, is being reported on by the media.
The Piñol photos were peculiar. The President was perched on an armchair flanked by members of the Cabinet arranged on chairs, resembling a courtesy call more than a Cabinet meeting (you know the drill for those, everyone seated at a long table, more often than not in the State Dining Room, following the practice begun during the Marcos administration; this is perhaps the first time in over 80 years that a Cabinet meeting has been laid out in this manner). But it is perhaps a more truthful picture, representing, more authentically, the President’s executive style. Academics, including Randy David, have coined a term for this style—sultanic rule. As David once put it, the President’s “approach to the complex work of governance is founded upon the presumed futility of conventional methods. He has no qualms about short-circuiting the requirements of formal institutions, believing these to be, at best, superfluous, and, at worst, dysfunctional… Instead of figuring out for ourselves how to master the routines of democratic statecraft, we have sought refuge in the decisiveness of sultanic rule. No matter how dubious the premises of these unorthodox solutions are, we scramble to find a warrant for them, even portraying them as inspired and born of native wisdom and experience.”
Like a pasha on a cushion, the President thus appears in public to validate the latest intrigue. Here, a whisper at the right moment is immune to thick wads of memoranda: Evasco, like a good bureaucrat, has found all the early-term executive orders and memoranda he’d successfully signed made meaningless not just by subsequent issuances, but simply by means of verbal statements. In this manner, Special Assistant to the President Bong Go and Secretary Piñol have systematically demolished what Evasco had tried to systematically build up. The pages and pages of talking points and charts—the ideological apparatus of the Crude Society—have ended up discarded, read only by Evasco and neither studied nor believed in, by anyone else, the Great Eagle Father included.
It may be that this allergic reaction to Evasco and his ways will actually ensure the regime change program of the ruling coalition. If it won’t be so different, then change can be welcomed by the pros. It will merely be a new era of mergers and acquisitions. There will be more to share because two major groups that previously had to be shared with—nationally elected senators with their mandates rivaling presidents and their nationwide perspective, and Supreme Court justices whose institutional power of review is fated to be stripped away—won’t matter as much as they did. Mayors will remain more powerful than governors, and congressmen may still get the chance to hold Cabinet portfolios as they’ve dreamed of doing for a generation, and while presidents won’t be as limited in their powers as they used to be, future speakers won’t have to play second fiddle to the powerless Senate presidents of the future.
These are only slight modifications to the overall scheme of things—and perhaps tidier in the long run. The fate of Boracay—its entire economy and even the physical mobility of its residents and visitors alike—has been so easily decreed from on high, so completely decided by the pasha’s whims. It turns out Imperial Manila was only bad so long as it was held by someone who’d spent their career in Manila. Give it to someone from outside and it’s no problem at all, because now it’s simply known as political will.