Unfortunately, not in a teapot.
It appeared that Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senator Antonio Trillanes IV worked famously well with each other especially during the impeachment proceedings against Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato C. Corona earlier this year. In the afternoon of September 19, however, they turn their big guns on each other.
Prior to this exchange, the grapevine was rife with talk of a coup against Enrile’s leadership in the Senate. The complaint against Enrile? Tightfistedness over budget releases.
Trillanes fired the first shot accusing Enrile of railroading a bill that will create a new province–Nueva Camarines–to favor Rep. Dato Arroyo, a son of former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Trillanes accused Enrile of being GMA’s lackey. Enrile was accused of being eager to serve GMA’s preferences and at the same sitting of bills he did not favor such as the controversial Reproductive Health bill. Trillanes capped his speech by saying that he lost confidence in Enrile’s leadership and that he was leaving the Senate majority.
In a skillful re-framing (this point I owe to my younger colleague at the UP Department of Political Science, Jalton Taguibao) of the debate, Enrile cast doubts on the “quiet, secret and clandestine” meetings Trillanes had with Chinese officials regarding the country’s territorial disputes with China.
Parrying Trillanes’ answer that he was authorized by President Noynoy to act as back-channel negotiator, Enrile insisted that Trillanes should have sought his permission as Senate chief to leave the country and should have submitted proper reports to the Senate.
Further on, Enrile insinuated that a study of the notes made by former Ambassador Sonia Brady, who met with Trillanes on August 17, would show that the senator was “protecting” the Chinese. This is obviously convenient wording as Enrile could not yet brand Trillanes a traitor. That will happen days after when both senators continued their word war.
The attack continued. Enrile fired from another weapon and asked Trillanes: are you against me now because I disapproved your budget request for your oversight committee? The latter can only say that was not the case.
So the possible reason came from Enrile himself. The question: why did Enrile disapprove Trillanes’ budget request?
When Enrile started to read further from the Brady notes, Trillanes countered that the reading was irrelevant to the original matter of creating the new province of Nueva Camarines and walked out. The ever-ready Enrile quipped: “He’s a coward; he cannot take the heat.”
It is desirable that domestic differences be transcended in relation to the conduct of a country’s foreign policy. However, professors of international relations know that there is no great wall between domestic and international politics.
I am offering this reconstruction of the events based solely on open sources. A reconstruction is a reading, my reading of what happened. I could be right, I could be wrong. It is up to the reader to judge the plausibility of this reconstruction.
Trillanes was tasked by President Noynoy Aquino through Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa to do some back-channeling with the China with respect to the Scarborough Shoal issue. With respect to the Enrile-Trillanes dispute, it does not matter if President Aquino asked Trillanes first or if Trillanes volunteered himself. At the end of the day, the ultimate responsibility is with President Aquino. I do no think Trillanes went to China on his own.
What is the domestic political angle here? Trillanes is due for re-election in the May 2013. Some pogi (brownie) points will not hurt his re-election bid. If he can claim some success in resolving the dispute with China, then his political stock gets boosted. Why would President Noynoy entrust Trillanes, who is obviously an amateur on foreign policy notwithstanding his claimed contacts in China, with such task? Given the small number of senators, a senator is a member of almost all standing committees of the Senate. Logically, a senator cannot be an expert of the subject matter of all these committees. He may be considered an expert on the matters covered by the committee(s) he chairs. Trillanes chairs three committees–civil service and government reorganization, amateur sports competitiveness, and the oversight committee on government procurement. He is a member of the foreign relations and national defense and security committees.
The reason for the assignment? Simple. Trillanes is slated to join the administration’s senatorial slate for May 2013.
Trillanes’ appointment as back-channel negotiator to China apparently irked Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario especially since the former reportedly bad-mouthed him in Trillanes’ talk with our ambassador to China Sonia Brady. He complains about Trillanes’ role in a Philippine Daily Inquirer headline article published on September 19, 2012. In the same article, Trillanes typically hit back (remember his dressing down of Secretary Angelo Reyes during a Senate hearing on corruption within the military) saying if del Rosario did his work right, there would not be a need for a back-door negotiator.
Ambassador Brady took notes of her conversation with Trillanes notwithstanding the latter’s instruction against taking notes. The soon-to-be called Brady notes will find their way to Enrile. No need to ‘agonize’ about the “how” here since del Rosario is Brady’s boss.
Enrile is not the old wily fox for nothing; he has absolutely so much experience to get caught with his pants down. So when Trillanes fires his Nueva Camarines broadside, Enrile refused to be pinned down defensively. He counter attacked using the Brady notes; he even called Trillanes a fifth-columnist, an elegant euphemism for traitor. Even if the China issue was irrelevant, Enrile not only parried Trillanes’ thrust. The younger senator was now put on the defensive.
One last point. Enrile is not running for re-election in 2013 and will retire from politics next year. However, his son, Juan ‘Jackie’ Enrile, Jr. is aspiring to be senator in May 2013. Since Enrile pere is one of the three leaders (with Vice President Jejomar Binay and former President Joseph Estrada) of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), Enrile fils will join the UNA slate. Under the country’s electoral system, only the 12 candidates receiving the highest number of votes will be declared as senators. Under this system, all candidates are competing with each other. If Trillanes joins the administration slate, he will be competing not only with UNA candidates but with administration slate-mates. The same is true with Jackie Enrile.
One can say that the Trillanes-Enrile pere tussle is the opening salvo of the 2013 senatorial election campaign.