A Priest in Power

The author is a Kapampangan who specializes in local governance . This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, June 11, 2007  edition, page S1/4.

Day 1 for Father Eddie Panlilio as Pampanga Governor is scheduled to start from the stroke of noon, June 30, 2007, on a formal occasion that will see him taking his oath of office.  His will take the 26th frame in a gallery of governors who had held the post since 1901. He is the first priest ever elected to public office.

The event will cap a dramatic campaign that drew broad support from a cross section of Kapampangans and surfaced again a Catholic Church debate over its policy that keeps priests from running for or holding government posts. Father Panlilio’s bid saw some bishops taking a stand in his defense, with some others against.

But nobody argues with success. The victory was a vindication that even the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has chosen not to overlook. The Governor-elect was congratulated, although “with sympathy.”

Congratulations with sympathy?  The bishops know the formidable enemy that the good Father has sought to do battle with – the “embedded, ingrained and systematic [sic] political problems.”  And the seminary, the bishops warn, has not trained him for this.

Without the bishops saying it, no Church help is forthcoming.  Father Panlilio remains under suspension, apparently to forestall any breach in the wall separating the church and the state. He’s on his own. And as the bishops said in another context, let’s keep it that way.

Meanwhile, the earthly issues remain. I took my cue from CBCP’s “sympathy” note, and jotted down some thoughts of my own, curious as to how a man of the cloth who just took a leap from his parish into power will behave, given the scenario.

Governance is a game of power played by politicians and others, and how they play it defines (to cite Hedrick Smith) how government really works. Your ticket to playing is some measure of power or influence on issues.

On account of his position, the governor is a player, whether he likes it or not. He has to play, and play actively. The passive is the prey. The rules and rituals of the game are those of the prince, neither of the Church nor of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s, but of Machiavelli’s.

Where number counts as measure of power, then Father Panlilio is off to a bad start – he’s alone.  He ran with nobody to point to as running mate, let alone as slate. It’s an invitation for trouble. Before it comes, he must go forth and multiply, but this will cost him.

His Vice-Governor is Kampi and proud of it, but even prouder of his friendship with Mikey Arroyo, the bigatin son.  The way of the power game is such that every “vice” nurtures the dream of taking the place of his chief.  If he chases his dream aggressively, it’s most likely at the governor’s expense. Will Father turn the other cheek?

Spared by law from his previous spare-tire function, the vice-governor sits now as presiding officer of the sangguniang panlalawigan, or local legislature—the center field of the local power game.  Pampanga has 10 members elected in four sanggunian districts; seven of those who won in the last elections are affiliated with either the “quarry lord” or the spouse of the reputed “jueteng lord” who both lost to Father Panlilio. Added to these are the members ex officio.

The sanggunian is policy. It holds the power of the purse: it authorizes the budget and enacts measures on taxes, finance, loans and like others. It approves the development and investment plans.  No contract may be entered into by the governor unless he is authorized by the sanggunian to do so.

Skillful legislators hostile to the governor can turn, say, the budget approval process into a lethal tool to maim him with, functionally and politically.  An executive-legislative standoff tends to leave more harm to the executive than to legislators.  On stormy days, as the Chinese say, the tree that stands tall is the tree that is battered most.

The name of the game is coalition work, the “heart of governing.”  What keeps it beating is compromise, the trading of something for something.  What and how much each of the parties is willing to yield often decide the issue. So, leverage is key.

But the good Father seems to have little of it, too, to begin with.  The Executive power vested by law is in execution, and on key areas, it presupposes policies in place, which brings you back to the sanggunian.  Catch-22.

Popularity?  Less euphorically, his electoral mandate derives from a very slim margin of 1,147 votes, a mere 0.15 percentage point over his nearest rival.  It was a minority win for candidate Father Panlilio, getting only 28.82% of the total votes cast of 762,448.  Opposing camps may read this as a small policy mandate for his “alternative” stance.

But Father won by way of muscle, machinery, and money volunteered by cabalen supporters, and that’s a strong moral point going for him.  Scoring a big power point out of this is precisely the issue.

Then there is the message. Father ran a campaign with a “platform of government” that was largely a list of trite slogans that never bothered to say more. While he emerged victorious at the end of the day, it will be a blunder to assume that governing enjoys the same chance of success, even without picking priorities as agenda items.

The point is focus.  Although he has yet to train his in sharper fashion, the focus is fixed so far on jueteng and corruption. Against the hurried backdrop shown above, his chosen battle bears figurative marks of Thermopylae.  The aim is less to win than to sound a moral call so clear and so convincing for legion to follow later.  It’s his department.

Noon of June 30 is an opportune time.  I offer an imagined scenario. Concluding his inaugural, Father Eddie Panlilio faces his “300” Leonidas-like, and breaks a moment’s silence with his cry for action:

“Kapampangans ! Now is the time for glory. Now is the time to try!”

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