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Silver lining in the Alvarez-Floirendo feud: Oligarch loses

THE feud between Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and his former crony Antonio Floirendo is certainly such a messy scandal that critics of the administration have been discoursing on it in gleeful triumph.

In his wishful thinking, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV’s minion, party-list congressman Gary Alejano, has even jumped up and down to claim that it would lead to President Duterte’s losing his hold over Congress, making his impeachment a sudden possibility.

There is a silver lining though to this cloud that has appeared in Duterte’s political firmament, even very good news for us ordinary citizens, which is really plain to see: Surprisingly, in this oligarch-ruled country, it is the big businessman Floirendo, an oligarch since the Marcos era, who appears to be the loser in this feud.

Whatever the emotional reasons for it—one account claimed Floirendo told the speaker’s girlfriend in the crassest manner that he was Alvarez’s financial lord—the feud has led to the speaker triggering a corruption case against an oligarch who had been his and Duterte’ s big financial backer in the 2016 elections.

Alvarez’s political career had seemed over when the Liberal Party faction in President Arroyo’s Cabinet got her to fire him as transportation secretary on the ground that he and several other government officials were involved in the alleged corruption in the construction of the NAIA Terminal 3 in 2001. Despite his achievements during his stint as transport secretary, Alvarez had to grapple with a graft suit filed against him and several other transportation department officials involving the NAIA Terminal 3.

IN HAPPIER TIMES. Speaker Alvarez and big businessman Floirendo, with (right) the latter’s partner, Cathy Binag, who had a verbal altercation with the speaker’s girlfriend Jennifer Vicencio (inset) that led to the two lawmakers’ feud.

After five years, and huge legal costs for him, the suit was dismissed in 2010. Probably because of the financial and emotional costs of that suit, Alvarez’s political career in Davao del Norte seemed ended, with Liberal Party stalwart Antonio Rafael del Rosario winning his former post as congressman for Davao del Norte’s first district for two terms.

Alvarez’s financier
As things turned out, though, Alvarez would manage a political resurrection through the 2016 national elections. He and other Davao politicians and big-businessmen threw their lot with the Davao City mayor’s presidential bid, with Alvarez piggy-backing on his long-time buddy Duterte’s popularity but financed mostly by Floirendo, who was also one of the biggest, if not the biggest, financiers of the President’s electoral campaign. Floirendo’s donation was a reported P75 million, although this could in reality have been at least P200 million, sources said, given politicians’ and donors’ penchant for under-declaring their actual donations.

Moreover, it wasn’t only the fact that Duterte backed Alvarez that made him the House Speaker. It was Floirendo’s political and business network—which was built up starting in the Marcos era by his late father Antonio, the strongman’s biggest crony in Mindanao—that was mobilized to put Alvarez in the speaker’s throne. Without Floirendo, Alvarez most probably wouldn’t have become speaker.

Isn’t that such a perfect illustration of the old Marxist theory that the state, to paraphrase the Communist Manifesto, “is nothing but the executive committee of the ruling class to manage the common affairs of the bourgeoisie”?

For whatever reason—pride, loyalty to his mate, or even overpowering biological urges—Alvarez has gone against his financier, and refused to be the lackey of the Davao “bourgeoisie” who can insult him anytime. And Duterte seems to be backing him.

If such a quagmire had occurred during the previous Aquino presidency, I’m sure he and everyone in the Yellow Cult would have rushed to patch things up, and keep the feud under wraps. The dogma would have been the political class cannot defy the economic ruling class, which after all really controls the country.

In the Alvarez-Floirendo feud though, Duterte hasn’t bothered to calm Alvarez down, and I haven’t heard or seen a report that the two were called by the President to settle things in front of him. Alvarez consequently has turned the wheels of his political machine that is the Congress against Floirendo.

House resolution
He asked the House of Representatives to issue a resolution asking the justice department to investigate the allegedly anomalous 25-year lease by the Floirendo banana producer company, Tadeco, of the Bureau of Corrections’ lands that Tadeco has been using for its plantation. The lease actually was first given in 1969 and renewed every 25 years since. Alvarez even did his homework well to focus not on other possible violations (for example, that the lease wasn’t bid out) the firm could have committed, but on a very easy-to-prove, even air-tight, one: Floirendo was a congressman when the lease was renewed in 2003, which is a clear violation not just of any law, but of the Constitution itself.

Section 14, Article VI of the Constitution bars senators or congressmen from having direct or indirect business interests “in any contract with, or in any franchise or special privilege granted by the government, or any subdivision, agency, or instrumentality thereof, including any government-owned or controlled corporation, or its subsidiary, during his term of office.”

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II obliged, saying his department will investigate the allegation. The allegation though appears to be an open-and-shut case in that Duterte’s credibility will suffer if the case against Floirendo is withdrawn.

Alvarez—and Duterte—may in fact be proving the more modern Marxist theory of the state: that while the state is based on the ruling class’ agreement for it to exist, it has what has been called “relative autonomy”. In the form in which political scientist Nicos Poulantzas expounded the theory, the state, and the politicians and bureaucrats that run it, is not just an instrument of the ruling class, but at times defies the interests of that class.

Welfare states
That explains the phenomena in several countries in which the state went against the interests of oligarchs and big capitalists, to create societies that made life worthwhile not only for the rich but for the bulk of its population, whether they are powerless or asset-less. This is what occurred in the Scandinavian welfare states, and in Canada, as well as in Japan, and in certain aspects in all countries we call developed nations.

Let’s not kid ourselves. While the masses—the “people”—of course played a big, even deciding, role in the 2016 elections that put Duterte in power, even he had to rely on the resources of a faction of the ruling class, mostly of course those in Mindanao who were not within the loop of our Manila-based national elite.

That one of Duterte’s two main political lieutenants, even for petty reasons, has gone against an oligarch, and he has done nothing to stop him, is an indication of this government’s strong “relative autonomy” from the ruling class. In a roughly similar style, Duterte has allowed Environment Secretary Gina Lopez to defy the mining elites that include even some of his biggest Mindanao-based campaign donors.

Perhaps this administration will prove to be—I certainly hope—the most independent from the ruling class among Philippine Presidents. That would be such a fundamental break from this country’s sorry past.