Eight Cabinet members resign

- Des Ferriols, Edu Punay -
Eight members of President Arroyo’s official family, including her economic team, and two other officials resigned yesterday and urged her to also step down to defuse a political crisis triggered by vote-rigging allegations.

The resigning Cabinet members, including Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima and Budget Secretary Emilia Boncodin, criticized Mrs. Arroyo’s management style and said she should quit to spare the Philippines further turmoil.

The others who also quit were Trade Secretary Juan Santos, Education Secretary Florencio Abad, presidential adviser on the peace process Teresita Deles, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, Agrarian Reform Secretary Rene Villa and National Anti-Poverty Commission secretary general Imelda Nicolas. Bureau of Customs chief Alberto Lina and Bureau of Internal Revenue chief Guillermo Parayno also quit.

Many of them were quickly replaced by new officers-in-charge, according to Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye.

Designated to fill some of the vacated posts effective immediately were Mario Relampago, Department of Budget and Management; Roberto Tan, Department of Finance; Thomas Aquino, Department of Trade and Industry; Ramon Bacani, Department of Education; Nasser Pangandaman, Department of Land Reform; and Lualhati Pablo, Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Bunye added that Benedicto Bitonio Jr. was appointed to replace Roy Señeres, who resigned from his post as National Labor Relations Commission chairman earlier this year after he was earlier linked to attempts to destabilize the government. He denied the allegations.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said that except for Purisima, the five Cabinet officials, two Cabinet-ranking officials and two sub-Cabinet officials actually submitted their courtesy resignations in response to the President’s order during a radio broadcast last Thursday night.

Secretary Silvestre Afable Jr. said he will stay on as chief peace negotiator for the government in the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front but that he had permanently resigned his Cabinet post as communications director.

"I am determined to work with the MILF and the Malaysian government and all our allies for peace toward a final accord hopefully by yearend," Afable said, adding that the President has approved his continued heading of the peace panel.

Mrs. Arroyo had called on her entire Cabinet to tender their resignations the night before, in what was quickly dubbed a "Thursday night massacre."

Ermita refused to describe the breakaway group as "traitors," but other Cabinet members loyal to Mrs. Arroyo were not as restrained in their language.

Environment Secretary Michael Defensor described the officials who resigned as "treacherous" while Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez said they resigned en masse to make themselves "appear like heroes and the rest of us as villains."

The officials who quit said Arroyo should allow Vice President Noli de Castro to replace her as this would be "the least disruptive and painful option that could swiftly restore normalcy."

"The longer the President stays in office under a cloud of doubt and mistrust, and with her style of decision-making, the greater the damage to the economy and the more vulnerable the fragile political situation becomes to extremists seeking to undermine our democracy," the group said in a statement.

The stock market fell over one percent on the news while the peso plunged to 56.44 against the dollar, a hair’s breadth away from its all-time low of 56.45 to $1 recorded on March 22 last year.

The Philippines has been in turmoil for weeks over allegations that Mrs. Arroyo, 58, conspired with election officials to fix her victory in last year’s presidential election.

The scandal was sparked by the release in early June of wiretapped telephone conversations in which Mrs. Arroyo was purportedly heard plotting with a senior election official to fix a one-million-vote victory margin.

Arroyo apologized late last month for improperly telephoning an election official during the vote count but denied cheating. She is facing impeachment charges over the allegations.

Adding to her woes are accusations that her husband, son and brother-in-law took payoffs from illegal lottery operators and the Supreme Court’s decision last week to freeze a controversial new tax.

The Cabinet members who resigned criticized Mrs. Arroyo, a United States-educated economist, for putting her interests above the country and clinging to office even though the scandals were damaging the country’s economy and credibility.

They said they were not making any judgment on the vote-rigging allegations but the claims had undermined "the ability of our President to continue to lead and govern our country with the trust and confidence of our people."

They had already decided to step down before Mrs. Arroyo sacked her Cabinet late Thursday night, they said.

"The President preempted our moves. This preemption does not change our conviction that her decisions as of late are guided mainly by her determination to survive as president," they said.

Last Thursday, Mrs. Arroyo said she had asked her Cabinet to resign to give her the freedom to push economic and political reforms, but that her new team would have a "free hand on governance."

"It is simply the truth that the political system that I am part of has degenerated to the point that it needs fundamental change," she said on live radio and television.

The President, whose second term expires in 2010, had earlier said she would prioritize plans to change the two-chamber congressional system to a single parliament when Congress resumes session to speed up the passage of laws.
Worse Than Politicians
Defensor, in a televised interview, lashed out at the officials who quit their posts and urged Mrs. Arroyo to follow suit.

"If you are still a member of the Cabinet, you should keep quiet but if you must speak your mind or criticize, there is a proper time for it. But if you are still inside, and you come up with this scheme to undermine the presidency and throw her out, mas nakakatakot pa iyan. Mas politiko pa sila sa politiko (that is scary. They are more political than the politicians)," he said.

Gonzalez said he had heard rumors and received text messages about the plans of the breakaway group led by Purisima, but did not give them any credence because he relied "on their body language" during Cabinet meetings held in the past few days.

"But of course, we cannot really read the hearts and minds of these people and all of a sudden, this is what happened. They probably tried to do this to appear like heroes and the rest of us as villains," he said.

Gonzalez noted that in the latest Cabinet meeting he attended, "we could already sense that some of these people have a certain agenda which they could not yet fully express."

He pointed to Purisima in particular as the "most vocal" in asking the President to send her husband on exile abroad.

Gonzalez took Purisima and his group to task, saying they "went to town and even attacked the President" instead of quietly complying with her order for them to submit their courtesy resignations.

He reiterated that Cabinet members like him had no rights to their government posts, which they owed the President since she appointed them.

Defensor recalled how Soliman cried last year when Mrs. Arroyo, in order to fulfill a pre-election promise, was set to replace her with De Castro.

He also said he had heard that Abad and Purisima had gone to Hong Kong to convince De Castro, who is on vacation there, to assume the presidency.

De Castro was in Hong Kong with his family to celebrate his 56th birthday and was called home last Thursday for an emergency meeting with Mrs. Arroyo a few hours before she announced the Cabinet sacking.

Defensor said he remains loyal to Mrs. Arroyo even after some of his own party mates in the Liberal Party decided to announce their breakaway from the administration coalition led by the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats party. Senate President Franklin Drilon, who is president of the LP, has also broken away from the coalition.

He also said he had heard rumors that Purisima had been meeting with bishops, business and other civil society groups to convince them to support De Castro.

Defensor added that Purisima also sought a meeting with Drilon, whom they want to take over the vice presidency and function as concurrent executive secretary should De Castro agree to succeed Mrs. Arroyo.

Neither De Castro nor Drilon were "in on" the plans to unseat Mrs. Arroyo, Defensor said, noting that "this was led by Purisima, who, I understand, would like to play God."

Defensor also accused Purisima as being the brains behind the tax evasion charges filed by Parayno against then agriculture secretary Arthur Yap, despite knowing the case was weak, to earn brownie points with his businessmen friends.

If Purisima "could do that to a friend, and if he could do that to the President, I could not think of anyone else to whom he would not do similar acts," he said.

Defensor confirmed it was Purisima’s group that had prodded the President into making a public apology about the controversial wiretapped recordings. He said he had objected to Purisima’s proposal since they were already delving into politics.

In a briefly worded resignation letter he tendered to the President yesterday, Presidential Management Staff Secretary Rigoberto Tiglao — another LP member — reiterated his support for Mrs. Arroyo and stressed that he did not agree with the stand taken by party mates Abad and Villa.

Tiglao said he believed that since 2001, Mrs. Arroyo’s administration had "made substantial gains toward building the republic and improving the lives of our nation’s poorest."

He added that despite the LP being "split down the line" over calls for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation, his loyalty "is first to the Constitution, next to the Chief Executive and last only to the party."

Energy Secretary Raphael Lotilla, Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas and Palace communications director Silvestre Afable also tendered their courtesy resignations but sources said they declined to sign the collective statement calling for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, who assumed office only last June 1, also tendered his courtesy resignation and expressed confidence that Mrs. Arroyo asked her Cabinet members to do this "to improve governance in the various departments."

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo tendered his courtesy resignation as he warned that the country is in a "politically precarious situation." He called on Filipinos to respect the law and the democratic process to show the world the "maturity and sobriety of our democracy."

Romulo maintained that Mrs. Arroyo is the duly elected president and "her mandate shall remain in effect for as long as her authority is not invalidated by any constitutionally mandated or prescribed democratic process."
‘I’ll Play Golf’
At the Department of Finance, Purisima told reporters that he would stay until he has completed the turnover to the acting finance chief. He declined to speculate on who would take his place.

Looking exhausted, Purisima declined to comment further on the issue, saying he and his group agreed to cease making public statements.

"I’ll be playing golf," he said when asked what he intends to do once his five-month stint as finance secretary is over.

Purisima had figured prominently in earlier reports of rumblings within the Cabinet, beginning with the fateful meeting last June 25 when 12 Cabinet secretaries made a presentation recommending swift and immediate action to address the scandals involving the First Family.

He was also rumored to have reacted in anger to the Supreme Court’s decision to freeze the expanded value-added tax (EVAT) and threatened to resign because he suspected the SC ruling was brought about by Malacañang.

"This better not be the government’s idea," Purisima was quoted as saying.

Purisima, whose father is retired SC justice Fidel Purisima, reportedly found out through his own sources that Mrs. Arroyo urged the court to suspend the EVAT to dampen mounting protests against her presidency.

He was depending on the EVAT to increase the government’s revenue by as much as P106 billion next year and ease the budget deficit.

Despite Purisima’s resignation, National Treasurer Omar Cruz said he was staying on at his post to "maintain market order."

At the Department of Land Reform, public affairs service director Hugo Yonson quoted Villa as saying that he and his group resigned "to prevent extremists from taking over."

"But he did not elaborate what the term extremists means... whether that would be the left or some other groups," Yonson said.

Villa arrived at the DLR central office in Quezon City around noon yesterday to say farewell to his subordinates.
Varied Reactions
Amid fears some officers could again try to intervene, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Efren Abu told soldiers to stay out of the crisis.

The military had played a key role in the massive uprising that unseated the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Factions also launched a series of deadly coup attempts in the late 1980s and a bloodless mutiny in 2003.

"The soldier has the duty to protect this political exercise. He is not expected to intervene in it," Abu said in a written directive read on nationwide television.

Police forces in Metro Manila went on full alert and additional contingents were securing Malacañang Palace to prevent rowdy demonstrations that could disrupt government services, National Capital Region Police Office chief Director Vidal Querol said.

"There are situations and we don’t want the police to get caught flat-footed," he said without elaborating.

For his part, Negros Occidental Rep. Ignacio Arroyo, the President’s brother-in-law, said the resignation of the 10 Cabinet members is nothing but a conspiracy to hold on to power and that these officials are willing pawns of power brokers.

"They will hold hostage any chief executive to their agenda," Arroyo said, adding that they would plot the same conspiracy no matter who occupied the post of president.

He also said he would not call De Castro a traitor unless the Vice President publicly called for Mrs. Arroyo to step down.

Alliance of Volunteer Educators party-list Rep. Eulogio Magsaysay, in a statement, also called on Mrs. Arroyo to resign because most Filipinos have lost trust in the government.

He lauded the 10 Cabinet members "for giving up their posts in favor of the future of the country," describing the move as an "unselfish act." — With reports from Marichu Villanueva, Aurea Calica, Sheila Crisostomo, Katherine Adraneda, Pia Lee-Brago, Antonieta Lopez, AFP, AP

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