What should we make of President Duterte’s decision to fire Interior Secretary Ismael Sueno? It is obviously a bold move—an unexpected display of authority, before a surprised audience of Cabinet members. As the President himself related the incident last Tuesday: “Last night I fired a Cabinet member in a full Cabinet meeting, because I did not like his answer because it was really a plain lie.” He recounted that the answer made him realize Sueno was taking him for a fool. “So in that case, you might leave the room. You might leave the room because you’re fired. I am dismissing you,” the President recalled telling his fellow Mindanao politician.
A dramatic gesture, by a theatrical President.
The firing reinforces the Duterte administration’s avowed policy of zero tolerance for corruption. It also supports the administration narrative that Mr. Duterte—who has in all probability given more and longer speeches in his first year in office than any other president in our history—is a man of his word.
But it also raises many questions.
Not yet 10 months in office, and the President has lost or removed at least three Cabinet-level officials: his first appointee as chair of the Governance Commission for Government-Owned and -Controlled Corporations, Jaime Ma. Flores II, who resigned last October; his old friend Perfecto Yasay, who was resoundingly rejected by the Commission on Appointments for citizenship and honesty issues; and now Sueno. His latest dismissal involves Undersecretary Chiara Valdez, in connection with rice importation. He has also fired his presidential campaign spokesperson, Peter Laviña, as head of the National Irrigation Administration, and two fraternity brothers serving as deputy immigration commissioners, Al Argosino and Mike Robles.
To the extent that these dis-appointments were provoked by corruption charges or evidence of wrongdoing, President Duterte deserves the people’s praise. But it must also be pointed out that this high-level rigodon is a dance not often seen in an administration’s early days. Then there is the Cabinet infighting between economic managers led by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and controversial Environment Secretary Gina Lopez. We can ask the logical question: Who appointed these officials anyway?
To be sure, human nature has a way of surprising us; sometimes the people we are closest to harbor secrets we could not have imagined. But the fact that 10 months into his term the President has had to contend with these movements tells us that the Ramos administration’s old standard of complete staff work is, in the Duterte presidency, still a work in progress.
Mention of Argosino and Robles brings to mind the special case of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, who though cleared by a Senate inquiry still has to answer for his unusual action, or lack of it, in the Jack Lam bribery or extortion scandal. If the policy is indeed zero tolerance, won’t allowing Aguirre to remain in office be raising the meter to, well, above zero?
The President’s insistence on the innocence of the policemen implicated in the in-prison execution of Mayor Rolando Espinosa of Albuera, Leyte, last November—despite a comprehensive investigation by the National Bureau of Investigation and the findings of another Senate inquiry—also undermines the significance of the Sueno firing. It raises the question: Does the zero tolerance policy not apply to the President’s so-called war on drugs?
Not least, there is the matter of Sueno’s own protestations of innocence. While saying that he harbored no grudges, he did conduct a revealing news conference yesterday that throws some doubt on the action of the President. Sueno had been fired because an angry President could not understand why he knew nothing about his own department’s legal opinion on the fire trucks controversy. In his news conference, however, Sueno asserted that he did not in fact know about the opinion, that his undersecretary had kept it from him, and that he had heard of it for the first time only when the President of the Philippines asked him about it.
Looks like there’s more to all this than meets the eye.