"They are perpetual abodes of intrigue."
Many call Malacañang a “snake pit.” In previous articles here and in other publications, I used to refer to the Presidential Palace as the palace beside the stinking river. Which as we know is factual.
The Pasig has become putrid due to decades of absorbing the detritus of the many cities along which it traverses on its way to “la boca de Manila” on its west.
No less than presidents have complained about the seasonal stench that assails their nose each time they cross the short stretch between the official palace grounds and the presidential residence and golf course that stretches to Otis St. in the west and Nagtahan Bridge to the north.
Which is why the Chinese say that Malacañang is “malas.” Bad feng shui.
The central seat of power, they say, must be built with mountains or hills protecting its back, facing south or southeast or east, the north or west to its back.
It’s entrance must have an unimpeded view of vast grounds, and everything around the seat of power must be kept spotless, with its trees carefully trimmed, its gardens properly maintained.
If there are rivers or lakes, even artificial lagoons beside or around it, these must always be clean and cared for, geomancers agree.
Now visit Malacañans Palace, originally inhabited by the governors-general of conquistadores, and assess how it passes the Oriental feng shui standards. Smell the Pasig beside it, and weep as you cover your nose.
When reporters covering the seat of the presidency since the days of Quezon described it as a “snake pit,” they were not referring to bad feng shui, though. They were, and are, referring to the Byzantine intrigues that infest the corridors of power.
Because power corrupts, proximity to power is such a desideratum especially in feudal concentrations of power. For even with democratic façade, as in our benighted land, power is still generally concentrated in the executives elected by the people, whether in townships or cities, provinces or the country itself.
Such is the political lay of the land.
We talk of tripartism, of separation of powers, but in truth, the presidency is the be-all and end-all of power in this country. Not only is he the elect of the people, he is likewise the commander-in-chief of all our armed forces.
Sure there is Congress, and in the United States it has broad oversight powers that make the un-elected officials tremble at the prospects of its investigations. In parliamentary Great Britain, its members roast and regularly do, the prime minister, the head of government inside its session hall.
But the Philippine Constitution practically makes our president a king for six years. While theoretically congressmen and senators elect their speaker and president, in real practice, a presidential nod is needed to “close the deal.” Justices and judges in all levels are appointed by the president, even if there is a vetting council known as the JBC. Colonels become generals, and stars on epaulets are increased at the pleasure of the president.
In this kind of political praxis, proximity to power is always a coveted commodity, its holder or holders able to proclaim the same as a badge, not just an honorific, but a badge to influence the rest of the less-endowed in the bureaucracy.
Businessmen seek the proximate like ants lining up before the food source. Thus are the corridors of power an environment where the overly ambitious stab each other in the back at every opportunity available, where the prescriptions of Sun Tzu and Niccolo Machiavelli are like biblical edicts.
Of late for instance, rumors abound, and even elevated to newsprint at that, of a tectonic shift of power in the Cabinet of President Rodrigo Duterte.
To be sure, cabinet rigodons and shake-ups are par for the course in all administrations. The president has the power to appoint, and with that the power to disappoint as well.
Some presidents have in the past announced their disappointment in public, with the disappointed not knowing what hit him. Some do it in private, allowing the official the grace to resign or retire instead, the real reason for decapitation not made public.
Thus the spectacle of trying always to impress, trying always to be on the good side, and even doing so at the expense of their confreres in the camarilla of power, has been likened to a “snake pit,” where slithering denizens are always ready to strike.
The current snake pit ululations build upon speculations arising from the vacancies created by those who this time around want elected offices rather than their appointments. But despite replacements having been announced, the ululations continue, and they hiss around those perceived to be the most proximate to presidential power.
They hiss about the speaker whose three terms as congresswoman are officially up by the middle of next year, yet in reality a lame duck as the campaign season unfolds. Her courtiers, afraid that with the speaker’s dais gone, their own days in heady power are numbered, now hiss about her being asked to become the next chancellor of the exchequer, holder of the nation’s purse.
Despite her own dismissal of the speculations, the rumors abound, fanned by the hisses of those who know that proximity to power is in itself power.
The finance secretary, arguably the most powerful in the cabinet of a president who disdains economic stuff, is himself nonchalant about all the jeremiads of the hissers. He did not seek the position; he was asked to preside over it because the appointing power trusted him. They share a childhood together, including a common abuse by a man of the cloth once upon a boyhood time.
But the hissers persist, this time to pounce upon a mild-mannered person whose father was close to the president’s father, and who himself served the legal needs of the then mayor of Davao. Again, they hiss about the soon to be termed-over speaker taking over the de jure primus inter pares in the cabinet, and throw in the bone that the replaced would be appointed to the highest magistracy of the land, a habitat once graced by his father.
All this time, the snakes in the pit jostle amongst themselves what proximate sconces they will occupy if their ululations become reality.
But the objects of their slime merely shrug off the speculations, secure about their own proximity and their knowledge that they have served their friend well.
Will the ululations end? Don’t bet on it. In the palace beside the stinking river, the corridors of power are perpetual abodes of intrigue.