WAR IN THE PALACE

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Tonypet J. Rosales | Editor   

IT APPEARS the most bloated government department—the Communications Group PNoy—simply can’t get the job done. To arrest the President’s sagging image, the administration is bringing more people into the fray, a move that could spark new hostilities between the Samar and Balay groups in Malacanang.

Since 2010, despite an awesome PR machinery, Malacanang never really got a hold of the public relations game. A series of missteps, snafus, blunders and miscommunications (beginning with the mishandling of the Luneta hostage incident involving a tour bus filled with Chinese nationals) have kept the President’s team of spokespersons and speechwriters busy fending off critics.

Crisis Mode

On Tuesday, a newspaper report by that the Palace is in “PR crisis mode”, hiring the services of a foreign pollster and political strategist to help reinvent the image of the President after the government’s net approval ratings plummeted to a record low.

The report said a crisis management team under Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. (Samar Group) and a political strategy team under Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas (Balay Group) has been activated to help refurbish PNoy’s image which has taken hit after hit since assuming the presidency in 2010.

A Palace source said Roxas is bringing back one Paul Bograd, the political strategist said to be responsible for Mar’s “Mr. Palengke” brand which made the DILG secretary No. 1 senator back in 2004. Bograd’s assignment: to fix PNoy’s image which suffered massively because of the Supreme Court’s adverse ruling on the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).

On the other hand, Ochoa has made changes in the Palace media group starting with the appointment of Presidential Operations Office Secretary Sonny Coloma as presidential spokesperson taking the place of Edwin Lacierda who is identified with Mar’s Balay group.

Ochoa is also said to have reactivated members of the Samar group involved in the 2010 campaign, including television director and PNoy cousin Maria Montelibano. Montelibano served as head of Radio Television Malacanang (RTVM) during the time of President Cory Aquino and was also the designated point-person for media in Noynoy’s 2010 campaign.

While Bograd’s appointment can be considered a slap in the face of Secretary Coloma, observers believe that recent turn of events is symptomatic of a leadership breakdown in Malacanang. The administration is slowly falling apart and may eventually cost the ruling Liberal Party (LP) the 2016 presidential elections.

Seed of Discord

The conflict between the Samar and Balay group started shortly after Mar Roxas lost the vice presidency to Jojo Binay. Balay is the the group that met regularly at the residence of Roxas and its core is composed of the LP leadership together with the Black and White Movement and Ronald Llamas’ Akbayan. Samar Avenue in Quezon City is where Montelibano’s media bureau and Ochoa’s legal team held fort. PNoy sisters Pinky and Ballsy and Sonny Belmonte also regularly joined the Samar meetings.

The difference between the two groups emerged when Balay members started blaming Samar for the emergence of the winning NoyBi (Noynoy-Binay) tandem. In 2010, Mar’s presidential candidacy was floundering (he was usually ranked 4th in the ratings) and things looked up only after he gave way to Aquino and ran for vice president instead.

However, in the last weeks before the elections, Binay eventually caught up with Mar in the ratings.
From sure winner, Roxas became a pathetic loser. The two camps exchanged barbs blaming each other for Mar’s loss with Balay—despite the polls—claiming the Binay win as a fluke. The seed of discord had already planted as early as 2010.

The latest polls showing the President’s net satisfaction ratings at an all-time low, forced both the Samar and Balay groups to reactivate their crisis management teams. The Palace is in panic and by racing to save the President and effect a quick turnaround—Pnoy and company could find himself in even deeper trouble.

Mar’s panic is understandable because his chance of becoming the LP standard bearer and winning the presidency in 2016 is directly proportional to PNoy’s pop ratings. If PNoy crashes and burns, Roxas might as well kiss his presidential aspirations goodbye.

Serious Concerns

Palace insiders say Ochoa is concerned with the way the LP has handled the DAP issue. The August 23, 2013 speech of the President defending the DAP was reportedly the idea of Roxas who managed to convince PNoy to deliver the speech on primetime television despite Ochoa’s protests.

“Ochoa believes the (Senate President Franklin) Drilon and (Budget Secretary Butch Abad are dragging the President down with them,” the Palace source said.

Abad is the architect of the DAP which has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Drilon—who failed on his promise to scrap the Senate pork—tried to make up for his failure with an attempt to salvage the impounded money by circumventing the TRO issued by the SC by having the funds declared as “savings” that the President can use in the event of a calamity. Drilon’s antics reportedly did not sit well with House Speaker Belmonte.

Sister Act

The situation has become a fight for the Aquino-Cojuangco clan’s life that even the “First Bunso” Kris has been put to active PR service.

Kris’ strategy jumps off from PNoy’s recent State of the Nation Address (SONA) where the camera cuts away to the gallery and catches the “Queen of All Media” wiping off her tears as her PNoy mouths off the sacrifices of their parents Cory and Ninoy in his impassioned speech.

On August 1, on the occasion of Cory Aquino’s 5th death anniversary, Kris even hinted on the potential martyrdom of PNoy. “He [Noynoy] can’t do it on his own. We need to stand by him and give him strength. Please pray with us also that he stays alive,” Kris told guests after the Holy Mass at the Manila Memorial Park in Parañaque City.

Kris, of course, was alluding to PNoy’s mentioning in his SONA of certain “dark forces” that were supposedly out to get him. While much of what makes the Aquino dynasty great has something to do with death, the idea of President Aquino dying to achieve a PR bonanza is totally out of the question.
If PNoy dies, then Vice President Binay becomes President defeating the whole purpose of initiating an ambitious PR mode to save PNoy’s neck and the LP from a public hanging.

What remains clear is that the scenario in the Palace remains as chaotic as ever with the administration content in plugging loopholes and providing band-aid solutions to the country’s problems. Common sense dictates that it is never wise to have two captains run a PR ship.

Right now, PNoy and company appear secure and safe—just like the passengers of the Titanic.

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