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MANILA, Philippines – Lawmakers and political groups on Friday framed the appointment of Manuel "Mar" Roxas II to the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) as groundwork for the Liberal Party's (LP) designs for the 2013 national elections - and then the 2016 presidential polls.
While welcoming the appointment, the lawmakers, including stalwarts of the ruling administration party also acknowledged how crucial the post is in the upcoming elections next year and in 2016 as it deals with the workings of local government units.
Beyond Roxas - who lost the contest for vice president in 2010, and now replaces former DILG secretary Jesse Robredo, who died in a plane crash two weeks ago - Cavite Representative Joseph Emilio Aguinaldo Abaya has also been appointed as the new Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), replacing Roxas.
"Jun (Abaya's) methodical, though low profile style, will be good. He's also an engineer. Mar has already been dealing with the local government unit officials before. He will do well," Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said.
Asked if the new Cabinet assignments, specifically that of Roxas, who is said to be keen on the presidency in 2016, has something to do with the presidential race, Belmonte said: "Yes. But that means he (Roxas) has to perform way above passing. I think he can do it."
San Juan Representative Joseph Victor Ejercito, one of the possible senatorial candidates next year of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) of Vice President Jejomar Binay, said the appointment "obviously" shows that the LP is "maximizing their being in power by making sure the powerful portfolios are given to partymates."
"Not to undermine the capability of Secretary Roxas and Rep. Abaya, but I think the appointment is obviously for the strengthening of the LP's position in the coming 2013 and 2016 elections," Ejercito said in a text message.
As political observers sought to contextualize Roxas' appointment to the DILG, mention was also made of who was not appointed. Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief, was also touted as a candidate soon after the death of Robredo. He gets along well enough with President Aquino, but he was also said to be backed by a Palace clique - the "Samar Group" - associated with Vice President Jejomar Binay.
Bayan Muna partylist Representative Teddy Casino expressed wariness over Roxas' appointment because of his presidential plans. "This will definitely politicize the position and make the DILG even more vulnerable to patronage politics and unfair machinations by the ruling party," he said.
"We dread the day that the DILG will be converted into the Department of Interior and Liberal party Governance," he added.
Eastern Samar Representative Ben Evardone, an LP member, hailed the appointment of Roxas and Abaya, saying both have the "integrity, dedication and unswerving commitment to public service." He then added that the new posts for LP in the Cabinet would be a "big boost" for the party.
"It has a big influence over LGU leaders," said Evardone, former governor and official of the League of Provinces of the Philippines. "The DILG is the arm of the government to reach out and mobilize the LGUs,”
Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales and Ifugao Representative Teodoro Baguilat Jr., both LP members, said the President tapped Roxas because only he could fill the void left by the death of what they called the "larger-than-life" Secretary Jesse Robredo.
"I think politics played way below the level of consideration when he was appointed. Jesse Robredo left huge shoes to fill in and Mar Roxas is someone who be appointed there whom the people will trust right away," Gonzales said.
As the most trusted ally of the President, Gonzales added that Roxas can be an effective bridge of the administration to the local officials.
Baguilat said Roxas will bring in “moral integrity and command presence” in the DILG.
"He also has what I think even the late Secretary Jesse didn't have – the unquestionable confidence and ears of Malacanang," Baguilat, LP deputy spokesperson, added.
Asked about the link of the appointment to the presidential elections four years from now, he said, "I don’t think his appointment has anything to do with 2016. Needless to say, if our party pushed Secretary Mar to run and continue PNoy's legacy in the presidential elections, a successful stint in DILG will definitely make him the front-runner."
If that proves anywhere near true, Roxas will likely run up against Binay, the former mayor of Makati who surged to an upset win over Roxas in 2010. Binay has consisently polled as the most popular political figure under the Aquino administration, and is a presumptive frontrunner for president in 2016.
The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said the appointment reeked of political motivation to give the LP an upper-hand in the elections.
"It seems the Liberal Party has gotten the upper hand on this one. It wants control of a department that has strategic value for the upcoming 2013 elections and eventually the 2016 elections. The partisan political motivation of Roxas’ appointment is too obvious to ignore. It also says a lot about the appointing power, President Benigno Aquino III," Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes, Jr. said. "The perception is that his appointment is intended to give the Liberal Party an undue advantage in the upcoming polls. At the very least, Roxas should take a leave from the Liberal Party at least up until after the 2013 elections, though it is highly unlikely he will."