Duterte Grooms His Heir

The chairman of the election commission is being threatened with impeachment: The commission’s database, which contains the personal data of more than 55 million registered voters, was hacked before the general election last May. Andres Bautista, the chairman, told me recently that he finds this situation “ridiculous.” Maybe it is — then again maybe not, since the point seems to be to bolster the standing of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as President Rodrigo Duterte’s rightful political heir.

The president is a professed idolater of Ferdinand Marcos Sr., and his election campaign was partly bankrolled by the late dictator’s heirs. Mr. Duterte has suggested publicly that the younger Mr. Marcos, known as Bongbong, is his preferred successor — even after his protégé lost the race for vice president.

“Bongbong could be our new vice president,” Mr. Duterte said during a state visit to Beijing in October.

Mr. Marcos, meanwhile, is contesting that defeat, alleging fraud in certain districts in the southern Philippines where he didn’t win a single vote. He has petitioned the Supreme Court to declare him vice president in the place of Leni Robredo, that election’s official winner. Mr. Marcos appears to think that his case will gain in credibility if Mr. Bautista is seen to be lacking in it.

The two young I.T. engineers thought to have hacked the election commission, known as Comelec, were soon caught, though not soon enough to prevent voter information from being leaked online. (One of the suspects claimed he was only testing the vulnerability of Comelec’s database.) Investigators from the National Privacy Commission, a government agency, have declared that Mr. Bautista is accountable, for neglect, and that he alone is accountable, clearing other Comelec members and the I.T. experts in charge of the database.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., also known as “Bongbong,”campaigning in Muntinlupa, Philippines, in February. Bullit Marquez/Associated Press

But “hacking happens to the best-protected sites,” Mr. Bautista told me, pointing to the multiple Russian cyberattacks in the United States. “And why punish the victim, the hacked?”

Blaming Mr. Bautista does smack of blaming a robbery victim for walking down a dark street with a purse, or a rape victim for going out in a provocative dress. Or, in an example familiar around here these days, it’s a bit like gunning down people who’ve become drug addicts because they are poor and despondent.

Mr. Bautista said Comelec did everything it was supposed to do to secure the database, and then “dealt decisively with the hacking, not only promptly summoning state investigators, but warning the public of the theft.” Comelec’s spokesman was quick to alert people against visiting a website that reposted the stolen data. And the hacking did not undermine the credibility of the election in May. In fact, that election is regarded as among the swiftest and most peaceable in Philippine history: The ballots were counted promptly, and most losing candidates readily conceded defeat.

The race for vice president, which came down to Mr. Marcos and Ms. Robredo, was about the only hotly contested one; it was decided by less than one percent of the total votes garnered by the two candidates. The Supreme Court has not set a hearing in Mr. Marcos’s challenge to those results, and while he is gathering documents to build his case, Mr. Bautista’s misfortune can be exploited to his advantage.

TXTPower, an obscure, self-described consumer-advocacy group, is spearheading efforts to bring criminal charges against Mr. Bautista for what the organization’s president calls “epic negligence and gross ignorance of duties.” Mr. Duterte’s public relations man, Martin Andanar, has weighed in, calling the Comelec hacking “one of the worst breaches of a government-controlled database.”

Impeachment being less a judicial process than a political one — the House of Representatives proposes, the Senate disposes — Mr. Bautista doesn’t stand much of a chance. He will have to defend himself in a Congress controlled by Duterte supporters and against the woolliest of charges: “betrayal of public trust.” Whatever happens to him, a cloud already hangs over the commission that affirmed Mr. Marcos’s electoral loss.

That leaves only Ms. Robredo in the way, and the president is taking care of that.

Ms. Robredo, who is new to politics and untainted by wrongdoing, is being marginalized. After she was instructed last month — by text message — to stop attending cabinet meetings and her budget was cut, she resigned as housing secretary. She is now vice president without portfolio. She was removed at the last minute from the guest list for the president’s traditional New Year’s vin d’honneur, a gathering of the local and diplomatic Who’s Who.

In the Philippines, public perception is key. Street protests deposed two presidents in just one generation here. Today, Mr. Duterte is riding high. Anything he does to discredit Ms. Robredo — and Comelec, which proclaimed her victory over Mr. Marcos — helps Mr. Marcos in his case before the Supreme Court and, most important, in the court of public opinion.

Vergel O. Santos is a columnist for Rappler, a Manila-based online news site.

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