Storm clouds loom over congressional independence
THE 17TH CONGRESS opens today, clearing the way for its total capitulation to President Duterte without a semblance of resistance to defend its independence from the all-powerful presidency.
But the way is full of landmines for turbulent showdowns.
One after the other, in rapid succession, the House and the Senate were ruthlessly crushed by Duterte’s juggernaut as the political parties in the legislature disintegrated from its onslaught that virtually reduced Congress to a rubber stamp of Malacañang, leaving no space for opposition parties to develop.
The disintegration began on the eve of the joint session of Congress that would hear the President’s first State of the Nation Address.
Former Speaker Feliciano Belmonte announced that he and the Liberal Party had scuttled their plan to lead the opposition in the 17th Congress and instead would join the allies of Mr. Duterte in the new majority, foreshadowing the President’s domination of Congress on scale not previously experienced in Philippine electoral democracy.
Belmonte confirmed the abdication of the LP’s opposition role under the Duterte administration. Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas earlier told the Inquirer that he had received a phone call from Belmonte requesting a meeting with incoming Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez to sign a majority coalition between the LP and the Partido Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban).
The mass exodus of the LP came after the PDP-Laban had built up its membership from three members elected in May to 100, in a “butterfly coalition” just days before today’s opening of Congress.
The LP has been reduced 30 members and 10 allies from party-list groups led by Akbayan, a total that would have allowed Belmonte to win the minority leadership, illustrating the zero-sum dynamic of political realignment at work, where the winning party in the election becomes the bandwagon into which the losers jump to return to Congress.
The emergence of Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) as a serious contender for minority leader appeared to have prompted Belmonte and the LP to junk their plan not to join the majority coalition, which includes the Nationalist People’s Coalition, National Unity Party, Nacionalista Party and the party-list bloc.
There were also reports that Alvarez had met with former Vice President Jejomar Binay and pledged to assist UNA’s candidate for minority leader.
In the race for the Senate presidency, matters were no less convoluted than in the House. Outgoing Senate President Franklin Drilon has confirmed that 16 to 17 senators are now backing the Senate presidency of Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III.
According to Drilon, major political parties in the Senate have agreed to an alliance, principally the LP and its allied parties. The coalition is made up of six LP members, one Akbayan, the PDP-Laban plus the NPC and other allied political groups.
The LP leads one of the two main groupings, while Sen. Vicente Sotto III leads the other.
According to Driilon, he will be the Senate president pro tempore, while Sotto will be the majority leader.
Earlier, Pimentel, a party mate of President Duterte, told Rappler it was his “duty” as PDP-Laban president to try to get the top leadership in the Senate.
Sotto, a member of NPC, and Pimentel confirmed earlier that they were in unity talks.
The NPC earlier signed a coalition agreement with PDP-Laban.
Senator-elect Panfilo Lacson has said the senators were looking at a supermajority composed of at least 20 senarors.
Pimentel is set to be next Senate president, despite being the only PDP-Laban senator—a situation that Drilon found unusual.
The senators, Drilon said, wanted to provide stability to the Senate leadership.
Describing the Senate as being in a bind, Drilon said that while the Senate would support the legislative agenda of President Duterte, the chamber should remain independent.
“While we maintain the independence of the Senate, we will support, in general, the legislative agenda of PresidentDuterte,” he said.
How the Senate would reconcile this contradiction remains problematic. As far as the public is concerned, the more independent and troublesome Congress is, the more will the system of checks and balances benefit Philippine democracy.
We should expect fireworks between Malacañang and Congress in the coming weeks.
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