Beyond playing hide-a-mace
The coup had to happen in the House of Representatives on the opening of the new session, because obtaining a quorum is difficult on any other day—and would be more difficult under a Speaker out to defend his position. But it was probably meant to have been a surgical strike, except the now ex-Speaker was long enough at the job to know he had to adjourn the proceedings the moment the rebellion became manifest.
The result was that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s assumption of the speakership was robbed of a lot of its deliciousness by the manner in which it turned into a guerrilla chase, including the squirreling away of the mace, and the production of a spare unearthed in the bodega of the House.
For the first time in his presidency, Mr. Duterte was reduced to looking impotent and old, irritated over the House intramurals upstaging his State of the Nation Address. Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the President was tempted to walk out of the Batasan complex at one point, and everyone else within earshot seemed more focused on the role of the President’s daughter in corralling congressmen to finish the deed that day.
As it turned out, the President was unable to do more than offer Pantaleon Alvarez the temporary consolation of still copresiding over the joint session for the duration of the President’s speech. But the writing was on the wall for Alvarez, though not for PDP-Laban, which may have lost the Senate presidency but retains the speakership—
Arroyo having joined the party and essentially mounting a hostile takeover.
To be sure, Arroyo went in for her share of embarrassment, the choreography of her assumption to the speakership ending up postponed, and consummated only after the President was done with his speech. It resembled the manner in which she had been proclaimed the duly-elected president in 2004: at midnight, after a procedural slow-motion slugfest in Congress.
But more to the point is that she succeeded. It was inevitable, after all, and surprising only in that it unfolded in slow motion, the slowness being attributed to the President’s interventions in various events, when he kept sending the signal that he preferred Alvarez to remain Speaker.
All politics is local, however, and when the President’s daughter and the then-Speaker collided, it provided an opportunity for the settling of scores within the ruling coalition. It may turn out that with Pimentel and Alvarez out, PDP-Laban, essentially taken over by Lakas, will concede Mindanao to Hugpong, with the President’s daughter as the paramount political leader there, leaving it up to the national party to determine who gets the party’s blessings, with all other factions using Hugpong as a vehicle if convenient.
Of course, this means a change in the pecking order among allies, as the Arroyo-Duterte combine (Sara wing, let’s call it) asserts its dominance. Yet this only serves to underscore the manner in which the ruling coalition is entering uncharted waters: The President and his people can, of course, insist everything has happened with the President’s consent, but it doesn’t square with what has always been often described as the brittle political relationship between the President and his children.
Everyone can proclaim they are united under the leadership of the President, but he has been shown to be not the complete master of events. The role of the presidency as referee of all squabbles is a central aspect of its power (except where local leaders are so entrenched as to make it necessary to concede specific districts or provinces as “free zones,” itself an exercise in presidential choosing).
Like an abstention in a vote, a nonchoice is a kind of passive acceptance of the expected outcome. To end up very publicly seen as not actively directing the outcome diminishes the reputation for political prowess necessary for any holder of the office of chief executive.
After the President left Congress, it was announced that he was jetting off to Davao, the day after the Palace had to concede he’d gone for a checkup the day before. Arroyo, meanwhile, a day after Alvarez’s ouster, summoned her fellow congressmen to a caucus in La Vista. It is a foreshadowing of a possible parliamentary future.
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