The importance of being Gloria
The election of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as speaker of the House of Representatives, ousting Pantaleon Alvarez on the first day of the third session of the 17th Congress, could not have been unexpected—and yet it still came as a shock to the body politic. Alvarez and his rapidly dwindling band of allies tried to delay the inevitable, by adjourning the morning session of the House prematurely, by turning off the microphones during the afternoon session when Arroyo took her first oath as speaker, by refusing to concede even in the presence of President Duterte.
In their panic, and then their continuing refusal to accept political reality, the Alvarez bloc turned the much-touted fast-tracking of the already delayed Bangsamoro Organic Law into a temporary casualty.
Senators who witnessed the ugly transfer of power in the House had choice words for their counterparts. The remarks of Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a linchpin of the pro-Duterte Senate supermajority, must have been particularly galling to the Duterte ruling coalition: He called the power struggle in the House “awkward, low, ugly, disgraceful.” Public opinion, as immediately plumbed in the shallows of social media, was as scathing.
But Alvarez’s ouster was not only not unexpected; on hindsight, it was also inevitable. His years as speaker were (to borrow the old Hobbesian phrasing) nasty, brutish and short. He conducted himself, not as a consensus-builder in the mold of Jose de Venecia or Feliciano Belmonte Jr., but as a dictator, ruling from on high. He dispensed and withdrew political privileges (such as committee chairmanships) and government resources (such as annual budget allocations) with an undisguised relish for status and control. A trail of resentment followed his official and unofficial acts. (He even withdrew support for the congressional spouses’ foundation, traditionally headed by the wife of the speaker, when his estrangement from his wife became public after he assumed the speakership.)
While Alvarez was creating disgruntled allies, Arroyo continued to cultivate relationships, even with fair-weather friends who had abandoned her at the end of her nine years as president. And when Alvarez finally crossed the line and offended the President’s feisty daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, the mayor had a ready resort: former president Arroyo. Put another way, there was no other leader in the House who could have successfully mounted a campaign to unseat Alvarez.
Reports of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Mayor Duterte are exaggerated, in the same way that reports that Arroyo was the real mastermind behind President Duterte’s rise to the presidency are overblown. The reality of Philippine politics is that no single factor can explain political events; Arroyo’s return to high office was the result of many different factors, all coming together on the one day the President of the Philippines is constitutionally mandated to address Congress. This confluence includes enmity against Alvarez, the strategic value of Mayor Duterte’s phone calls—and the importance of being Gloria Arroyo.
Arroyo is term-limited from running for reelection in next year’s midterm vote. She has, at most, a year to serve as speaker (and fourth-highest government official). What does her election as speaker mean?
It means that the Arroyo faction that is one of the constituent elements of the Duterte ruling coalition is now in a position to be the dominant one. But, at the same time, it means that the other parts of the coalition, such as the so-called macho bloc in the Senate that includes Lacson and Senate President Vicente Sotto III, will be forced to up their game. Already, Lacson has warned against rushing into a parliamentary form of government, because Arroyo has demonstrated her ability to be elected prime minister.
What can we expect from Arroyo’s speakership? The divorce bill, which Alvarez promoted with obvious self-interest, looks headed for the legislative shelf. The campaign to reimpose the death penalty will lose steam, as will the effort to lower the age of criminal liability.
The federalist project will continue under Arroyo, but this time with a new focus. She is likely not to rush Charter change, but she will also look for the opportunity to turn her political strength (politicians think very highly of her) into a personal opportunity. The parliamentary system beckons—because she has only a year left in office.
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