Cayetano’s zombie victory
At the start of June, President Duterte hosted dinner in a function room of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Mon Tulfo, with great insider authority, said the President’s preference from among the congressmen who were vying for the speakership who attended could be determined from their places at the table: “Honeylet was seated to the President’s right and [Lord Allan] Velasco to his left.” After Velasco came Tulfo, Martin Romualdez, a “construction magnate” named Charlie Gonzales, tycoon and Nacionalista Party franchise owner Manny Villar, Bong Go, Sonny Belmonte, Alan Peter Cayetano and his wife, then Honeylet Avanceña. As it turns out, who was at the dinner proved more important than the seating arrangement.
In the same article, Tulfo mentioned that no Cabinet members were in attendance, implying this was significant — except he overlooked Bong Go, who may have already been a senator-elect at that dinner, but who hadn’t then, or now, abandoned his more important role of being the President’s minder. After the Tokyo dinner, the President was quoted as saying he was hands-off on the speakership, but the courtship continued.
In mid-June, Cayetano organized a “briefing” for neophyte congressmen, at which Cabinet members Carlos Dominguez III, Arthur Tugade and Mark Villar held a “seminar” on “budget basics.” Soon after that, Go, while visiting fire victims, told reporters that congressmen were imploring the President to pick a new Speaker.
Still, for much of May-July, the story was the battle royale between Romualdez and Velasco, with Cayetano surfacing from time to time to complain (in a manner similar to Pantaleon Alvarez) about the war chest of the main contenders, only for him to be knocked down by Sara Duterte every time he spoke. Romualdez seemed to have permanently gained the upper hand, even though Velasco and Cayetano kept on surfacing in meetings with the President, whether in Bangkok or in the Palace. Until last week’s surprise, with the President’s son making a bid that seemed to me more of a gambit to keep Velasco in the running than anything else — a move answered by Hugpong ng Pagbabago, which put forward the relatively obscure Isidro Ungab as their Pulong antidote (Sara’s veto, in other words).
Around that time, it was bruited about that the Lord Allan gang claimed 120 votes, with Romualdez unbelievably being attributed only 50 votes when Danilo Suarez had all along claimed 150. The Alan Peter crowd claimed 80 votes, the Ungab clique had 24 in the bag. At the time, such claims suggested to me only that what really mattered was Hugpong’s claim of 24, which made it a faction to reckon with (the liberals were apparently also preening with self-importance as they announced they were sniffing around to see which candidate to back). But the clincher was the claim that Cayetano was Go’s, and the Cabinet’s, candidate.
Rewind to the past meetings, and two names that clinched the speakership stand out in retrospect: Villar and Go. Villar the elder in Tokyo with Go and the President; Villar the younger, in Clark with Cayetano and the keepers of the purse in the Cabinet; Go, in practically every meeting at which candidates for the speakership danced in attendance on the President.
Cayetano, had, all along, complained of the freewheeling way his rivals had with money, which is a standard political accusation politicians make against those with bigger wallets than they. All along, Cayetano showed every sign of having a zombie candidacy, but lo and behold, this week began with the President finally doing what Go, back on June 18, said he would: weighing in, and anointing Cayetano for the speakership. And Velasco, too: The two would share the speakership term (Cayetano for 15 months, Velasco for a longer 21 months) while Romualdez will be majority leader.
Seemingly a Solomonic solution, except what put Cayetano over the top was direct presidential intervention (done in a way that requires obedience but only in the short term; sooner or later, an uprising can be mounted against Alan Peter on the slogan, “restore the dignity and independence of the House!”), so that he’s had to weakly broadcast an appeal in the media to form a Super-DDS coalition.
Velasco may be promised a longer term, but in the short term, all he has is a promise, which is worthless. Romualdez may be forced to toe the line, but has been handed the keys to the House. As majority leader, he will handle traffic control while being in a position to traffic with the loyalty of a House more inclined to consider him a reliable peer than the putative Speaker. Cayetano transparently made a peace offering to Hugpong by saying he wants Ungab to be chair of the committee on appropriations, and asking for a meeting with Velasco and Romualdez.
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