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After Duterte: A preview

/ 05:12 AM July 16, 2019

The images were distasteful. They showed Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano bowing low before President Duterte, who had just anointed him Speaker of the House of Representatives. He is doing the “mano,” the Filipino ritual of respect, but something is wrong. He is bowing too low, and the President does not seem to like it. In the way the President angles his body, which suggests that he is taking away his hand, and in the way his face is set, the President seems to be expressing his own distaste.

Mr. Duterte likes to observe the ritual too, for instance when he greets an old, familiar bishop, but then the images of that encounter — as when Archbishop of Davao Romulo Valles, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, visited him in the presidential palace in July last year — are on a different register from Cayetano’s awkward bowing.

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The President and his honored guest look like they are connecting; smiles lighten their faces; and many signs of mutual respect abound, including the not-insignificant gesture on the part of the guest to raise his hand to about the level of his chest, thus preventing the President from bowing too low.

Cayetano’s encounter, on the other hand, does not show any connection at all with the President except for the hands; Mr. Duterte is looking away (and looking irritated). There are no smiles (not even on Cayetano’s face). And the putative Speaker’s head is awkwardly around the President’s waist — Cayetano is engaged in a grim act of abasement, rather than ritual respect.

The images, since shared widely on social media, are visual proof that Cayetano — the President’s running mate in the 2016 elections, and on record as one of his major campaign contributors — holds a precarious position in the Duterte alliance. They show why he was the weakest candidate for Speaker, and why he needed the President’s outright backing to break the deadlock in the race to lead the House of Representatives. He may enjoy the President’s confidence, but in the race, he is no Marie Kondo solution: He does not “spark joy.”

In fact, the President’s decision to publicly endorse Cayetano, in a term-sharing arrangement with Rep. Lord Allan Velasco, with Rep. Martin Romualdez as majority leader throughout the entire term, does not simplify matters. Rather, it allows the factionalism at the center of the Duterte alliance to continue to fester. That the President issued his decision in public is already unprecedented. All House majorities find a way to align with whoever sits in Malacañang, and presidents have always had a say on who becomes Speaker, but Mr. Duterte saying the quiet part out loud is new.

What is even more extraordinary is that, after he spoke, the factions continued to make their views known. Talk of a possible coup in the House circulated; misgivings about Cayetano were shared.

I am of the view that the struggle for the speakership of the House is a preview of life after Mr. Duterte. Three factions of varying strengths are vying for political control: the Duterte siblings, Sen. Bong Go and other members of one of the President’s inner circles, and the political allies of ex-President, ex-Speaker Gloria Arroyo. The advantage of the first two factions lies in their (perceived) closeness to the President, and thus to whatever legacy he will manage to accumulate at the end of his term. Their disadvantage is that they are their own worst enemies.

It is not often that a group of regional representatives allied with the President’s children will issue a strong statement condemning the intervention of Cabinet secretaries — by legal definition and political tradition the alter ego of the President — in the selection of the Speaker of the House. The statement was issued when it became clear that Cayetano was the secretaries’ preference. The continued sniping after Mr. Duterte made his decision known only shows that not even the President’s authority was enough to cloak Cayetano with a protective mantle. The other factions know that while the President delivered the votes for his running mate — Region XI was the only one where Cayetano topped the vice presidential race — there has never been a real connection between the street tough from Davao and the hyperarticulate politician-of-many-shapes from Taguig. The awkward photos are only more proof.

Cayetano was also a lead cheerleader of the opposition when Arroyo was president; he is not welcome among Arroyo’s allies.

His immediate floating of term extensions was a shameless attempt to curry favor with the politicians who will only be forced to vote for him. Whether it will fly depends on many factors — including whether he will in fact survive more than a few months in the position he was given, rather than earned. But that he had to already deploy such a trial balloon is itself a sign of weakness.

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Expect bloodletting among the allies.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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TAGS: Alan Peter Cayetano, House speakership, john Nery, Newsstand, Rodrigo Duterte
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