Vote your conscience
Tomorrow, at the opening of the 18th Congress and before President Duterte delivers his State of the Nation Address (Sona), Taguig Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano will become the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. He will serve a term of 15 months before ceding the post to Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco, who will take his turn as Speaker for the remaining 21 months of the last three years of the current administration. The term-sharing agreement was hammered out not by the incoming congressmen themselves, but by President Duterte in Malacañang, who, after professing reluctance to involve himself in the fight, eventually stepped in, broke the impasse between the two aspirants by decreeing the term-sharing setup, and then announced it to the nation as a done deal. The President himself having thus spoken, and with a supermajority in the Lower House at his command, Speaker Cayetano it would be, then, by day’s end tomorrow—signed, sealed and anointed.
Or so that’s how the script is supposed to go. But might there be surprises and last-minute maneuvers in store? After all, if last year’s Sona was any indication, what had previously been mostly a pro forma, by-the-book affair could now become a wild free-for-all. Pantaleon Alvarez, smug in his position as Speaker and all set to preside over the big day, found himself ousted in a coup by a group of congressmen who then installed Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as the new Speaker. The nation will not soon forget that startling spectacle before the TV cameras and the assembled sea of officialdom and the diplomatic community—Mr. Duterte stewing in an anteroom, chafing to deliver his speech that would end up delayed by an hour while Arroyo commandeered the Speaker’s chair, was sworn in even as the House mace—the emblem of the chamber’s authority—was nowhere in sight, spirited away by Alvarez loyalists, and pandemonium reigned on the floor.
Despite the President’s early intervention this time that supposedly assures a wrinkle-free ascension to the speakership by Cayetano, there are tantalizing indications that undercurrents and shadowy movements are still happening late in the day. Presidential daughter Sara Duterte, who had engineered Arroyo’s takeover last year, has made known she is skipping this year’s Sona; for health reasons, she said, though more likely out of displeasure at the term-sharing agreement her father had imposed on the chamber—a deal she had disparaged from the outset, and whose main beneficiary, Cayetano, she is openly contemptuous of. Her like-minded brother, Davao Rep. Paolo Duterte, further stoked speculations by saying, “Mukhang hindi pa tapos ang laban (it seems the fight is not yet over),” and hinting that a “coup d’etat” against his father’s pick might happen tomorrow. To which a dismissive President pushed back with, “Have you heard of wishful thinking?”
The way Mr. Duterte has gotten his way so far in the last three years, it’s an easy bet, of course, that he will prevail yet again in this tussle, especially with the vast resources at his command to dangle before the legislators, or to whip them into line. But it bears asking: Why has the position of Speaker, the third in the line of succession to the presidency, been reduced to this—a squabble for kingmaking and control among members of the Duterte dynasty? Depressingly, what the proceedings so far have shown is that the lot of the people’s representatives entertain no second thoughts about going along with the President and his brood’s flagrant intervention in House affairs, debasing their own chamber in the process and robbing it of its constitutionally ordained independence from the executive. By giving up their right to vote for their own choice of leader and merely rubber-stamping the diktat of a strong-armed patron in Malacañang, the legislators are doing the country, and their constituents in particular, a grave disservice.
But who knows—perhaps Paolo Duterte is right: “May election pa sa July 22 at doon ako mas interesado, kung sino ang mananalo (The election is still on June 22, and that’s what I’m interested in, who will win eventually).” The legislators, whether out of their own convictions or blandishments of a different sort, may yet surprise the country by rethinking their acquiescence to Malacañang’s script and finding the nerve to demand some dollop of self-determination for their turf. To them it should be said: Tomorrow, vote your conscience. Have a mind of your own.
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