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Notes on a coronation

/ 05:07 AM July 23, 2019

A tweet from ABS-CBN reporter RG Cruz summed it up nicely: “Speakership election is proceeding smoothly, defying all speculations,” he wrote. The confrontation some had expected between the Duterte-supporting factions in the House of Representatives had turned into a coronation. But will the crown rest easy on the head of new Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano?

It never helps when the limits of one’s power is clear for all to see. It was President Duterte who anointed Cayetano, in public, by announcing a term-sharing agreement between the three remaining candidates for the Speaker’s post. While presidential intervention in the election of the Speaker is a fact of Philippine politics, such a naked and unprecedented display of the President’s preference—necessary to break the deadlock—only diminishes his candidate.

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But events also suggest that, before the first convening of the 18th Congress, confrontation was still possible, perhaps even likely. Consider the dueling breakfasts hosted by Cayetano and Davao Rep. Paolo Duterte in the Batasan, which should be read as preelection shows of force. Many representatives were already at the South Hall, for the Duterte breakfast, before the erstwhile common candidate for Speaker of the Davao Group, Rep. Isidro Ungab, showed up to announce that the Duterte-hosted breakfast was canceled, and that the members of Congress will “transfer” to Nograles Hall, the venue reserved for the breakfast hosted by Cayetano. But Cayetano met with Duterte over the weekend, and supposedly secured his commitment to the term-sharing arrangement. Why wasn’t the first breakfast canceled then?

When Duterte and Ungab made their way to Nograles Hall, they refused to answer repeated questions about their candidate for Speaker. And at Cayetano’s breakfast, Duterte gave the same speech he would deliver in the session hall, before he became the first of three representatives to nominate Cayetano for Speaker. In that speech, he emphasized his view that the term-sharing agreement was only a matter between the President and the three candidates for Speaker, and that when Cayetano resigns the speakership after 15 months, new elections must be held. In truth, this is only existing procedure, but Paolo Duterte’s decision to emphasize it is curious.

Here is the President’s son publicly and officially distancing himself from the President’s intervention: a son who has zero experience in Congress, a newcomer to regional and national political alliance-building. (As I have argued before in the case of his sister, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, Paolo Duterte’s political influence is an amalgam of different politicians’ perceptions of where power resides in the Duterte regime.)

But the main factor that convinced me there was truth to the speculation that a new configuration of political forces would deny the speakership to Cayetano was Mr. Duterte’s reported threat to boycott the proceedings if Cayetano lost. If I followed the sequence correctly, it was only after this threat became public that Paolo Duterte received a phone call from his sister, relaying the message that they were to “respect the decision of the President.”

(It is interesting to note, first, that Paolo ended up not attending his own breakfast meeting, and second, the threat to boycott the State of the Nation Address was relayed through Sen. Bong Go, part of the faction promoting Cayetano.)

When Cayetano finally took his oath as Speaker, he was joined at the podium by, among others, the leaders of the factions: the young Duterte, Rep. Lord Allan Velasco of Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) and Rep. Martin Romualdez, a close ally of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s. The tableau was meant to be a show of unity, but I could not have been the only observer to read the scene as a snapshot of division, a sign of imminent conflict: Despite his election, Cayetano has not managed to reduce the power or influence of the Davao group, the official administration party PDP-Laban or Arroyo’s proteges.

If, as I have argued before, the power struggle in Congress is a preview of post-Duterte politics, the coronation of Speaker Cayetano is both proof of the President’s political power and a reminder of how difficult the administration’s coalition balancing act is.

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

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TAGS: 18th Congress, Alan Peter Cayetano, House speakership, john Nery, Newsstand, Rodrigo Duterte
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