The majority’s minority
The rules of the House of Representatives clearly define who the Minority Leader ought to be. “The Minority Leader shall be elected by the Members of the Minority and can be changed, at any time, by a majority vote of all the Minority Members.” At the same time, the tradition of the House, as it is in the Senate, is that the minority fields a candidate for Speaker (or Senate President); upon losing the contest, that candidate becomes the Minority Leader.
In the Senate last Monday, Sen. Ralph Recto of the Liberal Party contested the position of Senate President. When he lost to Sen. Koko Pimentel, he became Senate Minority Leader. At almost the same time, Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez was elected by an overwhelming majority in the House. Rep. Teddy Baguilat of the Liberal Party came in second with eight votes, while Rep. Danny Suarez of the United Nationalist Alliance ended up third, with seven votes. A total of 21 representatives abstained.
Tradition should have moved the minority to proclaim Baguilat Minority Leader. But instead, in a subsequent meeting boycotted by Baguilat’s group, Suarez was elected leader by those who voted for him in plenary and, crucially, by many of the 21 who abstained.
Crucial, because as even UNA stalwart Rep. Toby Tiangco asserted, these representatives who abstained were borrowed from the majority, to ensure that the majority’s choice of Minority Leader would be elected. He resigned as president of UNA, the campaign vehicle for the presidential candidacy of former vice president Jojo Binay, because he said Binay had met with Alvarez and Suarez to fix the results. “They said they did not want the Liberal Party to become the minority and they will help UNA, giving it votes to beat LP. Of course, provided that Congressman Danny Suarez becomes Minority Leader,” Tiangco said.
LP members knew of this plan the week before, when former Speaker Sonny Belmonte had decided to run for Minority Leader. We understand that last-minute consultations within the LP led Belmonte to cast his lot with the majority, to avoid the humiliation of a manufactured loss.
Suarez had a cosmic explanation for the twist. “Maybe it’s karma,” he said, noting that the LP had pulled the same maneuver in 2013. With Belmonte’s majority assured, the LP had allowed or instructed some of its allies to vote for Ronaldo Zamora of the Nacionalista Party as Minority Leader, to ensure that Martin Romualdez of Lakas-CMD would not win.
That was an underhanded tactic then; it is an underhanded tactic now.
Check and balance are a fundamental part of the democratic project; the manufacturing of the political equivalent of a company union undermines that base. To be sure, one does not need to be a member of the opposition party, or indeed of any party, to serve as genuine opposition. Our own history provides enough examples of party members resisting or opposing a legislative measure or a political position of fellow members, even of the Speaker or the President. But apart from individual conscience, institutional opposition is a necessary element of the check-and-balance principle.
Why would Alvarez desire control over even the minority, when he has—as was the case in the past two Congresses—what has been called a supermajority? The news that President Duterte has changed his mind about calling for a constitutional convention, and instead will entrust the revision of the Constitution to the chambers of Congress convened as a constituent assembly, gives Alvarez even more political influence.
Now, the Baguilat bloc is considering filing a case at the Supreme Court. It will have a difficult argument to make, because the Court can intervene in the affairs of its coequal branches of government only if it is proven that there was “grave abuse of discretion.”
Will the discarding of that longstanding tradition, where the plenary voting for Speaker is also considered the minority’s forum for electing its leader, constitute discretionary abuse? Will the loan, so to speak, of majority allies rise to the level of grave abuse? As we said, it will be difficult.
But there might be a real legal issue hidden in all this. In Monday’s plenary session, Suarez voted for Alvarez—a courtesy vote, yes, but by the House’s own rules, that vote made Suarez a member of the majority. “Members who vote for the winning candidate for Speaker shall constitute the Majority in the House …”
Can a member of the majority serve as Minority Leader? That’s another way of phrasing the real question: Should the majority choose its own minority?
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