Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago sees in her crystal ball the fight for the Senate presidency of the 16th Congress turning into a toss-up between Sen. Franklin Drilon of the Liberal Party (LP) and Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano of the Nacionalista Party (NP).
Drilon served as campaign manager of the administration-backed Team PNoy senatorial slate, while Cayetano ran as an NP senatorial candidate who got the biggest number of votes among colleagues from the party who ran under the Team PNoy coalition.
In a radio interview, Santiago said Drilon could be expecting the Senate presidency as his “reward” for his efforts in ensuring Team PNoy’s smooth-running campaign.
Team PNoy—the coalition forged by LP, NP, Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), a member of PDP-Laban and independent candidates—won nine of the 12 Senate seats up for grabs in the midterm elections. Drilon attended more provincial sorties during the 90-day national campaign than most of the slate’s candidates.
Observers note that while President Aquino has not openly stated his preference for Drilon as the successor of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, the former’s allies have referred to Drilon as the next Senate President.
“The Senate presidency is the will of the majority in the 16th Congress. In the coming weeks, we will carefully listen to the views of my colleagues on the Senate leadership,” Drilon said on Sunday. Cayetano could not be contacted for comment.
For now, Enrile can rest easy.
The administration won’t force any change in Senate leadership when senators resume sessions briefly in early June to close the 15th Congress, a senior Malacañang official said Sunday.
“Numerically [we have it], but what for?” Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said of the 13 votes needed to elect a new Senate President. “I think the senators would prefer to end the 15th Congress in a friendly, amicable tone, rather than make it a point for division.”
No need to rock boat
Besides, Abad added, there was no need to rock the boat since administration senators would still be working with Enrile, and Senators Vicente Sotto III, Jinggoy Estrada and Gregorio Honasan II in the coming 16th Congress.
“Why do you create rancor when you don’t need to?” Abad, a senior political adviser to Aquino, said by phone.
After adjourning in early February for the May 13 midterm elections, lawmakers will resume sessions on June 5 and 6. They’ll adjourn sine die from June 7 to July 21.
Although the President “always holds his cards close to his chest,” he would have to make his choice known at some point and pick someone who will sustain his legislative agenda, said Santiago, whose term ends in 2016.
As it is, Aquino should not worry about his pick being acceptable to other senators, she said.
Vote of confidence
According to Santiago, the vote of confidence the President earned following the victory of a majority of his senatorial candidates is enough proof that he continues to have the support of the people.
“But the obvious effect of the last political exercise is that President Aquino’s leadership has even strengthened and he could use this development to further his projects…. He will have more confidence to assert his leadership,” Santiago said.
The LP would have only four senators in the 16th Congress, including Drilon, Ralph Recto, Teofisto “TG” Guingona III and neophyte Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV.
The NP, on the other hand, has five—Cayetano, Antonio Trillanes IV, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., Pia Cayetano and neophyte Cynthia Villar.
Santiago, an independent, is usually counted among the NP senators given her closeness to most of them. She said that while the LP was outnumbered, no senator at this point would dare antagonize the President’s political party.
It is more likely that all senators friendly to the administration would support Aquino’s chosen one. [These may include Francis Escudero and Grace Poe, independents who won under the Team PNoy banner; Sonny Angara of LDP; and Koko Pimentel of PDP-Laban—all of whom won in the Senate race as candidates of Team PNoy; and Senators Kiko Pangilinan and Serge Osmeña.
Santiago does not discount, however, that Cayetano would consider putting up a fight for the Senate presidency. “Cynthia is the most senior among the NP senators. She could have a chance given that the NP members outnumber those from the LP but she is very shy,” she noted.
“Alan may try to seek the (Senate presidency),” Santiago added.
Santiago declared that the new membership of the Senate would spell the death knell for Enrile’s continued stay as its head.
As it is, Enrile could only rely on himself and his loyal followers including Estrada, Sotto and Honasan.
The four senators are fondly referred to as the “macho bloc” of the chamber.
“Enrile’s ambition to stay as Senate President is dead,” Santiago said tersely.
Apart from the macho bloc, Santiago said there was no one else that Enrile could rely on for support.
Santiago dismissed expectations that Jinggoy’s brother, Senator-elect JV Ejercito of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), would automatically vote for Enrile.
“JV would go for whoever is supported by his father, former President Joseph Estrada. But remember that the situation is not static, just because Enrile and his father are allies now doesn’t mean they would stay that way forever,” she said.
How about Nancy Binay who, like JV, won her Senate seat under UNA?
Santiago pointed out that Nancy’s father, Vice President Jejomar Binay, “is a member of the Cabinet of President Aquino. It’s not automatic that just because she ran under UNA, she is immediately pro-Enrile.”
“I would place a question mark beside (Nancy’s) name,” the senator added.
Enrile, former President Estrada and Vice President Binay are regarded as the “three kings” of UNA.
Nancy and JV are expected to support Enrile in case he decides to make another go for the Senate presidency.
Abad said a leadership change during the 16th Congress would be the natural consequence of having a bigger administration majority following the victory of nine administration coalition candidates.
He said Aquino campaigned aggressively for his 12 handpicked Team PNoy candidates precisely to achieve this goal.
“The President would like to see the majority in both chambers, and would like to see this reflected in the leadership,” he said.
At least 16 Aquino allies
Going into the 16th Congress opening in late July, Abad has counted at least 16 administration allies, more than enough to elect a new leader from their ranks and push the President’s legislative agenda.
Based on Abad’s list, the new majority would consist of Loren Legarda, Escudero, Cayetano, Pimentel and Trillanes; new senators Poe, Aquino, Villar and Angara; veterans Drilon, Recto and Guingona, all of LP; Osmeña, Lito Lapid, Pia Cayetano and Santiago.
“We will have a bigger majority, compared with the 15th Congress,” Abad said. But he said they would have to decide among themselves whom to elect to the Senate presidency.
Abad ruled out the possibility of Aquino calling Enrile about the leadership change.
“I don’t think that’s appropriate. The election of the leadership in Congress is a matter that is internal to the senators and House members. And knowing this President, he will not want to intervene in that process,” he said.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, who won a fresh term, is expected to coast to another term as Speaker in the 16th Congress, Abad said.
“It’s his to turn down. But I think he (Belmonte) will continue on. He did very well; there’s no reason he should not. Members of the House will appeal to him to continue on,” he said.
Talk things over
Santiago said the best strategy for Aquino’s allies in the Senate was to talk things over among themselves to strengthen their hold on the majority.
“If it’s going to be Drilon and Alan (as contenders), they must first resolve their intramural. Otherwise, the coalition would break and it would fall in the hands of Enrile. He will do everything he can to destroy the coalition of the LP, NP and NPC,” Santiago said.
Asked about Marcos’ role in the majority, Santiago said the senator would be ready to talk to the LP, the people in Malacañang and even President Aquino.
“Both know that in politics, you cannot be inflexible. You have to be flexible, you cannot fight with everyone like what I do,” she said in jest.
“If I may not be so imprudent, I think both are willing to come to terms with each other and refuse to fight. Politics is addition. I don’t think they would dwell on the past because to do so is counterproductive,” she added.
Santiago said she was not dismissing the possibility that Marcos was also looking forward to a higher position in 2016.
Marcos’ father, the late dictator and his namesake, was the chief tormentor of President Aquino’s father, a former senator and namesake as well. It is still widely believed that the late Marcos may have played a role in the assassination of the late senator.