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As Duterte tightens grip on House, opposition solons retool for a big fight

THE WHIMS OF THE EXECUTIVE WILL BE CURBED BY THE VOX POPULI
/ 07:33 PM July 21, 2019

MANILA, Philippines – It’s barely a day before the 18th Congress officially opens, with the opposition House members facing the same old but yet dangerous prospects of a chamber run by the allies and family members of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The 18th Congress will be a “Duterte show” all over again, according to University of the Philippines Associate Professor and Kontra Daya convener Danilo Arao. While the previous Senate somehow had a certain “degree of independence,” Arao pointed out that this time, Duterte has his hands clawed on both chambers of the incoming Congress.

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This, coupled with the numbers game and personality politics ruling over the institution, would make it harder for the opposition to counter the administration’s questionable bills.

According to data provided by Albay 2nd District Rep. Joey Salceda, of the 306 members of the incoming Congress, only 18 belong to the opposition Liberal Party (LP) and six to the progressive Makabayan independent bloc. The opposition is a measly 7.8 percent of the entire force that could make or break Duterte’s legislative agenda in his remaining three years in power.

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What is notable now, Arao said, was the growing influence of Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP), the regional political party formed by Duterte’s daughter, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio.

“HNP and PDP [Partido Demokratiko Pilipino–Lakas ng Bayan] are practically the same. It’s reflective of the kind of politics that we have, it’s really very personality-oriented and it is driven by whoever has the resources, mainly financial, that can ensure one with a seat whether in Congress or any position of power at the national or local level,” he told INQUIRER.net in an interview.

Salceda said PDP-Laban has 84 members elected in the House, while another 25 form part of various local political parties including HNP. The rest, he said, are members of the party-list coalition, the Nacionalista Party, Nationalist People’s Coalition and National Unity Party.

After presidential son and Davao City 1st District Rep. Paolo Duterte had threatened to join the fiasco that is the Speaker race, Sara’s HNP fielded Davao City 3rd District Rep. Isidro Ungab for the Speaker seat. But Paolo of Hugpong sa Tawong Lungsod later withdrew his plan and threw his hat in Ungab’s side, forming what they dubbed as the “Duterte Coalition” in a bid to “unite” the “divided” chamber.

READ: Paolo Duterte reverses plan to join Speaker race; endorses Ungab

A ‘family decision’

“The race for the speakership has become some sort of a family decision,” political analyst Jean Encinas-Franco told INQUIRER.net in an interview.

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Paolo’s plan to wield the Speaker’s gavel, although foiled, “creates a perception in the minds of the Filipino people that political dynasties indeed rule the kind of politics that [the country has],” the UP Political Science Associate Professor added.

But even before the former Davao vice mayor retreated from the battle for Speaker, Encinas-Franco already doubted his intention, citing the President’s promise that he would step down if his son vies for the position. She also said his move was just aimed at stirring the “bargaining” for the Speaker seat.

Paolo, however, is not totally out of the scene as he, together with other district and party-list congressmen from Davao, formed the “Duterte coalition.” Meanwhile, Sara’s possible 2022 presidential run has worked for the benefit of their family and to the detriment of the opposition, according to Encinas-Franco.

“Mas mahirap kasi the (It’s harder for the opposition in the House because the) President is still very popular and the perception that Sara Duterte may run may make some members of Congress adopt a wait-and-see attitude and it may be difficult for them to go against the President even if they think that some proposals may not really be that good,” the analyst said.

“It’s as if Duterte has a second term,” she added.

Aside from Ungab, Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez, Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco and Taguig-Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano have also bared their plans to lead the House. But following Paolo’s alliance with Ungab, Romualdez and Velasco had already committed their support for the newly formed group.

Come Duterte’s endorsement of a term-sharing between Cayetano and Velasco, the House leadership row should have been settled but threats of a looming coup was revealed by no less than the President’s son.

“May election pa sa July 22 at doon ako mas interesado, kung sino ang manalo. Kasi may balita balita, may isa sa tatlo na balak mag coup d’etat on the day. Mukhang hindi pa tapos ang laban para sa kanilang tatlo at sa mga backers nila,” Paolo told INQUIRER.net, without naming the contender.

(“There is an election for peaker on July 22, I’m more interested in that. There are rumors that a candidate is planning to stage a coup d’ etat on that day. It appears the speakership race is far from over.”)

READ: Paolo Duterte says speaker race far from over, hints at looming coup

Although it appears Cayetano and Paolo had already reached an agreement with the former announcing the latter’s acceptance of the Deputy Speaker for Political Affairs post, the situation could still change.

Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, Makabayan bloc’s bet for Speaker, meanwhile said HNP’s proposal to divide the key positions in the chamber among its allies was “truly emblematic of what ails the country’s patronage system.”

READ: Zarate: ‘Duterte coalition’ cracks widening amid race for Speaker

HNP earlier suggested that Cayetano take the Majority Leader position, Velasco the powerful appropriations committee and Romualdez the accounts panel.

The proposed division, Zarate said, was clearly aimed at “stalling the inevitable head-on collision of the factions of the Duterte coalition,” and “posturing… themselves in the run-up to the 2022 elections.”

“What the Filipino people want and need now is a Speaker of the House of Representatives who will truly stand for the interest of the majority of the population and not one who would just bow down to the whims and wishes of Malacañang and the country’s big political and economic interests,” Zarate underscored.

Although Arao believes Zarate does not have the “illusion” of becoming the Speaker, the educator sees Zarate’s move as a “symbolic way” of “telling the people that we should have a choice.”

The challenge

Encinas-Franco sees that the Speaker race circus along with talks of term-sharing, would eventually delay the legislative agenda of the Duterte administration.

“The position of the Speaker will be very unstable and it can cause delays in pushing for the legislative agenda in the House. It can also sort of create confusion later on as to who is going to be again… the minority [leader],” she warned.

The opposition should see this as an opportunity to strengthen their visibility to the public and to continuously push for meaningful legislation, Encinas-Franco and Arao said.

Both experts also see LP’s plan to join the majority or vote for the winning Speaker as an attempt to somehow preserve what’s left of them and to secure projects and budgetary support for their constituents.

“It’s always about interest but more than the self, it has to do with class interest as well,” Arao said.

LP stalwart Caloocan City 2nd District Rep. Edgar Erice, meanwhile, said they would be doing this for their members.

LP Secretary-General and Quezon City 6th District Rep. Jose Christopher “Kit” Belmonte had assured that the LP in the House would remain “steadfast to [their] principles” despite of them possibly joining the Majority.

READ: LP exec on plan to join House majority: ‘We’ll stick to our principles’

“We will continue to push for genuine democracy in the House: One that recognizes and encourages different opinions; that does not punish dissent; and that allows for a true people’s minority,” Belmonte added in a statement.

Members of the House are set to elect their Speaker at the inaugural opening of the 18th Congress on July 22. When all else fails, Encinas-Franco said the opposition could reach out to every Filipino’s “societal accountability” to pressure House members against legislating deplorable bills. She said this strategy could work, believing that some lawmakers would listen to the pulse of the people.

For instance, the future of the controversial and unpopular shift to federalism would be dimmer for this coming Congress, according to Encinas-Franco.

“[Year] 2022 is just around the corner and politicians don’t wish to rock the boat when elections are very near,” she said.

Although faced with unfavorable odds, neophyte representatives from the opposition believe that the plight of the marginalized and oppressed are always worth the fight.

Bayan Muna Rep. Eufemia Cullamat, a Manobo tribeswoman from Surigao del Sur, said her being elected to public office is a chance to tell the true stories of the marginalized indigenous people.

“Bilang bagong representante ng Congress na nanggaling talaga sa marginalized sector, marami akong gustong isabi roon para mamulat kahit ang ating mga kasamahan kung ano talaga ang tunay na kalagayan namin na pambansang minorya,” Cullamat said.

(As a new representative of Congress who hails from a marginalized sector, I’d like to tell my fellow legislators the true stories and plight of our national minority.)

Her fellow Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite, meanwhile, underscored that the 18th Congress should strive to be independent of the whims of the Executive branch, although almost impossible.

“Hinalal ang bawat kinatawan sa Kongreso na supposedly independent from Malacañang at dapat tumitindig siya sa wasto at tama…” Gaite underscored.

(Each representative of Congress is elected to public office supposedly independent from Malacañang and we should stand up for what is just and right.)/jpv/ac

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