Ties that bind: Duterte and Alvarez go back a long way
House Speaker-in-waiting Pantaleon “Bebot” Alvarez is not only a trusted friend and confidante of Davao Mayor Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte. He is the presumptive next President’s travel buddy, political adviser, fellow adventurer and, above all, cheerleader.
The ties that bind the two men go back two decades, during the 11th Congress, when both were junior congressmen idling away their time at the House of Representatives.
Duterte, who got bored with legislative work, served only one term in Congress, while Alvarez’s first term was interrupted in January 2001, when the fledgling Arroyo administration picked him to be the secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications, a post he held until July 5, 2002.
In one of the lunchtime chats between the Davao del Norte lawmaker and Duterte, the congressman turned to his older colleague and told him, “Pare, you should run for President. You’d surely win.”
Duterte snickered. “He told me, ‘who are you kidding? Find someone else to flatter,’” recalled Alvarez, who won another mandate as district representative after a 15-year absence from the House.
That light banter in 1998 helped solidify the budding friendship between the two sons of Mindanao, and would prove prophetic 18 years later.
In an hour-long interview with the Inquirer on Wednesday, Alvarez gave a revealing portrait of his relationship with the 71-year-old Duterte, the godfather of one of his children.
More than just a friend, Alvarez is a true believer who talks of the incoming President in the same glowing terms and worshipping tone often heard among die-hard Duterte fans. “I will give him 100 percent support because I believe in him,” the congressman said. “I believe in his leadership. He has no other objective except to change the nation.”
Alvarez added: “I have seen his character as a leader. I think this man is the right fit to be our President. He is a very sincere person. He is not a hypocrite.”
In fact, added the congressman, that’s how he earned Duterte’s trust. “There’s no fakery between us. I’m sincere with him. I can say what I want to say to him.”
Now entrenched within the Davao mayor’s inner circle, Alvarez, a transportation secretary under the Arroyo administration, has been tapped by Duterte’s PDP-Laban party to challenge current Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. for the House leadership.
The presumptive President-elect, after all, needs a loyal lieutenant in the House—first, to foil any impeachment attempt against the Chief Executive and, second, to advance his legislative agenda.
“I thought he was kidding,” said Alvarez, whom Duterte had started referring to as “Speaker” in the early days of their campaign.
“In the last two weeks of the campaign, he told me at Marco Polo [Hotel in Davao], ‘pare, it looks like we’re good to go. Start working on the speakership,’” he recalled.
“I told him, ‘pare, I haven’t even won yet!’” he said with a laugh.
So can anyone say “no” to Duterte?
“As long as you explain to him why there is a better solution,” Alvarez said. “He has an open mind… Just don’t tell him ‘this is what you should do,’” he added.
As scores of old, new and returning lawmakers cozy up to the Duterte camp, Alvarez claims to have secured at least 180 votes, enough to seize the leadership from Belmonte in the 290-member chamber.
Away from the public’s prying eyes, the congressman-elect describes the outgoing Davao mayor as a toughie who has a soft core. Once, he saw the mayor sobbing after a visit from a cancer patient. Another time, he caught the official weeping upon seeing the size of the rapturous crowd at a campaign rally.
The two buddies love going on adventure trips together. Recently they flew an ultralight two-seater plane over Pampanga. “(It was) like riding a motorcycle in the air,” Alvarez recalled.
Despite Duterte’s macho image, the mayor “doesn’t drink or smoke,” the congressman said. “But he loves to talk. We talk about so many things… women, light moments… girlfriends,” he added.
Duterte, whose political career has capitalized on his man-of-the-masses persona, has simple joys, one of them eating his favorite dish, “inun unan” (fish stewed in vinegar), with his hands, Alvarez said, adding that on a recent trip to Australia before the campaign period, they spent time just “walking around, eating.”
But as close as Alvarez is to Duterte, his hold on the mayor is not absolute.
“He’s a tough person to influence,” Alvarez said. “He has his own mind. No matter what you say, he would just nod as if he agreed with you. Then you’d realize later he did not follow your advice.”
The man who might be Duterte’s whip in Congress is a graduate of Ateneo Law School who practiced law from 1984 to 1986. He then shifted to a career in public service as a member of Sen. Wigberto Tañada’s staff from 1987 to 1992.
Alvarez worked briefly at the Manila International Airport Authority as senior assistant general manager and chief operating officer from March 1995 to September 1997.
It was for this stint that he, along with five other officials, faced a plunder complaint in 2001 for awarding in 1996 the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 build-operate-transfer contract to Philippine International Air Terminals Co. Inc. (Piatco).
‘Lack of evidence’
According to sources, Alvarez’s wife owned 33 percent of Wintrack Builders Inc., the company that did excavation work with Piatco, and profited immensely from it. But the case was dismissed by the Office of the Ombudsman that same year for “lack of evidence.”
“I really had nothing to do with that,” Alvarez said of the plunder complaint. “I was just harassed… I was in the technical working group, which had no discretion to award the contract.”
He added: “I had no role in it, which was why, during the hearing, no evidence was presented. No witnesses testified.”
Alvarez is married to Emelita Apostol, with whom he has four children. He also has two children from a first marriage. The family lives in Makati City.
One could say that Alvarez had a crucial role in Duterte’s storybook ascension to the presidency.
It was he who convinced PDP-Laban in October last year to have one party member file a certificate of candidacy (COC) on the last day so that Duterte, who was resistant to the idea, could substitute for him should the mayor change his mind later. That member turned out to be Martin Diño, who filed a COC for Pasay mayor.
But Duterte was so vocal against running for the top post that at one point, Sen. Koko Pimentel told Alvarez: “Bai, wag na natin pahirapan. Ayaw nya talaga (Let’s not make this tough for him. He really doesn’t want to run).”
To which Alvarez replied: “Hayaan mo na (just let it be), so we’d have a chance. We have until Dec. 8,” he said, referring to the deadline for substitutions.
In the end, three men made the decision for that last-minute filing which, in hindsight, became a turning point in the 2016 election: Alvarez, Pimentel and Duterte’s right hand man, Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, who ultimately gave the go-signal for Diño to file his COC on the mayor’s behalf.
Alvarez recounted how, as the tough-talking Duterte hemmed and hawed about a possible presidential run, the congressman showed him a YouTube clip of the “Takbo (run) Duterte” music video, urging him to enter the presidential fray. “I saw he was tearing up. I thought, ‘patay ka ngayon (you’re dead).’ We’re getting close,” he recalled, chuckling.
No rubber stamp
In the next six years, the friendship between Duterte and Alvarez will be closely watched and severely tested, as the former assumes the No. 1 post in the land and—if all goes according to plan—the latter secures No. 4.
“It will definitely not be a rubber stamp, but an implementer of the program of the Duterte administration,” Alvarez said of his vision for the House.
“As Speaker, I will be guided by the advocacies and promises of the President during the campaign. He was elected on the basis of those platforms,” he said.
There are three priorities, said Alvarez: The shift to a federal form of government through constitutional amendment, the revival of the death penalty and the restoration of the Ledac, or the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council, which did not see action during the Aquino administration.
Like Duterte, Alvarez demonstrated during the Inquirer interview a propensity for blithely dismissing questions about specifics on certain issues.
Asked how he could muster the absolute three-fourths vote required to change any part of the Charter, Alvarez said: “I don’t see a problem because we have explained it to the people. Members of Congress are there because they represent the sentiments of the constituents.”
Asked how the House leadership could maintain unity in the ranks in the absence of pork barrel as bargaining chip, Alvarez shrugged, saying: “That’s not a problem. What is pork barrel for? It’s for the people, right? Besides, every year, Congress will have to provide a budget for infrastructure, education and health projects.”
He was also dismissive of the opposition by church and human rights groups to the death penalty, saying: “What is their solution to heinous crimes? If they are so opposed, why don’t they offer their own solutions?”
The Ledac, Alvarez said, would be vital in pushing Duterte’s programs and creating a smooth flow between Malacañang and the two chambers of Congress in enacting priority bills. He said President Aquino’s reluctance to convene the Ledac, a brainchild of the Ramos administration, could be “because he’s lazy.”
Alvarez said his friend Duterte would show “a different leadership” from the ones before him. TVJ
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