Power struggle in Congress

By: John Nery - @jnery_newsstand - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | October 13,2020 - 09:00 AM

We can be morally indignant at the power struggle in the House of Representatives, happening out in the open in the middle of a pandemic that the government has barely contained. We can be coldly analytical about the alignment of political blocs in Congress and the matrix of possible alliances and probable consequences. But those of us critical of the Duterte program of government should not let indignation color our analysis.Yes, the Cayetano and Velasco factions both belong to the administration supermajority. But even though we may feel like shouting, “A pox on both your houses,” we should not read the situation as “It’s all the same, no matter who wins.”

It matters that Alan Peter Cayetano has his hour of reckoning. He was responsible for the haphazard preparations for the 2019 Southeast Asian Games which stained the country’s reputation; even President Duterte had to apologize for the bad press the country received. “You cannot just cast away all those, the discomfort, the sufferings of the athletes… sleeping on the floors, waiting for so many hours, getting hungry,” the President said, the day before the Games opened. On top of all this, the Philippine SEA Games Organizing Committee (Phisgoc), the private organization Cayetano established to run the event, has remaining payables (which may have to be subsidized by the government). Many in the ruling coalition wanted him investigated back then, as an administration personality told me last December. And judging by his statements in the last few weeks, he knows that once he loses the speakership his own allies may investigate him. If he has nothing to hide, then good for him. But an investigation into the failures and possible anomalies of Phisgoc is overdue and still needed. (See my “Of course Cayetano is to blame,” 12/3/19.)

It also matters that Cayetano, mere months after he killed the franchise of the TV and radio network that turned his family into a political dynasty, will be forced to honor the very term-sharing agreement which made his election as speaker possible. He was, of course, only following the President’s expressed desire, but it was during his term that the unthinkable happened, and those who criticized him for his role in rejecting the new ABS-CBN franchise must see his ouster as karmic in nature. This is not to say that Lord Allan Velasco, his rival for speaker, would not have killed the ABS-CBN franchise if he had been in charge. He undoubtedly would have. But if the political opposition cannot see any difference between the two, then I worry about the opposition. It was Cayetano who put the budget at risk, when he suddenly adjourned the session more than a week ahead of schedule. As Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo has pointed out, a reenacted budget would damage an already weakened economy and wreak havoc on the government’s coronavirus response. Adjournment without notice to avoid ouster is reason enough to be ousted.

Some critics of the government see the hand of the President’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Inday Sara Duterte, behind Velasco. They would be right if what they mean is that the young Duterte was an influential backer. Politics IS addition. But they would be wrong if they think that the campaign to remove Cayetano from the speaker’s post was masterminded by the mayor, or designed to turn her into presidential timber. Many made the mistake before in ascribing former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s sudden election as speaker in 2018 to Inday Sara. (See my “How much power does Inday Sara have?” 5/28/19.) The young Duterte was an influential supporter of Arroyo’s, and her anger against Pantaleon Alvarez helped focus Congress’ attention on Speaker Alvarez’s turn from friendly cowboy to the sultan of the session hall.

As for her political plans, she remains one of the President’s exit strategies—a reluctant one, from all indications, and one who has thus far not yet generated the same kind of anticipation as her father did in 2015. But is installing Velasco part of a grand plan? It is true that Inday Sara cannot stand Cayetano, and has more than once dropped large hints on social media; it is also true that she and Velasco have much more in common. But it is paranoia to think that the mayor is masterminding Velasco’s ascent.

It is possible that her role will be spun again, turning her into the key that opened the chamber’s door for Velasco, but I think at this time politicians and their operators already know just how limited the reach of Inday Sara’s Hugpong is. Her role this time around is also different from during the Arroyo-Alvarez power struggle, of which her father had no inkling. Then, she was seen as anti-Alvarez; today she is seen as pro-Duterte. Her support for Velasco is understood as another proxy for the President’s imprimatur. The only politician whose presidential plans are definitely affected will be Cayetano.

Will a reinvigorated Velasco at the helm of the House, rather than a weakened Cayetano, mean the President’s odds of anointing a successor have gone up? Not necessarily. Murmurs promising reconciliation are being heard, but the factions in the House that competed for the speakership in 2019 are still there, each one nursing wounds, each one keeping score.

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

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