President Rodrigo Duterte late Thursday made a rare, unscheduled address to the nation. He told his two allies in the House of Representatives to prioritize the passage of the 2021 budget over their leadership feud. He refused to invoke a term-sharing deal that he helped broker.
This left Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano to fight off attempts by Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco to implement the 2019 "gentleman's agreement" that Velasco would take over by Oct. 14. What are Velasco's chances? Cayetano put the House on recess until mid-November after passing the budget on second reading late Tuesday. This effectively shut the door to a turnover by mid-October.
Cayetano said Velasco must prove that he has the numbers to be elected speaker. The Marinduque congressman said the House leader's actions showed he lacked support to keep his post. Senate leaders said the squabble endangered the timeline for the P4.5 trillion 2021 budget that is designed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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"We see that the melodrama in Congress is a reflection of several political realities. One, it shows that the President is loosening his grip on his supposed allies in the legislature," Ateneo de Manila University political science professor Richard Heydarian told reportr. As Philippine presidents, who are not eligible for reelection, near the end of their term, their influence diminishes, called the "lame duck" years by pundits, said Heydarian.
Malacanang had said that the President should not be dragged into the rivalry in the House, which is for the co-equal branch of government to solve. Cayetano and Velasco met with Duterte a few weeks back to resolve the impasse but got no public statement from the President until Thursday.
"We're seeing here Duterte's worry that this tussle among his allies will once again undermine budget deliberations and the effectiveness of Conrgess to deliver its primary duty," Heydarian told reportr.
The passage of the 2019 budget was delayed, resulting in a slower than expected GDP growth the following year. In the year when that budget bill was tackled, Pampanga Congresswoman and Former President Gloria Arroyo staged a coup and ousted Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. Lawmakers also argued lengthily about alleged insertions in the budget.
If a national budget fails to pass in time, on Jan. 1, the country will temporarily operate on the 2020 national budget and that was crafter before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The undercurrent: Elections in 2022
The speakership fight underscores preparations for the 2022 elections. It's become a proxy fight, Heydarian said. Cayetano could run for higher office and Velasco is known to be close to Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio. Neither Cayetano nor Duterte-Carpio have revealed their plans for 2022.
"Cayetano has become a man of his own. Let's not forget, he ran for vice president," Heydarian said. "Here we see the limit of President Duterte's grip on his so-called allies."
The speaker has also shown one thing to his 2016 running mate, according to Heydarian, political astuteness. "He is much appreciated for his astuteness in creating his own political realities on the ground."
Before Duterte brokered the term-sharing, Velasco was considered a sure bet for the speakership. Velasco helped campaign for Hugpong ng Pagbabago, the senatorial ticket backed by Duterte-Carpio.
Interviewed on ANC's Headstart on Friday, Velasco said Duterte told him that they were both fooled (nadenggoy) by Cayetano. He said he would push for his assumption to the House leadership and that he had the numbers.
"We have to show the public na pag may salita tayo, tinutupad natin ito. We are called ‘Honorables’ because we keep our honor. Kailangan, pag nagbibitiw tayo ng salita, tinutupad natin," he said.