Only one sure winner emerged from the seemingly pointless Cayetano-Velasco contention for the Speakership of the House of Representatives. It wasn’t so much Lord Allan Velasco, and it most certainly was not the Filipino people. It was President Rodrigo Duterte and his increasingly powerful provincial dynasty.
Velasco’s prevailing over Alan Peter Cayetano could have been a victory for the citizenry had the contest for Speaker been over differences between the two in, first among others, their understanding of what the House, as part of a supposedly co-equal branch of government, is or should be, such as, for example, one or the other’s affirming its role in the defense of the Republic and expanding what little is left of democratic space in this country.
Operationally, recognition and affirmation of that responsibility would mean its members’, with the encouragement and support of the Speaker, introducing and passing bills that would, for example, contribute to strengthening rather than weakening the Bill of Rights, and, in the present instance, closely examining the proposed 2021 budget with the interests of the citizenry rather than themselves in mind, and despite Presidential preferences.
But the contest was nothing of the kind. Cayetano and Velasco are apparently equally indifferent to the state of human rights and what it means to this alleged democracy. Velasco is as loyal and as submissive to President Duterte as the most fanatical diehards among his Lower House cohorts and the benighted sectors of the population.
The scuffle over the House leadership would have been no more than a meaningless media spectacle and a complete waste of time. But it proved to be of some value by once again reminding us all in whose hands is virtually all power in this country concentrated.
Like the rest of the “supermajority” coven in the House, and with the wishes of Mr. Duterte in mind, Velasco voted for the Anti-Terror Bill and against the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise. His campaign for the Speakership was neither due to a disagreement with Cayetano over the principles of governance, nor about the imperative for the House to regain and defend its independence, nor about heeding the sentiments of that chamber’s constituency, 75 percent of which opposed the shutdown of ABS-CBN. There was in fact more than a hint in his statements before it ended that at the core of the struggle for power between him and Cayetano was who could better please the President and the rest of the Dutertes.
Despite their being political clones of each other, Velasco nevertheless did win against Cayetano. But other than in terms of the power and access to billions that he has thereby gained, his victory is hardly any assurance that he will realize whatever ambitions he may have for 2022. And, unless he and his accomplices manage to extend their terms, he will hold the now less than exalted post of Speaker only until the second quarter of that year. He does have the support of the Dutertes — Paolo, Sara, and their father — but since the family has its own plans, that may not matter much in 2022. Velasco, however, probably thinks that the Dutertes will be around even after their patriarch exits the political stage, and that he will need their help in the distant future when and if he runs for the Presidency himself. (The Speakership is traditionally a stepping stone to that post, hence Cayetano’s attempt to cling to it and Velasco’s contesting it.)
It is either that, or his conviction that President Duterte will still be in power after 2022, because, as some sectors are planning, he could run as his daughter Sara’s Vice Presidential partner then, or, as some perennially self-aggrandizing term-extension plotters have been suggesting, there will be no elections that year. It seems that Velasco is looking beyond 2022 and planning for the long term — and believes that the Dutertes will continue to dominate Philippine politics for sometime to come.
Those possibilities help explain why, despite the mere year-and-a-half left of President Duterte’s six-year term, it is still the Dutertes who were the clear winners in the Cayetano-Velasco dispute. No doubt with the urging of his son and daughter, Mr. Duterte threw his support behind Velasco and in effect warned Cayetano that the family will not brook any resistance to their wishes.
Definitely the loser in the process, Cayetano apparently gave hardly any thought to the possibility that his presidential ambitions will conflict with those of Sara Duterte’s. His abject apology for daring to imagine that he could butt heads with the Dutertes with impunity similarly affirms that despite the approaching end of his term, Mr. Duterte is still likely to remain as politically dominant as ever, perhaps as the power behind his daughter’s throne. Whatever ambitions Cayetano has for 2022 seem to have been dashed to pieces by his former patron. Unless he abandons his ambitions for a higher office, he will therefore have to look elsewhere for support. But that he will find such an alternative by 2022 that will enable him to credibly contest the Presidency seems doubtful.
But the bigger losers in Cayetano’s dispute with Velasco are again the Republic and the Filipino people. With hardly any revision, and with its priorities skewed in favor of pork barrel perks, and its allocating huge confidential and intelligence funds for the Office of the President and vast amounts for the military and the police as instruments of repression while ignoring the needs of public health and education to meet which the pandemic has made even more urgent, the P 4.5 trillion 2021 budget of Mr. Duterte passed the House on third reading as Velasco promised.
But it is not solely the budget approval’s being rushed in the House in accordance with the wishes of Mr. Duterte that should outrage the civic-minded. Together with his forging the 2019 term-sharing agreement between Velasco and Cayetano and his intervention in resolving the Speakership issue, the precipitate approval of the 2021 budget is also one more indication of how he is totally in control of government. As every freshman in a political science class knows, the concentration of power in the Executive can only be to the detriment of the principle of separation of powers and the imperative of checks and balances that are as vital to the democratization process and the survival of the Republic as air and water are to human beings.
What happened in the Speakership issue, and how it was decided and resolved, should be one more reminder of the reality that, not only due to the indifference of much of the population but also with the collaboration of a political class solely concerned with power and advantage, what obtains in the country today as in martial law days is the unaccountable and uncheckable rule of one man.
But that is not all. There is also the distinct possibility that when the inevitable happens and Mr. Duterte passes from the scene, his rising dynasty will preserve the provincial despotism he has replicated at the national level, and even “improve” on it. To paraphrase what the Nobel laureate in economics and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said about the US situation in the coming months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the next several years in the troubled life of this country could be “very, very ugly.”
Also published in Businessworld. Photo from the House of Representatives website.