Duterte nearly walked out of SONA

Edith Regalado - The Philippine Star
Duterte nearly walked out of SONA
Duterte reportedly considered the first attempt to oust Alvarez just minutes before the SONA was to start at 4 p.m. Monday and install former president and Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as new Speaker as something illegal because the proper procedure was not followed.

DAVAO CITY  , Philippines  —  Exasperated over the squabble for leadership at the House of Representatives, President Duterte threatened to totally skip his third State of the Nation Address (SONA) last Monday unless the congressmen make the ouster of then Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez legal.

Duterte reportedly considered the first attempt to oust Alvarez just minutes before the SONA was to start at 4 p.m. Monday and install former president and Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as new Speaker as something illegal because the proper procedure was not followed.

It was reported that Arroyo was elected House speaker when Congress was not in session and that the mace, allegedly a requirement for such procedure, was absent.

“Let us follow what is legal. Let the Constitution prevail,” the President, a lawyer and former city prosecutor, was quoted to have insisted. 

He was also quoted to have said he does not care who becomes the House Speaker as long as it is done properly and that he would not take part in a SONA that is illegal.

Duterte waited for nearly an hour in a holding room at the Batasang Pambansa complex with Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Alvarez, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas as Arroyo took her oath as Speaker at the session hall.

It was at the holding room where Duterte reportedly told Alvarez that he no longer has the number and thus the need to step down.

Alvarez, along with Sotto, welcomed the President upon his arrival at the Batasan.

In a separate interview, he said he has no problems about stepping down, but questioned the timing, adding that his ouster should not have been meant to disrupt and steal the show from what the President had to say to the Filipino people.

“As far as we are concerned it was the day of the President. The SONA is the day of the President. Why do it on the same day?” he told The STAR.

Because of the delay, the President threatened to just leave the Batasan and return whenever the congressmen would have resolved the problem on the legality of Alvarez’s ouster.

“Ingna sila molakaw na lang ko (Tell them I am leaving),” the President was quoted to have said while inside the holding room together with Alvarez and Sotto.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. said Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea mediated between the two contending parties.

“The concern was it is a constitutional duty of the President to deliver the SONA on the fourth Monday of July and the message was sent to everyone: that the President intended to discharge this function and that the internal affairs of the House should not come into the way,” Roque said. 

In a video, Medialdea could be seen going in and out of the holding room during the SONA. Arroyo also reportedly talked with the President after.

SONA at Senate?

Sotto said he joked that Duterte can deliver his SONA at the Senate and that if he walks out the senators would walk out too.

“I sensed the displeasure of the President when that (speakership row) was happening. As soon as he arrived, he already uttered words that I don’t want to divulge and he was displeased with what was happening, that was what I gathered from him,” Sotto told reporters.

He added that Duterte wished that Alvarez and Arroyo should have settled the matter the day after he delivered his SONA.

“He said ‘Why wouldn’t they do this tomorrow (Tuesday)?’ because yesterday was the President’s day, we were visitors there (House),” Sotto said.

Zubiri followed through on Sotto’s joke, but said the Senate session hall was not as big as that of the House. It was not clear how Alvarez reacted to the exchange.

Fariñas prevailed upon Duterte to stay, pointing out that delivering the SONA every fourth Monday is a constitutional mandate for presidents.

As it turned out, Duterte not only waited, but also had to intervene, talking separately and privately with Alvarez and Arroyo.

The President told Alvarez that he might have to step down since he no longer has the numbers in the chamber. Duterte then asked Arroyo to allow Alvarez to preside one last time over the House.

When Duterte landed at the complex aboard the presidential helicopter he was met with the situation where Alvarez refused to let go of his post and Arroyo already having obtained the support of about 180 lawmakers, or more than half of the 299-member chamber.

Reports of Alvarez’s ouster were rife in the past months, especially after his public spat with presidential daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio earlier this year.

Sara remained mum on reports that she is principally behind the ouster and, instead, congratulated Arroyo for having been elected as the new House speaker.

Both Sara and Alvarez have been at odds since last February when she vehemently objected to the latter’s tagging her as “opposition” to her father’s own administration. The two never reconciled despite efforts by the President to bring them together in one gathering.

“Congratulations to SPGMA. A strong leader,” the presidential daughter said in a statement yesterday, referring to Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Roque speculated that the change in leadership might have something to do with Alvarez’s “no-el” (no election) call, stressing that Duterte does not want those pushing federalism to benefit from Charter change.

“The President has always maintained that federalism should be accepted by the people on its own merits... So I noticed that there was much concern on the part of the President with the pronouncements on no-el. I think you will recall here that he used very strong language; he authorized me to restate what he said in relation to no-el – and that is under no circumstance will he have any hand in that,” Roque said.

Malacañang, he added, is optimistic that Arroyo would push for the administration’s legislative agenda. 

“We have had very good relations with Speaker Arroyo; she was one of the staunchest supporters of the President during the elections; they share the same political agenda, so we foresee absolutely no problems in working with Speaker Arroyo,” Roque pointed out.

House Deputy Speaker Rolando Andaya Jr., who witnessed the scenes, narrated the chaotic turnover of House leadership Monday, recalling that Arroyo’s camp, as originally agreed, would have called for the ratification of BOL which Duterte should have signed into law also on that day.

However, this did not happen after Alvarez’s ally, Deputy Speaker Gwendolyn Garcia, unilaterally adjourned the session. 

Andaya, who once served as Arroyo’s budget secretary, also witnessed how the House audio system was muted and the mace taken on purpose. 

“I am a witness at how the mace and its reserve were taken. I saw them when they took it. The mace is the symbol of the plenary,” he added.

He also said that the microphones were turned off when Arroyo spoke to her supporters, claiming that the “workers were ordered to turn it off or they would lose their jobs.”

“They were caught in between. I pity them,” Andaya said in Filipino.

 Classic Duterte

Medialdea described the way the President handled the crisis at the House as “classic Duterte,” referring to the image of the former city mayor as someone who has never been known to interfere in feuds between department heads during the 23 years that he served as city chief, preferring to have the officers resolve the issues by themselves. 

“There was wisdom in it. It was brilliant,” Medialdea said.

Despite the chaos, Duterte also did not mention anything about it during his SONA. He also did not throw expletives during his address.

Asked if the Palace anticipated the leadership change, Roque said: “Let’s just say that whatever the decision of the House is, the Palace has always been amenable to accepting the choice of leadership. In other words, the President, being a lawyer, really observes the principle of separation of powers and has accorded the House full respect, particularly in its choice for its leaders.”

He also clarified that Duterte did not have any hand in the leadership change, saying: “it has always been the Palace position that we do not interfere in purely internal matters of the House.”

The President immediately flew back to Davao City Monday night after the address, but not before spending time to be with his family in one of the rooms at Congress. – With Paolo Romero, Alexis Romero, Delon Porcalla

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