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Decimated Senate minority faces 'tremendous challenge' in 19th Congress

Angelica Y. Yang - Philstar.com
Decimated Senate minority faces 'tremendous challenge' in 19th Congress
The 12 newly-elected senators raise each other's hands after the proclamation of winners of the 2022 polls at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City on May 18, 2022.
The STAR / Geremy Pintolo

MANILA, Philippines — Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri — elected to a fresh term and the likely next Senate president — on Wednesday released a list of senators and the committees they will likely chair at a Senate dominated by a supermajority.

According to the list, they will face a minority bloc that will be lucky to have four members. As things stand, only Sens. Risa Hontiveros and Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III — a former Senate president and head of the former administration PDP-Laban party — have indicated they will be in the minority.

According to the Senate rules, the minority floor leader is expected to speak for the bloc, constructively criticize the majority's programs and policies, and pay close attention to all proposed laws. 

But the numbers of the Senate minority, and the political opposition in general, were greatly reduced during the term of former President Rodrigo Duterte, who had continuously attacked them, according to University of Santo Tomas Department of Political Science Chair Dennis Coronacion.

Sen. Leila De Lima, a vocal Duterte critic, found herself booted out as chair of the committee on justice and human rights in 2016 and has been in detention for drug cases since 2017. Other members of the minority earned Duterte's ire and his uncensored comments for criticizing government policies.

Coronacion said the minority plays an important role but is not likely to influence legislation in the 19th Congress.

"Given that their numbers have been decimated because of the popularity of former President Duterte, who vilified them continuously during his term, I don't expect them to make any major impact in the 19th Congress," he told Philstar.com.

Despite that, members of the opposition should not be discouraged from doing their jobs since there is a constant need to protect public interest, Coronacion added.

'Fiscalizers'

Although it is not found in the English dictionary, the term 'fiscalizer' generally refers to lawmakers who do not just agree with the agenda with congressional or executive leadership and tend to scrutinize things more closely, University of the Philippines political scientist Jean Franco said. 

As fiscalizers, the minority must pay more attention to details in proposed laws and validate the information there, according to Hontiveros. With the prevalence of disinformation, it is all the more important to check each and every argument presented in the crafting of laws, she said. 

"People must understand that the minority doesn't just give opposing views for no reason. Our criticism is meant to produce meaningful and actionable insights that can be used in amending the bills being debated on the floor of Congress," she said. 

"We're not here to prevent laws from being passed, we're here to make sure that every measure that gets signed into law brings long-term benefits to the people."

Despite committee assignments seemingly already locked in, political arrangements can still change, Coronacion said. "Disgruntled members of the Marcos-Duterte alliance might join the opposition and may shape the dynamics in the Senate."

If the minority cannot get more members at the Senate, Franco said, "they really need to be partners with civil society and other social movements because that's the only way to go...because the people outside your chamber can amplify your voice."

RELATED: With new senators-elect proclaimed, work to organize blocs begins

'Challenging time'

The minority may face a more difficult time in being a check on the supermajority, according to De La Salle University political science professor Julio Teehankee, which could risk the Senate being a rubber stamp for the Palace. 

"The incoming minority faces a tremendous challenge of checking the supermajority supporting the first majority president under the Fifth Republic," Teehankee told Philstar.com. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was elected into office by more than 31 million Filipinos and lawmakers have historically sided with winners.

He added that the situation is just like how it was in the post-EDSA Senate in 1987 where only Juan Ponce Enrile and Joseph Estrada served in the minority. 

Despite the foreseen setbacks, Hontiveros— the lone senatorial bet from the opposition who won a seat — is optimistic that there can still be an effective minority bloc, even if they don't have the numbers. 

"It doesn't matter how many of us are in the minority bloc. As long as we stay true to our mandate as fiscalizers and perform our checks and balance function, the minority will thrive," Hontiveros told Philstar.com

She said that even if she and Pimentel are the only members of the bloc so far,  "their convictions are enough to function as a minority bloc."

In previous interviews, she and Pimentel noted that the strength and effectiveness of the minority bloc is also measured by the seriousness of its members in fiscalizing constructively, including improving measures pushed by the majority. 

READ: Guanzon: It’s the best time to be with minority

FRANKLIN DRILON

KOKO PIMENTEL

MAJORITY BLOC

MIGZ ZUBIRI

MINORITY BLOC

RISA HONTIVEROS

SENATE

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