The independent republics
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - June 7, 2019 - 12:00am

A pro-administration super majority in the Senate? It hasn’t happened before, no matter how popular the president, and I doubt if it will happen now. 

Among the 10 winners in the senatorial race who flashed their clenched fists at their proclamation, indicating solidarity with President Duterte, several were part of the Team PNoy coalition that swept nine of the Senate seats in the 2013 midterm elections. 

In that race, the three who managed to squeak into the pro-administration Magic 12 midway through the term of a still hugely popular president were Nancy Binay, J.V. Ejercito and Gregorio Honasan.

Later, two of the Team PNoy members – Grace Poe and Alan Peter Cayetano – tore into the Aquino administration’s mishandling of the raid in Mamasapano, Maguindanao that led to the massacre of 44 Special Action Force commandos on Jan. 25, 2015. The tandem of Poe and Francis Escudero later ran against Noynoy Aquino’s endorsed tandem of Mar Roxas and Leni Robredo.

There was a lot of talk at the time about PNoy planning to ask Roxas, who was languishing in the surveys for president, to give way to Poe, who was surging as erstwhile frontrunner Jejomar Binay was being pulled down by negative reports about his family.

But Roxas, who had already given way once to Noynoy Aquino in the 2010 race following the death of Corazon Aquino, apparently was not interested in sliding down for a second time – and to a person who wasn’t even a member of the then ruling Liberal Party. 

The issue was supposed to be settled during a meeting among PNoy, Poe and Roxas. Instead, however, Poe told me that they just basically sat around for four hours, engaging in light banter, with the issue at hand becoming the elephant in the room.

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Filipinos don’t really need examples of the whimsical nature of political alliances and the weakness of the party system in this country. These are the norms and people might actually be surprised if things turned out differently after an election.

So people shouldn’t worry too much about a pro-administration super majority also turning the Senate into a Malacañang rubber stamp like the House of Representatives (and the co-opted Supreme Court).

Lawmakers begin reassessing their loyalties in the second half of a president’s term, with an eye to their own political future. One presidential slip that generates a strong public outcry – such as the one over the “God is stupid” remark and the execution of teenage drug suspects – and the political winds could shift with remarkable speed.

My guess is that President Duterte can count on the loyalty to the very end only of two senators: Christopher “Bong” Go, who continues to act like his special aide, and chief Tokhang implementer Bato dela Rosa. Duterte can also count on Imee Marcos, unless her brother ends up being pitted against Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte Carpio for high office in 2022.

As for the rest, as outgoing Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada famously put it, “weather-weather lang yan.”

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Analysts have pointed out that the 2022 presidential race started as soon as the winners of the congressional contests were proclaimed. This is going to alter alliances in the two chambers of Congress in the second half of the Duterte presidency.

Even Vicente Sotto III may bolt the ruling coalition if he loses the Senate leadership reportedly to the top vote getter in this year’s race, Cynthia Villar. This is according to Poe, who said in a chance interview that Sotto might join forces with her. Their families, as we know, are friends in entertainment. Their group might also include actor Lito Lapid.

 Already, realignments are underway in the House as the battle heats up for the post of speaker. Duterte has publicly announced that he is keeping his hands off the contest, but the buzz is that his daughter Sara is supporting Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco.

The Marcos-Romualdez clans, on the other hand, are moving to have Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez installed as speaker. He’s already issuing statements as if he’s assured of the post.

Poe, who ran as an independent last May, was one of just two members of the Magic 12 who did not flash the pro-Duterte clenched fist at their proclamation photo op. The other was Nancy Binay, whose ranking in the race appeared to have been pulled down by her siblings’ bickering in the Makati mayoral contest. Both women are expected to show their independence in the incoming Congress.

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What can a truly pro-Duterte super majority in the Senate give to the President? One is the restoration of the death penalty for heinous crimes, although on this issue, senators are expected to vote according to their conscience. 

There is also speculation that Charter change or Cha-cha may be possible, at least for economic reforms, since Duterte seems to have lost interest in federalism following the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. 

As in previous Cha-cha initiatives, however, we can expect lawmakers, especially members of the House of Representatives, to push for self-serving changes. The result will probably look very much like the proposed Charter railroaded by the current HOR, which is unlikely to be approved in any plebiscite. Also, will senators ever go along with any proposal that will effectively lead to the abolition of their chamber? 

President Duterte should just tell his incoming HOR super majority to focus on useful legislative pursuits. He has only three years left to be remembered for something more than killing people. 

While post-election loyalties remain strong, he must make the push for the passage of difficult measures in his legislative agenda. It won’t be long before members of his coalition in the Senate, with the exception of two or three, begin reaffirming long-held public perceptions that senators are independent republics.

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