FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - October 1, 2020 - 12:00am

The morning after, the outcome remained unclear.

President Rodrigo Duterte convened the speakership rivals Tuesday night. This was the second time in 15 months that he appeared to be directly involved in resolving leadership battles within an independent branch of government. The first time involved the same set of aspirants and produced a term-sharing agreement that could now be trashed.

On both occasions, the contenders sought the President’s intercession. But the 15-21 term-sharing formula the two agreed on appears to have been the President’s idea.

The first time the President convened Alan Peter Cayetano and Lord Allan Velasco, his main concern was averting a breakup of the “supermajority” his allies enjoyed at the House of Representatives. Tuesday night, the President’s chief concern appears to be the timely passage of the 2021 national budget. He did not want a messy leadership fight to threaten a budget the nation so direly needs at this time of a pandemic.

Preceding Tuesday night’s meeting, 203 congressmen signed a statement indicating their preference for Cayetano to remain at his post. A separate statement issued by the minority bloc expressing the same preference reinforces the first. Both statements imply the 15-21 term-sharing arrangement is trashed.

A capable politician, President Duterte must know that he takes a risk by recommending an outcome to the term-sharing dispute. He knows the matter will eventually be settled by a vote on the floor. He could be opening himself up to repudiation by what is, after all, an independent branch. It is also one that holds the purse strings.

It did seem strange, therefore, that minutes after that Tuesday night meeting concluded, social media messages circulated claiming Cayetano would step down on Oct. 14 and Velasco assumes the post. Several news outlets picked up that news.

One pro-Velasco congressman claimed the 15-21 agreement was “enforced” during that Tuesday meeting. That claim might suffer from a poor choice of words. Only an independent House of Representatives could “enforce” who its leader will be.

By Wednesday morning, however, Cayetano ally LRay Villafuerte was on television denying that an agreement for a transfer of the post was reached. From the way he described it, the discussion about the term sharing was inconclusive.

There could have been discussions about retaining the committee chairmen in their seats. That would be consistent with the President’s concern that the legislature process next year’s budget in a timely manner.

At any rate, any leadership question will be settled on the floor, not in some Palace backroom. Someone will have to make a motion declaring all posts vacant. A majority must carry such a motion.

We will have to see if Velasco makes it through that first step. Cayetano has arrayed his supporters by way of the two manifestos mentioned above. There is no reliable measure of how much support Velasco has. A motion to declare all posts vacant could resolve the leadership issue there and then.

While all the jockeying was going on, the only person speaking on behalf of Velasco was his father, the former Supreme Court associate justice. The elder Velasco has a rather colorful record playing stage-daddy to his son.

When an electoral issue involving his son went up to the Supreme Court, the elder Velasco appropriately recused himself. But when a journalist claimed he used his influence to help his son’s political career, Justice Velasco broke precedent by suing her for libel even as he sat on the bench. The suit was later withdrawn “out of compassion.”

There is no indication, however, that former justice and now Marinduque governor Presbitero Velasco has been able to canvass the congressmen and build up support for his son. It is an entirely different terrain.

The son must do the work himself. He must work the various political parties constituting the supermajority. He must enlist the congressman to his cause one by one – whatever that cause might be. There is no substitute for hard work here. The President’s “blessings” can only account for so much.

Over the next few days, we might get a clearer picture about what really happened in that meeting and what consequences there might be for the House – and the urgent work it must be doing.

Right now, what we have are the rival parties issuing sharply contrasting versions of what was agreed upon.

The clearest statement we need now is the one that comes from the President. But it is a statement he is probably inhibited from making.

The Tuesday night meeting was nearly illicit. The President really has no business intervening in the internal affairs of an independent branch of government. He gains nothing from doing so. He loses much by appearing to be overreaching the powers of his office.

One Velasco supporter said the harsh truth of our politics is that the President’s word is worth more than the preference of 300 congressmen on a leadership question. That could not be true. The President is prudent enough to stay away from that assumption.

All this could mean, however, is that the matter remains unsettled. Cayetano says he will resign his post anytime if the President demands it but the choice of who will occupy it will remain with his colleagues.

The two rivals may be faulted for constantly dragging the President into this factional matter. They should, equally, be more assertive of the chamber’s independence and avert the possibility for the President to be repudiated at plenary.

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