FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - October 8, 2020 - 12:00am

Even in strictly nominal terms, it is a jaw-dropping number.

In the latest Pulse Asia survey, President Rodrigo Duterte won a 91 percent approval rating. That is impressive from any angle. It is unprecedented in our political history, especially as it happens deep into the second half of his term when political leaders tend to slide into lameduck status.

Any leader in any country of the world will kill to get that high approval rating. Donald Trump will kill just to get half that number.

Put that rating in context and it becomes even more impressive.

Duterte is governing a country besieged by the pandemic. Our domestic economy shrunk by 16.5 percent in the second quarter. Unemployment is at its highest. Vulnerable communities are in pain. The immediate future is bleak.

In addition, the scandal at PhilHealth should have undermined government’s credibility. The tough quarantine restrictions still being imposed could have produced some volume of grumbling among our people. The reopening of our schools continues to be a challenge.

The President is not very good at giving speeches. He does not exactly sweep his audience off their feet. Lately, he has fallen into the habit of delivering his random thoughts very late at night when most citizens are deep in slumber.

Too, health protocols forced the President to hole up at the presidential residence. He spent a lot of time the past few months in Davao, away from the heavily infected capital.

But the President has a competent crisis team hard at work – regardless of Vice President Leni Robredo’s assessment of the quality of their work. The overwhelming majority of our people obviously think government has turned in a good job despite resource scarcities.

The President’s very high approval ratings have wide-ranging political consequences.

Far from being a lameduck waddling towards the sunset, our people expect more decisive leadership from the President. More than that, he is expected to shape the succession and, in fact, determine the next leader.

For all his imperfections (or maybe because of them), President Duterte remains the only widely trusted personality on the political scaffolding. His electoral endorsement remains the most valuable political commodity in town.

We have never had a chief executive so overwhelmingly supported by his people so late in his term. With just over a year until the next presidential elections and perhaps less than a year before the possible contenders formally declare, his choice and his voice will be determinant.

It is certainly impolitic to talk about partisan alignments while the nation grapples with a pandemic. But at the back of all our minds, we understand the dominant role Duterte will play in the transition.


Alas, whatever his approval ratings might be, it is beyond Duterte’s powers to settle the leadership squabble at the House of Representatives. That is a matter to be settled by a vote on the floor.

This means the contest between incumbent Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, who has mustered the numbers, and his rival Lord Allan Velasco, who invokes “palabra de honor,” will be a continuing saga. That saga, so far, has separated the seasoned from the novice.

Immediately after a meeting at the Palace between the President and the rival factions, Cayetano rose on the floor to offer his resignation. That move caught the Velasco camp completely by surprise. They were unable to move the numbers they claimed to have.

As a result, 184 members of the House voted to reject the resignation offer, keeping Cayetano at his post. The whole exercise was intended to demonstrate the majority support the incumbent continued to enjoy. This should have settled the matter.

Velasco and his allies were unimpressed. They continued to insist, on some unclear basis, the decision point was Oct. 14. They then proceeded to court congressmen to what had already seemed to be a lost cause.

Last Tuesday, Cayetano again surprised the Velasco camp. After declaring an end to the budget debates (that can be made to last indefinitely), he called for a vote on second reading for the proposed General Appropriations Act. After gaining that, the Speaker suspended sessions until the middle of November.

The suspension pulled the rug from whatever plans there were to grab the speakership on Oct. 14. Again, the Velasco camp was caught flat-footed.

The suspension of session will hardly affect deliberations on the budget. The truly substantial vote is the vote on second reading. The vote on third reading that will happen immediately after resumption of session is nearly ministerial. Meanwhile, the Senate has a month to comb through the items in the appropriations act.

Over the next five weeks, the Velasco camp will continue to woo support from congressmen. The Cayetano camp will of course do the same, conserving the majority it now enjoys. But by the middle of November, Velasco’s efforts to seize the speakership might have lost momentum – and resources.

As far as the Cayetano camp is concerned, the leadership question was settled when an overwhelming majority voted to reject the incumbent’s offer to resign. They interpret last week’s exercise as a vote of confidence in the present leadership team.

In politics, as in most everything else, timing is everything. Cayetano has cleverly controlled the tempo of events in the leadership question. This has won him the advantage.

Velasco, as the President put it, has every right to contest the speakership, invoking an informal agreement that many now hold to be moot. But in a matter like this, it is the numbers that matter.

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