The “high stakes” in the speakership issue
FROM FAR AND NEAR - Ruben Almendras (The Freeman) - October 6, 2020 - 12:00am

The ongoing struggle for the Speaker of the Lower House will not be settled even after the October 14 deadline of the gentlemen’s agreement between Velasco and Cayetano on their term sharing. The conflict will have ramifications on both camps, on the majority coalition in Congress, on the influence of the president, and on the political plans of those aspiring for office in the 2022 elections. Despite the bad taste and the disdain that this fight has elicited from the public due to the obvious self-serving/vested interest color of this fight, we have to consider the significance and effects of this on Philippine politics and governance.

To recall, the time-sharing agreement was brokered by President Duterte for Cayetano to be the speaker for 15 months, and for Velasco to takeover for the rest of 21 months. While the participation of the president demolished the fiction that Congress was an independent body from the executive department, the justification was that the president, as head of the dominant party in the majority coalition, had to step in for the agreement. The reality however, is that the president has great influence on Congress through the annual budget preparation, the approval and disbursement which needs the imprimatur of the Executive Department. The allocation and releases for projects to the different congressional districts (pork barrel), still needs Malacañang approval. Considering that the 2021 budget is the government expenditures before the 2022 elections, the congressmen want to make sure they have their share. These project expenses and other perks as congressmen are the build-up for campaign expenses and influence for the 2022 elections.

For incumbent Speaker Cayetano, who has ambitions for higher office as vice presidential or presidential candidate in 2022, retaining the speakership will allow him to maintain his influence on many congressmen via the allocation of perks and projects in the budget, and maintain a highly-visible public exposure as speaker, which are vital for his run for a higher office. The temporary majority coalition will probably not hold as President Duterte’s term winds down, but personal loyalties to the speaker for past favors and political self-preservation might hold. Yet, this perception actually undermines and telegraphs President Duterte’s diminishing power and influence in the remaining 21 months of his term. It projects a weakened president given his physical demeanor, failure of governance in terms of the graft and corruption issues, tangled foreign affairs, the pandemic response, and the growing opposition. This will not sit kindly with the allies of the president, especially those who have also further political ambitions.

Philippine political history shows that the speakership doesn’t always lead to the presidency. Laurel, Mitra, and De Venecia, who were dominant speakers in their time and knew the ways of Congress were not able to catapult themselves to the presidency. Mitra and De Venecia lost in their presidential bids to Ramos and Estrada. The traditional politician “tradpol” label attaches too much to a wheeling-dealing speaker, it turns off the middle-class voters and the mandated party (money driven) votes are not enough to overcome these numbers. The current speakership fight feeds on this perception and is not improving congressmen and politician’s reputations. In this age of information and communication technologies and the pervasive social media access, this is bad. The informed public does not really care who wins the speakership, but are amused at the trivial sub-issues of the birthdays of the aspirants, and lack of ethics and morals in this fight. Hopefully, this will translate to a more critical electorate in the coming 2022 elections, so that we will elect better government officials.

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