The House divided: Speakership rows in the 18th Congress
Xave Gregorio ( - October 7, 2020 - 6:13pm

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 2:25 p.m., October 12) — The House of Representatives is awash with tension with Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano (Taguig-Pateros), Rep. Lord Allan Velasco (Marinduque) and their supporters squabbling as to whether the term-sharing agreement brokered by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2019 would still push through.

On Monday, the faction backing Velasco held a "session" at the Celebrity Sports Plaza in Quezon City. Cayetano was quick to counter the move as he called it a "fake" session in a press conference at the Batasan Pambansa complex a few kilometers away.

But times like these are not new to the chamber, which has already seen a coup d’etat and has been hounded by rumors of coup plots under the Duterte administration.

Alvarez vs Arroyo

Months before he was actually booted out of the speakership, rumors of a coup against Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez (Davao del Norte) had already been swirling as lawmakers were reportedly dissatisfied with how he had run the House.

What fanned the flames and paved the way for his actual ouster was his alleged swipe at Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, the president's daughter and whom he supposedly called a part of the opposition after she formed her own local political party.

On social media, the younger Duterte called Alvarez, a close ally of her father and a ranking official of her father’s party, an “insecure slob” and a “fat sleaze,” and urged lawmakers to stage a coup d’etat against him — and they did.

Lawmakers were already planning to declare the speakership vacant on the morning before President Rodrigo Duterte’s third State of the Nation Address in 2018, but they failed to do so as Alvarez’s allies succeeded in adjourning the session.

But they were not deterred. Soon after the session’s adjournment, lawmakers returned to the session hall and routed a manifesto calling for Alvarez’s ouster that received 161 signatures.

Even with the absence of the mace, which represents legislative authority, and with the microphones turned off, lawmakers installed Arroyo to the top post at the House just moments before Duterte was scheduled to deliver his SONA.

Lawmakers formally elected Arroyo and allowed her to take her oath of office for the second time in a formal session after the SONA.

Cayetano vs Velasco

The squabble between Cayetano and Velasco goes back to 2019, when Duterte — faced with the choice between three men running for the speakership — chose to broker a term-sharing deal between the two lawmakers. Under the deal, his 2016 running mate would get to sit first for 15 months, followed by the Marinduque lawmaker for the remaining 21 months of the 18th Congress.

But in March, Cayetano accused Velasco of attempting to stage a coup against him, which the latter denied.

The speakership issue was reignited again after several lawmakers aired their concerns over the budget, which prompted Rep. Paolo Duterte (Davao City) to threaten to call on the Mindanao bloc to declare the posts of speaker and deputy speaker — all 22 of them — vacant.

The younger Duterte said he only did this to help his colleagues’ concerns get heard.

He and Cayetano eventually met up on September 26. With them were the speaker’s wife Rep. Lani Cayetano (Taguig-Pateros), the Davao City lawmaker’s ally and House appropriations chair Eric Yap (ACT-CIS party-list), and House Deputy Secretary-General Brian Yamsuan.

With all seemingly well between him and Rep. Duterte, Speaker Cayetano again pointed his finger at Velasco for supposedly attempting to unseat him once again.

As the end-date for Cayetano’s 15 months as speaker neared, he and Velasco met with President Duterte to settle the speakership question once and for all.

In his speech at the House, Cayetano said he committed to the President to resign by October 14, but added that he cannot guarantee votes for Velasco. He also predicted that even if Velasco gets votes to become speaker, he will face a coup d’etat a week into his tenure.

Cayetano added that they also agreed that he will be the one to announce what transpired during the meeting with the President, but this was preempted by leaks to the media on the night of their meeting.

The speaker then offered his resignation, only for it to be rejected by the plenary.

On October 6, Cayetano moved to suspend the session after the House passed the budget bill on second reading.

With sessions suspended until November 16, Cayetano effectively avoided a potential move from Velasco's camp to declare the speakership vacant by October 14 — the supposed end-date for the first half of the term-sharing agreement between them brokered by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2019.

Velasco and his allies have been urging Cayetano to give up the speakership by October 14 to honor their term-sharing deal.

Cayetano and his allies have meanwhile been insisting that the Velasco camp move on from the leadership row and unite as the House tackles the 2021 budget.

Only time will tell whether that will actually happen or more surprises await the House.

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