Philippine politics at a crossroads

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PerryScope

By Perry Diaz

For the second time since 2001, former president and now speaker of the House of Representatives Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo staged a coup d’état. The first was on January 20, 2001 when then vice president Arroyo took over the presidency after then president Joseph “Erap” Estrada was ousted by the late Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Angelo Reyes with the blessing of the Supreme Court.

Based on a purported letter from Erap seeking a temporary leave of absence –drafted by Erap’s Executive Secretary, the late Ernesto Angara — the Supreme Court approved the temporary takeover of Arroyo as “Acting President.” However, when Arroyo took her oath of office before Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Jr., she was sworn in as “President,” not “Acting President” as agreed unanimously by the Supreme Court justices. Did Davide deliberately omit the word “Acting”? Your guess is as good as mine.

Seventeen years after the coup d’état in 2001, the 71-year old Arroyo — now a congresswoman representing the 2nd district of Pampanga — staged another coup d’état. This time she grabbed the Speakership of the House of Representatives from Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez.

The story goes that just before the arrival of President Rodrigo Duterte to deliver his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 23, 2018, Arroyo hastily convened a secret meeting of the majority party, the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas mg Bayan (PDP-Laban).

When Duterte arrived in Congress, Batasan Pambansa, he was surprised, apparently without prior knowledge of the coup. Some lawmakers said that he was so infuriated with what happened that he threatened to walk out of his own SONA. If Duterte didn’t indeed have a hand in the coup, does that mean that he’s losing his grip on the House? If so, who engineered the coup?

Coup mastermind
But just like the coup in 2001, Gloria evidently masterminded the coup. But Gloria by herself wouldn’t be able to the influence her peers in the House without the support of someone who has power over them. Gloria reportedly used the rift between Speaker Alvarez and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, the president’s daughter, to pursue her Machiavellian goal. It was said that the rift was fueled when Alvarez allegedly called Duterte-Carpio a part of the opposition when she formed a separate regional political party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP). Angered by the accusation, Duterte-Carpio slammed Alvarez and called him an “insecure fat sleaze.”

Recently, Duterte-Carpio told reporters that HNP was willing to forge alliances with other political parties. Interestingly, there were talks that some lawmakers from the ruling PDP-Laban were considering jumping ship to Lakas-CMD, which was Arroyo’s political party before she pledged allegiance to PDP-Laban in October 2017. But here’s the kicker: The word is that Lakas-CMD would merge with Duterte-Carpio’s HNP.

Could it be that Gloria is rebuilding Lakas-CMD to what it was before: a strong political party during her presidency? It must be remembered that members of Lakas-CMD migrated to the Liberal Party (LP) in 2010 when Benigno Aquino III took over the presidency. When Duterte was elected president in 2016, they turned coats and joined Duterte’s PDP-Laban.

Changing political affiliation is a matter of convenience, not for philosophical differences. Their loyalty is to the candidate, not to their party. They’re known as “balimbings” (turncoats). To a lot of them, it’s a matter of self-preservation… or survival. It’s like a musical chair; if you’re not fast enough to switch, you’re out of the game.

Federalism
With the presidential election still four years away, why is there a stampede to form alliances now? What comes to mind is the transition period from the current unitary system of government to the proposed federal system of government, which will be submitted to a referendum.

A few months ago, Duterte appointed a Consultative Committee to draft a new federal constitution. While it is not yet in final form, it will divide the country into 18 federated regions. However, the national government, except for some changes, will remain in its present structure, which is somewhat similar to that of the United States. Region is to the Philippines what State is to the U.S.

The Executive Department will have a president and vice-president elected as a team. The Legislative Department will retain the current structure with a Senate and House of Representatives. Senators will be elected per region, two from each region; a throwback to the 1935 Constitution in which 24 senators were elected at large.

All elected officials will serve for four years with one reelection. The Judicial Department will consist of four courts: Federal Supreme Court, Federal Constitutional Court, Federal Administrative Court, and Federal Electoral Court. In addition, each region will have a Regional Supreme Court, Regional Appellate Court, and Regional Trial Courts.

If federalism fails to win in the referendum, then it’s back to status quo. However, if federalism were approved, it would kick in a new “political game.” It is not surprising then why Gloria wanted the speakership. With the support of Duterte’s PDP, Gloria’s Lakas-CMD, and all the balimbings who are waiting in the wings ready to jump ship, Gloria could wield immense power, which she could use to further her personal agenda.

Lucky Luciano Syndrome
This brings to mind the question: Can Duterte trust Gloria? Will Gloria remain loyal to Duterte? Which reminds me of the legendary Mafia gangster, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano.

Luciano engineered the fall of his first boss, Giuseppe Masseria, and then swore allegiance to his boss’s rival, Salvatore Maranzano. A few months later, Luciano engineered the fall of Maranzano. He then convened the heads of the five Mafia families in New York. He suggested that they form a “national commission” to rule over Mafia business. The capos agreed and they elected Luciano as the Chairman of the Commission, the capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) or the “Godfather.” Apparently afflicted with the “Lucky Luciano Syndrome,” one wonders whom would she topple next?

Speculation is rife that Duterte will run for president and pick former senator Bongbong Marcos as his vice-president running mate in 2022 under the new federal constitution.

However, given the close political and personal relationship between Duterte and Gloria, Duterte might decide to partner with Gloria instead. But knowing what had happened to his good friend Erap, Duterte might want to keep Gloria at a safe distance for his own preservation. But Gloria has to watch out for Sara. If Sara could help Gloria get the speakership, she could also topple Gloria from her perch.

Sara has shown that she can play hardball politics. She manifested her appetite for power when she formed HNP. But to what end? Could HNP be her vehicle to advance her political ambitions? She could run for Regional Governor of the federated government of her bailiwick in Davao or use it as a springboard to run for a congressional seat in the House of Representatives. She can then challenge Gloria for the speakership in 2022. Or she can run for Regional Senator and position herself to become Senate President. Either way, she would cross the threshold into national politics, which is a totally different ballgame.

Unholy alliance
But what about the Marcoses who have been salivating for a comeback to power? Would Bongbong settle for Duterte’s vice-president? But where else would he go? Would he settle for a “second in command” role? Unless he sets his sights higher, which could put him politically at odds with his older sister Imee, who is presumed to be eyeing the Senate presidency or Speakership. Remember, “Politics is thicker than blood.” Imee has been preparing to go national since Bongbong lost the vice-presidency to Leni Robredo by a slim margin. Bongbong filed a protest before the Supreme Court but it could be rendered moot and academic if the new federal constitution were approved. And that would throw him into oblivion. Ugh!

Recent reports say that Imee Marcos and Sara Duterte-Carpio have formed an informal alliance or should I say, unholy alliance? But the question is: Who between the two of them would take the top billing and who would play second fiddle to the other? This could cause their unholy alliance to fall apart. Tough question indeed and only time will tell.

With all these ambitious hard-hitting and headstrong women – Gloria Arroyo, Sara Duterte-Carpio, and Imee Marcos — positioning themselves in the power game, Philippine politics would never be the same again. Indeed, Philippine politics is now at a crossroads.

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