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A Tale of Two Speakers: The Hows and Whys of Speakers Arroyo and Alvarez


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MANILA- For Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, it was the best of times in recent memory. For Pantaleon Alvarez, the worst has come.

For many congressmen and other political players, it was the winter of their discontent with Alvarez.

The events of July 23, 2018 at the Batasan Pambansa was a culmination of a story that began in the final days of the Aquino administration.

 

Then newly proclaimed President-elect Rodrigo Duterte had anointed Alvarez, who he got to run as Davao del Norte 1st district Representative—to be his speaker—carrying on with the tradition in the House of Representatives that the President’s choice gets elected by congressmen hoping to get a direct line to the president.

Alvarez himself would tell media he was among those who coaxed Duterte to run for president, when they were still seatmates as lawmakers during the Estrada Administration. Fast forward to October 2015, Alvarez put a plane on standby for Duterte in case he changed his mind about not running on the last day of the filing for certificates of candidacy. Duterte did change his mind, 2 months later, when he substituted Martin Dino as the PDP’s candidate on the last day for substitution.

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When Duterte’s electoral victory was clear in mid-May 2016, congressmen-elect of the would be 17th Congress showed up at a hotel in Makati to meet Alvarez who had been introduced in Davao as the anointed one. Congressmen would also show up to support Alvarez in a separate meeting at the Midas Hotel. By then it was very clear, Alvarez was served with the numbers to become speaker—on a silver platter—by mere say so of the President. Alvarez would later on tap Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Farinas as his majority leader—the speaker’s #2.

Farinas would also provide Alvarez with something the latter lacked—a relationship with congressmen. Farinas had been a lawmaker for 2 prior terms already while Alvarez was coming back to the House only after nearly 2 decades. This would shape their combined management style—-Alvarez giving the broad strategic direction with Farinas as his chief enforcer. But this also left Alvarez detached from congressmen, with them comparing him to his predecessor Sonny Belmonte whom they said always made it a point to engage congressmen in small talk.

On the other hand, 3 weeks into Duterte’s term, Arroyo would be freed by the Supreme Court by dismissing the case filed by the Aquino administration for alleged plunder of state lottery funds. Even during the campaign trail, Duterte had promised to free Arroyo, believing the case that detained her was baseless.

Like Alvarez, Arroyo also had a long history with Duterte. Arroyo made him her anti-crime adviser during her presidency, giving him national prominence after he built a reputation as Davao City’s tough-talking, crime-busting chief executive.

With her newly regained freedom, Arroyo returned to Congress, her final term as Pampanga’s 2nd District Representative. There, she would initially be made Deputy Speaker for Central Luzon which allowed her to sit, participate, and vote in all House committees. Both in the committees and in the plenary sessions and even outside the Halls of Congress, Arroyo renewed bonds with old allies and forged new friendships.

With cases either dismissed and the rest in limbo, Arroyo seemed poised for a quiet resurgence after 4 years in hospital arrest. She would find herself relatively spared by the scandal, intrigue, and criticisms that plagued her during her presidency. She was also back in the Palace, and served as another bridge that the President could use to reach out to political supporters, businessmen and lately, his critics in the Catholic Church. She had the enviable position of someone who was not only close, but apparently very highly valued by Mr. Duterte.

And it wasn’t just Arroyo who was back in power. Her allies found themselves appointed by Duterte to various positions: Hermogenes Esperon as National Security Adviser, Agnes Devanadera as Energy Regulatory Commission Chair, Peter Favila in the Monetary Board, Jose Calida as Solicitor General, Francisco Duque back as Health Secretary.

THE TEACHER VS THE FRAT MAN

The Alvarez speakership began to be hounded by rumors that Arroyo might replace him when he began to fight with his erstwhile friend, Davao del Norte 2nd District Rep. Antonio Floirendo Jr—a man with very deep pockets. Floirendo’s family owns TADECO—which operates a banana plantation on government land—the Davao Penal Colony. He is also the President’s top campaign contributor. Rumors place the eruption of the conflict at a fight over seats by their girlfriends in an event attended by both parties and the President. However, Alvarez insisted it was because he had to put an end to Floirendo’s supposed corruption as the deal for the banana plantation supposedly was disadvantageous to the government. Alvarez would drag Floirendo to a House probe, the Ombudsman and later on the Sandiganbayan.

The battle for House's top post rumor never really went away, and was stronger when Arroyo and other House leaders were kicked out of their leadership positions by Alvarez for voting against the death penalty. Arroyo, after all, signed the law abolishing the death penalty in 2006. 

The rumors festered when Alvarez rejected the budgets for the districts of congressmen who crossed him for 2018—an act that was seen by many congressmen as just the most high handed in a growing list of tactics enforced by Alvarez and Farinas which cemented the perception that their rule of the House was iron-fisted.

Ako Bicol Party-list Rep. Rodel Batocabe would, later on, distill the difference between Arroyo and Alvarez into 2 simple characterizations—Arroyo was a teacher—-which she really was before joining politics—-while Alvarez was a fraternity leader. 

“Para akong nagaaral sa university si Speaker Alvarez ang head ng frat si madam Gloria teacher, si Speaker Alvarez fraternity leader, yun ang fighter si madam teacher.”

tale-of-two-speakers-2.jpg Speaker Arroyo’s picture takes the place of Speaker Alvarez in the House Gallery of incumbents. RG Cruz, July 30, 2018

But Alvarez’s apparent sins against his colleagues do not end there. As the ruling party—PDP—grew to consolidate power for President Duterte, it began accepting local politicians who were rivals of congressmen who joined PDP even before the President could be sworn into office. While this worked out for the party and its national officials, it didn’t work out for the congressmen who now had to deal with governors and mayors who were designated as local leaders of the party because of their positions. This would have a bearing when they run in the 2019 midterms—as the local leaders sign the party’s certificate of nomination and acceptance.

Deputy Speaker, Likely Majority Leader Rolando Andaya Jr explained this. “Doon nagsimula ang pag aasim ng relasyon.”

But never was local intramurals interfering with national politics more pronounced than in the investigation led by Farinas in 2017. Enabled by Alvarez, Farinas dragged and threatened to detain Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos. Like Alvarez with Floirendo, Farinas used the power of the House to probe Marcos’ use of excise tax funds. Like Floirendo, Marcos was also a key ally of the President. Duterte had often referred to Ferdinand Marcos as a role model, and would fondly refer to Imee by her middle name, Josefa. Most importantly, Duterte would often speak very highly of Imee’s brother Bongbong, who is currently insisting on his electoral protest against Vice President Leni Robredo at the Presidential Electoral Tribunal. Most Importantly, Duterte won in Ilocos Norte. During the campaign, Marcos supporters even ditched Bongbong's running mate, Senator Miriam Santiago for Duterte—launching the Alyansang Duterte Bongbong.

Just like Arroyo, Imee Marcos would also be back in the Palace as key supporter of the President. She would even be spotted in his overseas trips.

Which is why the Makabayan bloc of congressmen would deride Duterte as the enabler of the rehabilitation and rise of the Marcoses and Arroyo.

To them, this is the state of the nation now—a nation ruled by the powerful combination of 3 powerhouse political names—Duterte, Arroyo, and Marcos. Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate would once tell a press conference thet Duterte “inenable ang rehabilitasyon ng masahol na administrasyon.”

THE PRESIDENT'S LADIES

In one of the biggest ironies of his presidency, Duterte—known for misogynistic remarks—would be surrounded and buoyed by 3 palace princesses who would become political queens in their own right. Arroyo, the daughter of Diosdado Macapagal, Imee the daughter of Ferdinand Marcos and Duterte’s own daughter—-now Davao City Mayor Inday Sara Duterte, who Senator Antonio Trillanes claims, could become president herself someday.

Mayor Duterte first rose to national prominence in 2011 when she punched a sheriff over the demolition of shanties—shaping her public image as a fighter for the oppressed—-just like her father. 

Fast forward to February 2018—Mayor Duterte would call on congressmen to launch a coup d’etat against Alvarez whom she accused of disloyalty to her father and spreading intrigues against her. Mayor Duterte had formed Hugpong ng Pagbabago—a Region 11 based party that was meant to be a safe house for politicians who didn’t want to join Alvarez’s PDP. 

tale-of-two-speakers-3.jpg Speaker Gloria Macapahal-Arroyo and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte meet up for lunch, with members of the House of Representatives at the Seda Hotel in Quezon City. Contributed photo, July 30, 2018

“I do not understand why Members of the House of Representatives do not tell the President what the fat ass is up to and just coup d’etat the Speakership.” Mayor Duterte once told ABS-CBN.

However it was a call that cooled April 5, 2018—-when her father announced at a party organized by Marinduque Rep. Lord Alan Velasco on Arroyo’s birthday, that Arroyo was not interested in becoming Speaker of the House. President Duterte told the party, “Mukhang si speaker matamlay sabi ni ma’am sabihin mo sa kaibigan mo na wala akong ambisyong maging speaker.”

Arroyo had repeatedly said no to the job when asked by reporters. By then, Arroyo was already having a peaceful life—and becoming the country’s 4th highest official would put her back in the line of political fire once again. Congress was also rushing to have the president sign the proposed Bangsamoro Basic law by his 3rd State of the Nation Address in July. There was a lot of pending work in the president’s agenda that would be affected by a leadership change.

What people thought back then as the end of the story would on hindsight turn out to be just the lull in a super storm that was gathering strength. There was no movement in the House when the Senate replaced Koko Pimentel with Tito Sotto as Senate President. Alvarez resumed his campaign for charter change, insisting that a constituent assembly can amend the constitution even without the Senate. 

For good measure, Alvarez even pushed the envelope by asking for a people’s initiative to delay the 2019 elections and extend the terms of incumbent officials like him. 

It was a move that drew a rebuke from the Palace, as Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque insisted that the President does not want midterms to be postponed. 

“He believes in democracy, he believes in elections, and he wants to hold the referendum together with the elections. That is the position of the president," Roque had said.

All these happened in the run up to July 23—the day Alvarez would be unseated and replaced by Arroyo. For those seeking to oust Alvarez, it was their now or never moment. Sources say that by the weekend before July 23, Arroyo would be told by her allies that she would become speaker whether she liked it or not as Alvarez simply had to go. A subsequent statement by Ang Kabuhayan Rep. Dennis Laogan, who swore in Arroyo as speaker, tends to bear this out.

“They make it appear that she was this power hungry woman who just wants to be back in power. Its tasteless and shameful because from what I know, it was the concerted effort of the majority of the house that wanted to have a new Speaker,” Laogan said.”

This Congress had less than a year left in its current term, and in reality it had a year to work because it would go on a long break for the 2019 campaign. 

By October, when hopefuls file their certificates of candidacy, the House would be hounded by the problem to muster a quorum—a perennial problem on an election year since congressmen would be busy campaigning in their districts. 

It would also be just before the President submits his 2019 budget proposal to Congress—and congressmen still remember how Alvarez used his power to defund the districts of congressmen who crossed him.

But it was an uphill battle, says Batocabe, who later admitted that they weren’t sure they had the numbers the weekend before July 23. 

No congressmen have gone on the record to say they were called by Mayor Duterte to secure their votes for Arroyo. Mayor Duterte herself has declined to comment. But multiple sources say she did lead a phone brigade that would hand Arroyo the top job of the House on a silver platter. From Sunday night to Monday morning, different sources floated different numbers of committed supporters for Arroyo.

Batocabe himself admitted that Mayor Duterte was a factor. 

“Sa yun sa mga senyales. It was floated around...we do think...may basbas ng pangulo though walang direct or indirect na sinabi. We just read between the lines,” he said.

Suarez declined to talk about Mayor Duterte but he confirmed making calls. 

“I did my part, I made calls to friends about a possible scenario.”

CONFUSION, DRAMA, AND LOYALTY CHECK

By Monday morning, the atmosphere at the Batasan Pambansa was ominous. Political parties and blocs in the House were meeting with their members so no one showed up at the caucus by Farinas for the Bangsamoro Basic Law. The pro-Arroyo forces had also been at work on the manifesto of support for Arroyo and plan their strategy for the day.

By 10 a.m., the House opened the 3rd regular session of the 17th Congress, with Alvarez presiding. In his address, Alvarez thanked his colleagues and rallied them around the cause of charter change. 

Arroyo left in the middle of the session to return to her office, where she watched the rest of the session as it was covered on TV.

The plenary session then proceeded as planned to follow the protocols preparatory for the joint session for the State of the Nation Address.

However, by 11:10 a.m., the session was suspended to give time to a joint committee to formally invite Duterte to the House for his big speech.

What is usually a few minutes of suspension dragged on for 79 minutes. In that lull, many other congressmen retreated to the lounge or their offices or stepped outside to wait for the session to resume. 

It was supposedly during the 79-minute suspension when their leaders gathered all the majority congressmen in Alvarez’s office to do a loyalty check—which sources say turned to be heated and tense.

Nograles confirmed the loyalty check. 

“We were called to a caucus in speakers social hall during that caucus that is when the leaders revealed that someone a member of the HoR when we resume somebody will move declare vacant the seat of the speaker," he recalled. 

Nograles said the turning point was, "when people were expecting a vote [then] you didn't allow a vote to happen. That created a lingering doubt that lingering doubt is not good for the institution.”

Batocabe said most lawmakers were clueless of what was happening since that morning. 

"It just happened so fast biglang pabago-bago,” he said. 

Batocabe said it was during the lull in the session that his colleagues in the party-list coalition decided on their stand on the speakership.

The abrupt adjournment derailed not only the ratification of the bicameral conference committee report on the BBL, now known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law, but also a motion to declare the Speakership vacant, and the nomination and election of Arroyo as speaker.

Coups in the Senate and House are usually a civilized affair: plotters gather signatures in a manifesto which they show to the one they are ousting which is then formalized in the session—thus allowing a clean and orderly transition.

Andaya told media the Alvarez bloc had an inkling of what was about to come.

“There were initial attempts to establish communication lines but that did not push through...emotions were high. Everything was moving so fast...all attempts to send transition teams hindi natuloy eh, kaya it had to happen that way.”

DAY OF VOTE

By noon, when there were not a lot of people on the floor, the presiding officer, Deputy Speaker Gwen Garcia of Cebu, Arroyo’s chief ally from the province that gave her a 1 million vote lead in the 2004 presidential elections, resumed the session. It was then that Farinas’ Senior Deputy Majority Leader, Rimpy Bondoc, who comes from a rival political family in Arroyo’s Pampanga province, moved to adjourn the session, which Garcia approved amid the repeated protestations of Andaya.

Bondoc said, “Mme. Speaker, I move that we adjourn.

Andaya replied, “ Mme. Speaker.”

Bondoc continued, “until tomorrow at four o’clock in the afternoon. I so move, Mme. Speaker. Andaya said, “Mme. Speaker, before we.”

Garcia then said, “The session is adjourned until four o’clock this afternoon.“

The abrupt adjournment apparently only delayed the inevitable: Arroyo and her forces were then assembled on the floor. By 1:00 p.m., Arroyo’s supporters and their staff were gathering in the plenary hall as the RTVM did finishing touches and final audio check on the president’s podium. They also started circulating the manifesto of support for Arroyo.

By 2:00 p.m., the Presidential Security Group escorted everyone else who was not a congressman and not a congressional staff member off the plenary hall for a final security sweep ahead of the president’s arrival.

Caloocan Rep. Edgar Erice would tell ABS-CBN as we stood from the sidelines, “Nagkaroon kami ng meeting, we are for the change of leadership primarily because of the advocacies being spoused by the speaker like no el like con ass and yung ginawang pagzero budget sa mga districts ng mga LP. If there will be a replacement there will be some of us who are abstaining, some of us i think will vote for GMA because of previous relationships”

Erice noted even Arroyo is a former LP chairman while of Alvarez, Erice would say. “he never treated us as equals.”

Media retreated to the press office while those with invitations took their positions in the 3rd Gallery of the session hall, 3 floors up from the main floor. It was from there that ABS-CBN monitored the events.

From ABS-CBN’S vantage point, the pro-Arroyo forces assembled in front by the podium. Andaya tried to speak into the sound system but it was shutdown by Isabela Rep. Rodito Albano. The mace, the symnbolf of the House’s authority which should be present during sessions, was nowhere to be found. The House Sergeant-At-Arms is the custodian of the mace but as Alvarez’s daughter Paola would post on Instagram later—it was in her father’s office. The Secretariat which records proceedings were also nowhere in sight.

tale-of-two-speakers-4.jpgScreenshot of Paolo Alvarez' Instagram post

Andaya would later tell us they were intimidated into disappearing. Suarez wants a probe. Andaya said, “Balita sa amin pinauwi lahat ng staff ng secretariat, sergeant at arms, secretary general; inutusang umuwi balita ko pinapagalitan sila kagabi tinatakot na tatanggalin sa trabaho.

The sound system was turned off, too.

Led by Andaya, the undaunted pro-Arroyo forces declared the position of speaker vacant in a vote that was shown in a Facebook live by Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque. Nograles called the roll and listed the votes. Through it all, Arroyo just sat on a chair as everyone else did the hard work.

Somewhere in the chaos, Buhay Rep, Lito Atienza says Farinas was offered to retain his post under Arroyo—if he abandoned Alvarez. Farinas declined.

This was followed by Arroyo’s election before the group broke into applause. Minutes later, Arroyo was escorted to the Speaker’s Rostrum and administered the oath by the Laogan, the youngest congressman this term. Among the witnesses: Former Speaker Sonny Belmonte, Nograles, Deputy Speakers Sharon Garin and Raneo Abuy, Representatives Alfredo Benitez and Magnolia Antonino and Yedda Romualdez—whose husband, Martin Romualdez, is both an ally of Arroyo and cousin of Imee Marcos.

Arroyo would try to address the body. However, with no sound system, nobody really understood what was being said and the witnesses were content with reading the body language. Imee Marcos was in the plenary in her fiery red gown.

20180724_gma02.jpg Former President and Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gestures after she was 'first' elected by congressmen as the new Speaker of the House of Representatives in Quezon City in July 23, 2018.

By 4:00 p.m., as the president’s chopper landed on the House Helipad, the widescreens in the plenary hall showed that he entered the building through the speaker’s entrance, Alvarez and Farinas joined Senate President Tito Sotto and Senate Majority Leader Miguel Zubiri in welcoming the chief executive in what was the most palpable sign that the 2 were not giving up their posts without a fight since the Speaker and Majority leader welcome the president as part of SONA protocol.

tale-of-two-speakers-6.jpg

The same widescreens would show that the Congressional Leaders and Duterte gathered in the holding room while waiting for the speech as is customary. But by 4:00 p.m., when they should have started walking, the group failed to emerge. In the lull, Arroyo and her allies retreated into the area behind the podium near the Presidential Holding Area. The same widescreens would later show Arroyo walking with Secretary General Cesar Pareja in that area.

tale-of-two-speakers-7.jpg

Inside the session hall, people were confused and amused by the turn of events especially as the President showed no signs of coming out. Pictures shown to ABS-CBN would show Arroyo meeting with her allies at that time. at around 4:30 p.m, the honor guards that lined the central aisle of the House had started to march out in what is a sign that this standoff could drag longer. Moments later the honor guards came back and a little past 5:00 p.m., Sotto and Zubiri emerged, followed by Alvarez and Farinas. Alvarez ascended the rostrum while Arroyo was no longer spotted in the session hall.

The President reportedly threatened to walk out unless this was resolved. The impasse was resolved by an agreement that Alvarez would sit during the SONA. But Arroyo’s election would be formalized in a session to be called after the speech.

The President then delivered his state of the Nation Address. The rest of the speech and session turned out to be uneventful. Not only was it shorter than his earlier SONA’s , it was also bereft of the cussing, insults, threats and politically incorrect jokes that people have expected from Duterte.

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After the speech was a different story: congressmen did not go home because as it turned out, they agreed to reconvene after the SONA. By this time, an Interim Secretary General was appointed to record the session. They had retaken control of the sound system. And during the session, Velasco walked into the plenary hall carrying a mace from the archives because as it turns out, there isn't only one mace.

When the dust had settled, 243 voted to oust Alvarez, 184 to install Arroyo and 12 had abstained. All the major political parties were represented in the coup—PDP, NPC, NUP, NP and even the LP.

Looking back, Batocabe concedes that how Arroyo was elected was not held in accorance with the House rules. However he insisted it was valid since it was a direct exercise of the House’s power—which rests in the majority. 

“Notwithstanding the procedural lapses or irregularities what can cure those rules it is the will of the majority of the representatives if everything fails we will go back to the basic democratic tenet that majority wins.”

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By Tuesday lunchtime, Arroyo would assemble her allies again at her La Vista residence, a throwback to her days as president. In pictures shown to ABS-CBN,s Garcia is seen hugging Arroyo.

On Tuesday night, Farinas would meet Arroyo and inform her of the Alvarez loyalists' decision to form their own bloc and have him as minority leader. Suarez, who had previously expressed readiness to join the Arroyo majority, changed his mind and opted to hold onto his minority leadership.

Wednesday, Alvarez would meet Arroyo after the latter offered to swap offices. Later in the day, Marikina Rep. Miro Quimbo and his colleagues in the 12-man Liberal Party bloc that abstained from the voting launched his bid to be minority leader—the check to the majority/ Separately, the Makabayan bloc also launched their bid to be minority leader.

Many House Committees canceled their hearings during this week. The plenary sessions only accomplished 2 things: the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law and approval of House Resolution 2025 which entered Arroyo’s election into the record.

The Majority also delayed the election of its majority leader as the minority leadership remains unresolved. 

Speaker Gloria Arroyo went from detained former president 2 years ago to the country’s 4th highest official just as the House will begin 2019 budget deliberations this week.

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