Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Digong's third SONA delivered at the 17th Congress would best be remembered for coup vs. Speaker Alvarez that installed GMA in his place. A pity that the coup buried some meaningful pronouncements by Duterte in a SONA sans expletives and verbal sling-shots at other leaders, such as toward VP Robredo last year.

Former President and now Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal Arroyo plays out a new and more challenging role as the First Female Speaker of the House of Representatives. 

The 17th Congress of the Philippines will be remembered not for the surprisingly brief State of the Nation Address of President Duterte---but for the coup against Speaker Alvarez that took place over many hours at the Batasan last Monday. In a series of lightning moves by 184 members of the House of Representatives (out of a total membership of 234), who chose to install as their new leader former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, co-province-mate and co-PDP-Laban party-mate of President Duterte and his longtime ally, garnered only 48 votes while  12 representatives abstained. 

The Batasan audience sensed something big was going on when the appearance of the President in the cavernous session hall was delayed for over an hour---even though the giant screen inside the hall showed that he had already arrived. The audience realized something was afoot when a huge group of representatives milled around near the stage, discussing something still unclear to the vast SONA crowd at that time. Many in the audience, including the diplomats, grew more and more restless as still no SONA. I whiled away the time by chatting with a US Embassy political officer and a UNDP official.


Soon enough, I sensed that a coup vs. Speaker Alvarez was in progress and the buzz went around quickly that GMA was going to replace him. Still more waiting amid the raucous of voices and then GMA, who came in a an orange business suit and not in a Filipiniana outfit like most of us, obviously because she didn't have enough time to change outfits, went up the dais to sit at the Speaker's place---all by herself. By then great confusion reigned in the session hall. GMA tried the microphone, but no sound came out. The Alvarez camp had shut it out. 

Finally GMA decided to leave the dais and take her seat among her colleagues on the floor. More groups in a buzz, and after a long while a page came in and set up the Mace---the symbol of the House. 


President Duterte began the shortest speech among his three SONAs so far---which was cut short probably because he had already known what was happening in the House---which was the bigger story. Then Senate President Tito Sotto and by then still-Speaker Alvarez adjourned the session on behalf of their respective chambers. The buzz in the hall was that an arrangement was fashioned between the two protagonists for the Speakership that Alvarez would still get to preside over the House for the SONA---ONE LAST HURRAH FOR HIM.  

Soon after the reception for the guests, the President left by chopper back to the Palace. Then followed the climax of the day journeying quickly into late night---the viva voce voting for Speaker in the session hall, which was being very seriously taken. At that late hour, there was a quorum, which was in itself AN INCREDIBLE FACT IN A CHAMBER NOTORIOUS FOR ABSENCES. 


A big snag: the Alvarez camp, aside from turning off the power on the stage earlier, also did a good job of hiding the Mace---the symbol of House authority---so that it couldn't be produced for last Monday night's over-extended session and voting. Someone questioned whether voting without the Mace would be legal, but this argument was shot down by Camarines Sur's Rolando Andaya who likened the Mace to the policeman's chapa---even without it the policeman remains an officer of the law.  His explanation quieted the objectors and voting began fast and almost automatic---no complex explanations, just voting one by one, overwhelmingly for GMA. 

Buhay Rep. Joselito Atienza termed it "spontaneous combustion," though later reports said the plot was hatched earlier in Bonifacio Global City by a group led by Andaya. 


Lots of theories arose in the search for a rationale for Alvarez's ouster. Some pointed to his vigorous espousal of a "No-El" (no election) scenario---recently headlined by newspapers---which was said to have drawn flak toward the President inasmuch as Alvarez is considered one of his closest political allies and the latter would not do anything without Mr. Duterte's blessing. Perhaps it was there, but the whispered animosity of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte toward Alvarez---which was widely known in Davao---gathered more credence and showed the power of this young politician. Significantly, other politicians from Davao, such as Rep. Karlo Nograles and TonyBoy Floirendo were allied with Sara vs. Alvarez.

I spoke to Rep. Floirendo whose Tagum banana plantation became the object of Alvarez's ire after their two ladies quarreled over who gets to sit at which place of honor at the Bacolod Masskara Festival two years back. Floirendo, known to have been a major donor to Duterte's campaign, had few words of endearment for his fellow DavaoeƱo Alvarez. 

Another solon felt that Alvarez's espousal of same-sex marriage and divorce drew the ire of the Church.

Indeed, many possible reasons for Alvarez's unceremonious eviction. Everyone concedes, though, that the shake-up wouldn't have been possible without at least the tacit approval of Mr. Duterte.  At the session hall  after the voting, I managed to query new speaker GMA, looking quite tired, whether the coup vs. Alvarez had the approval of the President and she replied tartly and almost inaudibly, "Does it have to have his approval?"


Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was elected Speaker of the House tonight---a new phase in her long and distinguished political career. Former Senator and DENR Secretary Sonny Alvarez noted that In becoming Speaker after her nine year-presidency, GMA took the same path as John Quincy Adams in US history. After Adams finished his term as President of the US, he became a member of the US Congress---but as ordinary legislator and not as Speaker. Interesting new world for GMA. Great expectations from her colleagues. Congratulations, Mme. Speaker---the first Filipino woman to achieve this distinction in a predominantly man's world.

If the shift to federalism, as President Duterte is now campaigning furiously for, takes place, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo could conceivably become the first Prime Minister and the first Filipino woman to achieve this goal. Some commentators note that with Duterte shooting his mouth off frequently without thinking, GMA would be the perfect foil, as she is known as a meticulous plodder especially in the realm of economics and foreign investments. 

 At the moment the idea of GMA's return to the top is reaping a lot of favorable remarks, but her political enemies are also quite active in shooting it down. This petite woman, however, has fought many political battles over the decades and she appears to be in this new game to stay. 

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