The tenuous grand alliance breaks up


Oscar P. Lagman, Jr.


The demotion of Senior Deputy Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to Deputy Speaker last Wednesday drew both formal statements and casual comments from the parties involved. Many are contradictory, some cryptic, and others incongruous. Here are my musings on those statements and on the implications of the originally trivial matter of the unceremonious demotion from a ceremonial position turned into an event of national import.

The initial reaction of the person at the center of the maelstrom, Ms. Macapagal Arroyo, was, “It’s the prerogative of the House.” Subsequently, she issued this lengthy statement: “When I learned that there were reports that I was suspected of plotting a ‘coup’ against Speaker Romualdez, I decided I must speak out to clarify my political position. Indeed, some of my actions may have been misconstrued, such as my recent trip with a delegation of Congressmen to Korea for some official meetings.

“To be clear, my political objectives are three: First, to represent the 2nd district of Pampanga. Second, to support the legislative agenda of Speaker Romualdez and President Marcos. Third, to use whatever experience I have as a former President to help out when I am called upon to do so.

“Outside of my role as Congresswoman, my public interest going forward is to help reduce tensions between the United States and China, given that I was strongly allied to both countries when I was President. This time, I am a mere Congresswoman, so issues of national importance no longer depend on my role in Congress. Thus, I have no compelling reasons to change my mind about foregoing my ambitions for the Speakership.”

If she thought that she was suspected of plotting a coup because of her actions, I think she should have explained those actions, particularly that recent trip with a delegation of congressmen to Korea. Apparently, House Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez was not in on that official meeting of congressmen in Korea, otherwise it would not have caused suspicion of a sinister scheme. But Ms. Macapagal Arroyo did not say what it was all about to allay negative impressions.

She also said that now that she is a mere congresswoman, issues of national importance no longer depend on her role in Congress. If so, why did she join President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. on all his foreign trips, including that one to Davos?

Reacting to the demotion of Ms. Macapagal Arroyo to Deputy Speaker, President Marcos Jr. said, “I really see it as just a run of the mill [thing] that they do in the House. I think we should also be careful to not read too much into it.” The President himself reacting to a “run-of-the-mill” thing done in the House and cautioning people from reading too much into it just gave the matter some significance.

The day after Ms. Macapagal Arroyo was demoted to Deputy Speaker, Vice-President Sara Duterte resigned from the Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD) party, which helped her get elected to her present position. She declared: “I am here today because of the trust of the Filipino people in me to lead and serve them and the country, and this cannot be poisoned by political toxicity or undermined by toxic political powerplay.

“I am grateful to all the party members for the support that also once demonstrated that unity is possible to advance our shared dreams for our fellow Filipinos and our beloved country. Nothing is more important to me than being able to serve our fellow Filipinos and the Philippines with President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. leading the way.”

If she was sickened by the toxic powerplay within Lakas-CMD, she should have disciplined, if not expelled, those who engaged in combative politics. After all, she was chairperson of the party. But I surmise she resigned because she sensed the inevitability of the breakup of the alliance between Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the first cousins Martin Romualdez and Bongbong Marcos. She must have decided “I am outta here!” She will probably go on her own from here on.

On VP Duterte resigning from Lakas-CMD, President Marcos Jr. had this to say: “You know that VP Inday Sara is very plain spoken. She really means what she says. She has too much work to do that she cannot… allow herself to be distracted. That is the way I see it.” I take that as an endorsement of VP Duterte leaving Ms. Macapagal Arroyo’s party. He is like saying, “That’s right, Inday Sara, don’t get involved in the Lakas-CMD intramurals, don’t take sides. You are better off leaving the tumultuous party.”

House Majority Leader Mannix Dalipe said that the move to replace Ms. Macapagal Arroyo as Senior Deputy Speaker with Rep. Aurelio Gonzales, Jr. was meant to “unburden” her from “the heavy load required from the position.” But the position was only ceremonial, there was nothing to unburden.

It is said the position was specially created for her. That is probably true. She is known to want to be “first among equals.” That is what her former classmates in Assumption College say. Her father, Diosdado Macapagal, was the Vice-President and subsequently the President of the Philippines when the young Gloria was a student in Assumption.

Anyway, even if the position of Senior Deputy Speaker were only ceremonial, the imperious Gloria Macapagal Arroyo would still want it. Her removal from it and the unceremonious way she was yanked out of it would have serious repercussions on the people responsible for the caper. Hell has no fury like Gloria Macapagal Arroyo crossed.

Those who testified that there was bribery in the deal involving the National Broadband Network (NBN) and China’s telecommunication giant ZTE suffered serious consequences. They were businessman Joey de Venecia, son of then Speaker Jose de Venecia; Jun Lozada, technical consultant of Romulo Neri, National Economic and Development Authority Director-General; and Neri himself. They accused President Macapagal Arroyo’s husband Mike and Commission on Elections Chairman Benjamin Abalos of being intermediaries in bribery.

As no wrongdoing could be pinned against businessman Joey for which he could be punished, President Macapagal Arroyo took it out on his father. Jose de Venecia was ousted as Speaker by the then-president’s minions in the House of Representatives, never mind if Jose de Venecia was the one who accommodated the party-less Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as his vice-presidential running mate in the 1998 general elections.

Jun Lozada was abducted by agents of the state when he arrived at the airport from Hong Kong where he was sent to keep him away from the Senate committee investigating the aborted NBE-ZTE deal. Had he not been rescued by the La Salle Brothers, he would probably be considered “missing” or “disappeared.” In 2009, the year after the NBN-ZTE scandal, the Ombudsman filed graft and corruption charges against Lozada for selling 6.599 hectares of public land to his brother Orlando when Jun was president of Philippine Forest Corp., a government entity. He and Orlando were found guilty and sentenced to six to 10 years in jail.

Jun and Orlando Lozada are in jail while former Congressman Prospero Pichay, convicted of three cases of graft valued at P780 million and sentenced to 18 years, is not.

Romulo Neri went into hiding during the Senate hearing on the NBN-ZTE deal. He was subsequently charged with grave misconduct in the handling of the NBN-ZTE scandal. He was eventually convicted and is perpetually barred from holding public office.

When there is a power struggle at the highest levels of Philippine officialdom, four Cabinet members would become the subjects of loyalty checks because of the sensitive positions they hold. They are the Executive Secretary, the secretaries of the departments of Interior and Local Government (DILG), Defense, and Justice.

The Executive Secretary is the President’s Man-Friday and also the eyes and ears of the President. He knows all the secrets in the presidential palace. He must be extremely loyal to the President. The DILG secretary is the liaison between the president and the governors and mayors. Under him is the Philippine National Police. The Defense secretary is the commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, including the Presidential Security Guards. The Justice Secretary is the chief prosecutor of the country. Under him is the National Bureau of Investigation.

Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin had no previous ties with Presidents Marcos, senior or junior. He was appointed a judge by President Cory Aquino, associate justice of the Supreme Court by President Macapagal Arroyo, and named Chief Justice by President Rodrigo Duterte.

DILG Secretary Ben Hur Abalos was the general campaign manager of the Bongbong Marcos-Sara Duterte presidential ticket in the 2022 general elections. He is the son of Benjamin Abalos, an anti-Marcos activist during Martial Law. Ben Abalos, Sr., as mentioned above, was Commission on Elections chairman during President Macapagal Arroyo’s incumbency and alleged to have been her bagman in the anomalous NBN-ZTE deal.

When Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez was an Army lieutenant, he joined the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), a loose organization of military officers, mostly alumni of the Philippine Military Academy, who clamored for reforms in the much-politicized military establishment during the reign of President Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. He was on the side of the rebels during the EDSA uprising. He was named Chief-of-Staff of the Armed Forces by President Duterte.

When Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla was in the House of Representatives, he was always on the side of the sitting president. During President Duterte’s presidency, he was a staunch ally. It should be noted though that his father, Johnny Remulla, political warlord of Cavite, was close to President Marcos, Sr.

We will know in the days ahead as the power struggle intensifies if there is collateral damage among the four Cabinet members.

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. has been a keen observer of Philippine politics since the 1950s.