The Prime Minister scenario

Font Size
Marvin A. Tort-125


On Monday, Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was elected by her peers as Speaker of the House of Representatives, to replace Davao Del Norte Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez. And with that, from three “Mindanaoans” heading the government in 2016-2018, we are now down to one. Ahead of Alvarez losing the Speakership, Senator Koko Pimentel had lost the Senate Presidency.

And now a scenario is bandied about that there is something significantly more sinister to installing Mrs. Arroyo as Speaker, as opposed to many lawmakers simply being upset with Alvarez and his leadership style. The present development is allegedly the prelude to Mrs. Arroyo becoming Prime Minister under a Federal government with a unicameral legislature.

Perhaps we are reading too much into the Speakership fight, which is not unusual in politics. And while Mrs. Arroyo may not be popular now, she was at one point in her political career the darling of the crowd. It is also logical for her to succeed Speaker Alvarez given her seniority and the fact that she was Deputy Speaker from Aug. 15, 2016 to March 15, 2017.

The other way of looking at the situation is that Mrs. Arroyo may be the only one in the House with more than enough gravitas to mount a coup against Alvarez and get away with it. For I highly doubt if Alvarez’s allies will choose to pick a fight with her. And not unlike Alvarez, she is aligned with the President as well, also being a member of his PDP-Laban Party since 2017.

In short, despite Mrs. Arroyo taking over from Speaker Alvarez, not much has really changed, in my opinion. The ruling party’s leadership is intact. The President has not exactly lost his allies in the House. And the legislative agenda is nowhere nearer getting done had Alvarez retained the Speakership. Personalities have changed, but not much else.

As for becoming Prime Minister, it is a little too early to tell.

As Senate President Tito Sotto had noted, let’s wait and see how things will play out, and for the agenda for the Speakership change to be revealed.

But other than the support of fewer than 200 lawmakers at the House, it doesn’t seem like Mrs. Arroyo has much else going for her in this regard.

For one, she is on her last term as congresswoman, having been elected initially in 2010. By the time Congress opens anew around the same time next year, she will no longer be in office. Also, she is now 71 years old. She is not as young and as dynamic as she used to be. She has also become highly unpopular, particularly among the younger voters, considering the way her presidency ended in 2010.

The legislative and election calendars are also not in her favor. The filing of candidacies for the May 2019 elections is already in October, or two months from now. And we all know that once filing ends, the “fiesta” starts. The election season comes and lasts until after May 2019, with the legislative agenda becoming secondary to political agenda.

And Charter change will not happen without a fight. I doubt if the House, even under Mrs. Arroyo, can convene as a constituent assembly.

In terms of timing, it will be tight for the House to consider constitutional amendments. The national budget will have to come first, and then the economic legislative agenda that includes the second phase of tax reform. These two come hand in hand as the legislative calibration is intended to help fund the proposed budget.

The House will have about nine months to consider the legislative agenda, which is effectively only about six months considering the breaks. And this is moving towards an election year. A lot of struggles, negotiating, and bargaining on significant legislation will happen, with each lawmaker angling for the best deal for his or her constituents.

Putting constitutional amendments to a plebiscite vote by May 2019 is highly unlikely. The matter, to date, seems to have become unpopular, with majority of Filipinos reportedly opposed to the idea. Can we expect such an unpopular agenda to succeed in the hands of an unpopular Speaker of the House? Perhaps. But, I don’t think that was truly the agenda behind replacing Alvarez with Mrs. Arroyo.

The move to replace Alvarez, I believe, is more tactical than strategic. It had come to a point, perhaps, that lawmakers will be no longer “happy” and amenable to his leadership. And, it was logical to choose Mrs. Arroyo to take over from him. But, I doubt if there was a longer-term strategy towards federalism and her becoming Prime Minister.

Since 1987, many have tried or attempted to tinker with the Constitution — all without success. The country would have been happy with the 1935 Constitution. If only President Marcos had no designs to stay in power beyond his term limit, there would have been no 1973 Constitution. And it was more in reaction to the 1973 Constitution, and the Marcos presidency, that the 1987 Constitution came about.

That said, I believe many are not yet comfortable with the idea of tinkering with the Constitution yet again. Moreover, I don’t think Filipinos are about to give up the power of directly voting for their president. And with little understanding of what federalism is and what it will bring about, I honestly believe the federalism initiative will fail, regardless of who sits as Speaker.


Marvin A. Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council