As I have been doing for the last two years since President Duterte came into power, I have been doing the rounds from Luzon to Mindanao, briefing big (schools, civic and faith-based organizations) and small (boards, religious congregations, embassies) audiences about the national situation. In these briefings, attended by both pro- and anti-Duterte individuals as well as independents, I try to be as objective and non-partisan as possible, highlighting both the good and the bad in what is happening in our country. To be constructive and relevant, I end my talks by imagining scenarios for the near and middle future. I conclude by challenging my audience, citing their particular context and unique abilities and resources, to actively respond to the national situation.
Lately, I have been more hopeful than pessimistic about what the country faces. My sense, given the intensity of what is happening, is that something will break and we will have once again an opportunity for authentic change.
First, the coming together of many political groups and forces for a Unified People’s Sona makes me very hopeful that we will have a stronger and more cohesive resistance against the excesses of the Duterte administration, particularly on its blatant and criminal disregard of human rights and its continuous undermining of democratic processes and accountability institutions. I am happy that the magnificent 7 in the House of Representatives, complemented by members of the Liberal Party that joined the opposition, and the Makabayan bloc has come together in the House of Representatives. Together, they are the real minority in the House and should be recognize as such. It is unfortunate that the majority was the one who chose the minority leader.
Second, the change of leadership in the House of Representatives is good for the country. Although I did not like the way the change happened just before the State of the Nation Address of the President, where our ugly politics was exposed before the world, I am certain Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo will be a better Speaker for the country than her predecessor Pantaleon Alvarez. Among others, she is more hardworking than her predecessor and is likely to succeed in shepherding important bills that all of us should support—from the creation of a disaster management agency, enactment finally of a land use act, and the passage of a comprehensive health bill.
Arroyo supports the additional TRAIN packages but she would have to be careful in moving them along because of how Train 1 has been rightly or wrongly linked to inflation.
I also think that Charter change is not likely anymore with Arroyo as speaker—not because I blindly trust in her but because of the political baggage she brings to this issue as former President. It will be seen by the public as a power grab whatever her real motivations. Already, opposition to charter change has consolidated in the Senate because of this latest development. It does not help of course that the charter change advocates in the Duterte government are making a mess out of this effort, the latest being the antics of Mocha Uson and Drew Olivar that has drawn widespread condemnation. What an insult to the hard work done by Chief Justice Reynato Puno, Senator Aquilino Pimentel, Father Ranhillio Aquino, and the other members of the Consultative Commission to craft a proposed constitution.
I welcome and will hold Speaker Arroyo to her word that the House of Representatives will not attempt to do Charter change without the Senate or that there will be no elections in 2019, ideas that Alvarez foolishly floated when he was still speaker. Although she is now on record in conceding to separate voting by the Senate in case Congress convenes as a constituent assembly, I think that the Senate should not be tempted and induced to agree to such a move. I can grant Speaker Arroyo’s sincerity on this but there is nothing to stop anyone in the House of Representatives or even an outside to question such an agreement on separate voting. Although constitutional law professors like me teach that separate voting was intended for this process, the last word on this will be the Supreme Court’s. Looking at the latter’s decisions in the last two years, I cannot imagine a scenario where President Duterte will lose a vote on this issue.
In my view, the comeback of the former president has also permanently altered the political situation and has changed the dynamics of the Duterte alliance. In fact, some observers have said that effectively Speaker Arroyo is now at the helm of government. Certainly, in his Sona, President Duterte sounded tired and without energy. The contrast with Arroyo—in control, commanding, bursting with energy—was so obvious. I could not help but ask myself then—did we also not just a change of speakers but also a subtle transfer of power from Malacañang to Batasan?
Speaker Arroyo’s latest moves to go to the provinces to visit projects even in districts that are not hers, her recommendations on how to contain inflation, and as her announcement that all representatives will get funds for their districts indicates a new role for the Speaker and also for the House of Representatives. Some say that this is in anticipation of a shift, through charter change, from the presidential to a quasi presidential-parliamentary system of government, with Speaker Arroyo angling to be the first Prime Minister under President Duterte.
I am actually hoping that the years she was detained unjustly by the Aquino government has had a good impact on her person. I am a believer in the goodness of people, in conversion, and in redemption. While I have always been aware of the charges against her, my own professional experience with her has always been positive if intense. I was a student in her economics class in Ateneo de Manila but I was shy in that class and did not excel as I was about to shift to philosophy that semester. Later though, when she was in the Senate and I was an environmental undersecretary, I engaged constructively with her on mining issues. And when she was President, she tapped me several times on climate change and Mindanao peace issues even when I was vocal about some of her political decisions like the midnight appointment of Chief Justice Corona. My respect for her increased because of that.
As for Speaker Arroyo’s detention during the Aquino years, I always objected to that (starting with preventing her from leaving for abroad) on the ground of human rights. The government in my view was not able to mount credible corruption cases against her and it is shameful she was not released earlier.
Nevertheless, moving forward, my wish is for Speaker Arroyo to end her political career on a good note, by shepherding good laws as mentioned above and stopping bad ones for good like the death penalty. And yes, I hope she eventually does right by the minority in the House of Representatives and stop this anomaly of the majority choosing the Minority Leader. I hope also that in the end she abandons the effort to change the Constitution. A bonus would be if she secures the release of Senator Leila de Lima, but maybe that’s too much to hope for.
Regardless, I wish only good will and success for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. May her future act as a politician earn her the admiration and gratitude of our country, one that can be aptly described, using the words of the great Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as one condemned to a hundred years of solitude where no one is given a second opportunity on earth. In this new opportunity given to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, may her decisions and acts not only redeem her but all of us who love this country.
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