The Philippine Autocracy & the Battle for Congress

Determined to forge a legacy to be remembered (the Iron Lady could yet surpass Lee Kuan Yew… or maybe make Thaksin grind his teeth in envy), Gloria has now turned her energies to her primary Constitutional enemy: Congress…

… for nearly a decade—and longer if we count intermittent periods—Congress was not about the two Houses. Congress was about the ambition of one man…

Measures and actions recently passed under the auspices of Czarina Arroyo (de facto Empress and Autocrat of all the Philippines) have tended to centralize all State power in her and strengthen her vested authority. As all the czars have done in their time in their halcyon years in Russia, she is taking a page in the Philippine Constitution and going through the loopholes to solidify that power (and, in case the Constitution is too inconvenient, she could subtly sidestep its provisions by technicalities). Through her office as Chief Executive, she has issued “police measures” to control the areas allowable to the media and in a subtle way impose stricter censorship; and by her office as Commander-in-Chief, she has intimidated her enemies–even among the military–keeping with her only the most loyal of subordinates.

Determined to capture the legitimacy that she could not, for all her efforts, gain in the eyes of the people and even among the organs of the State, she has also sought ways to appease the populace through gestures pointing to reform (Melo’s appointment as Comelec chairman), and heady propaganda trumpeting the Philippines’ highest growth in 37 years–which, to the careful observer, has is a sad note, for if this was true, then the economy has been in a consistent slump since the Marcos era. There are even rumors that she has made allies with elements of the Left, as well as promised the craved “Bangsamoro autonomy” to the Muslim separatists.

Determined to forge a legacy to be remembered (the Iron Lady could yet surpass Lee Kuan Yew… or maybe make Thaksin grind his teeth in envy), she has now turned her energies to her primary Constitutional enemy: Congress. The Legislature is divided into two sub-bodies, which in itself is a division of interests. The Senate, directly elected by the nation vote, has set as its main purpose the blocking of measures that would curtail liberties and subtly discard Constitutional limitations. But in recent times the Senate has been seen as an independent body, a breakaway segment of Congress. Because for nearly a decade—and longer if we count intermittent periods—Congress was not about the two Houses. Congress was about one man.

Jose de Venecia has held the office of Speaker in an unprecedented five-time period. Denied the Presidency once, he opted instead to carve a niche in the Legislature, and with the blessings of the Executive and former President Ramos, transformed it as an “instrument of power” whereby the power bloc of Lakas-NUCD was centralized. From here, he negotiated with ease between the anti-administration Senate, and the Presidency. Congress, which had the ultimate power of check the Executive through impeachment, and was ideally thought to represent the provinces and the people, has been used as a weapon of control. Congress was a strategic position, and the Speaker held a strategic place. For as long as he sat in his office he could maintain a balancing act between the growing Opposition bloc of Church-Senate-middle class and the Administration bloc of Army-State. He could not be attacked, for he held the influence of the majority of Congress. He could easily “in his good conscience” initiate impeachment against a President who “flouted the laws of the country”.

At the zenith of his power, he even used Congress as a way to circumvent the Presidency through the much-publicized Constitutional Amendment. Stripped of the irrelevant provisions, power would shift to Congress, and to the Prime Minister. National clamor, from protests to rumors of military uprising, eventually pressured the Presidency to cut its support to this attempt, and the Speaker himself retreated.

It is often believed–and this author for a long time thought–that Congress has been acting as a “rubber stamp” for the Czarina, bowing to every demand. But that is the beauty of the Speaker’s realpolitik. His Congress has been acting in the role of the Duma (Russian Congress) of 1917, and he has filled the shoes of Alexander Kerensky. He agreed to the Czarina’s wishes for as long as it benefited him. He gently nudged “impeachment” every time his power was threatened. The Philippine Kerensky has used Congress as a “personal empire”, increasing power through backdoor negotiations and intimidation. For all intents and purposes, Congress was a “wildcard”. It therefore had to be brought to heel.

The Czarina began to encroach on this Duma (the Congress), first through the elections. With the Lakas-NUCD virtually holding a monopoly over the Legislature, she pushed through the breakaway party of KAMPI. With the general public unsure of the loyalties anyway, and tired of the consistent administration control through Lakas, KAMPI held a critical, dangerous number. Adding to the Speaker’s consternation was the emptying of the key Minority (and Opposition) seats for the more vaunted prize of the Senate ones; and while ideally this created a power-block that could check immediate Executive ambitions, it also meant that the Opposition weakened substantially, and would not be able to oppose a possible KAMPI takeover. Having secured a powerful bloc, the Czarina simply let nature take its natural course.

And suddenly, the Philippine Kerensky found himself less of power. He held off the wolves through “rumors” of impeachment, his one weapon. Where was his patron, the former President, who had the ear of elements of the military top brass? Indeed, the Czarina has had enough of the latter’s machinations, and though eventually there were “public declarations of unity”, the Czarina had struck a victory. The Speaker was a mere mortal; he was no longer in control of events.

The only thing left to do was simple “political decapitation”. The impeachment threat was still potent, but not critical. She has the security of a majority of seats in Congress. The extension of Hermogenes Esperon as military chief must have been due to his subtle and successful efforts to quell disorder within the ranks, as well as agitation among the Left. Most of all, she retains the majority of support of local government (though the recent elections have rocked this foundation). That she has not is merely a matter of “expediency”—the time is not right. But the prize remains: in a few years, she will step down as President and, if what she said in a recent press conference were true, she would join Congress. If (or, through her untiring efforts, when), the Constitutional “reform” were to push through, and finally, if Jose de Venecia loses his hold on the Speakership, then… who knows? The Czarina could yet merge her office with the Duma’s.

In light of these truths, I confess that the longer De Venecia retains power, the better. In the Senate’s relentless search for collateral attacks aimed at the Presidency, they have unwittingly weakened the Speaker’s position as well. The critical element of all of this is momentum. If De Venecia regains momentum (much to the chagrin of Executive and the people alike), then he can play “king-maker”, and ally himself with the Opposition, toppling the one who tried to bring him down; or he could use his triumph to pressure the Executive. If the Opposition gains momentum, their objectives are two-fold: they have to uproot the President, and the Speaker, a Herculean effort at best; and, if the President gains momentum, then it truly would be a black day for the Philippines.

An Afterthought: If, and hopefully when, this crisis ends, there must be a structural reform of government. To that end, we must break the power-monopoly of the President, as well as potential power-monopoly of an Executive-Legislative alliance. We must begin with the exhaustive reform of Congress itself.