Philippine budget stalled by turmoil in Congress

Key allies of President Rodrigo Duterte duelled for control of the chamber stalling approval of the national budget.
Key allies of President Rodrigo Duterte duelled for control of the chamber stalling approval of the national budget.PHOTO: REUTERS

The lower chamber of the Philippine Congress was thrown into disarray yesterday after key allies of President Rodrigo Duterte duelled for its control, stalling approval of next year's national budget which includes key funding for efforts to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The turmoil followed what amounted to a takeover of the House of Representatives, with a majority of lawmakers allied with Mr Duterte's daughter and closest aide holding a gathering where they voted to oust Speaker Alan Cayetano, who refused to step down.

In a session held at a sports club, 186 congressmen elected Representative Lord Allan Velasco as the new House Speaker. But as they were voting, Mr Cayetano was holding his own news conference, where he insisted the meeting, held away from Parliament's building, was a "circus". He said: "They're holding a fake session… I will not allow (them) to burn this house down."

Shortly after taking the oath as Speaker, Mr Velasco asked Mr Cayetano to meet to discuss a "peaceful transition for the benefit of our members and the country".

For now, it is unclear who the House Speaker actually is. A special three-day session to approve the national budget, sought earlier by Mr Duterte and set to start today, is expected to settle that. With 186 out of some 300 congressmen and the Duterte family backing him, Mr Velasco will likely emerge as the victor.

The feud came to a head after Mr Cayetano refused to honour a gentleman's agreement, brokered by Mr Duterte, that he share the Speakership with Mr Velasco. That deal allowed Mr Cayetano to take the helm of the House for 15 months till Oct 14, after which Mr Velasco would be in charge till national elections in 2022.

Mr Cayetano has insisted that a majority of the House wants him to stay on, and accused Mr Velasco of being "lazy" and barely making a mark as a congressman.

Mr Duterte tried to convince Mr Cayetano to step down, but Mr Cayetano instead called for a nominal vote in the House to prove most of his colleagues stood behind him.

Mr Cayetano was Mr Duterte's running mate in the 2016 elections but lost to current Vice-President Leni Robredo, who helms the opposition. The Philippines elects its president and vice-president separately.

In recent days, Mr Duterte's daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio - who engineered the ouster of another House Speaker in 2018 - and Senator Bong Go, known as a "proxy" for the President, have stepped in. That solidified support behind Mr Velasco.

Pundits say the dispute is ultimately about money. The House of Representatives is deliberating on next year's proposed 4.5 trillion peso (S$126 billion) national budget. Mr Velasco's allies have criticised Mr Cayetano for earmarking significantly larger infrastructure funds for himself, his wife and "friends".

The national budget is meant to "focus on containing the spread and mitigating the effects of the coronavirus while restarting the economy to help the nation reset, rebound and recover", according to a government statement. It sets aside 2.5 billion pesos for the purchase of a Covid-19 vaccine and some 26 billion pesos for protective gear and assistance to poor patients.

The Health Ministry, with 754.4 billion pesos, got the fifth-largest share in the overall spending plan, after education, public works, interior and local government, and defence.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2020, with the headline 'Philippine budget stalled by turmoil in Congress'. Print Edition | Subscribe