Philippine lawmakers elect new House Speaker, ending feud that stalled Covid-19 budget

Representative Lord Allan Velasco was elected House Speaker by a majority of lawmakers.
Representative Lord Allan Velasco was elected House Speaker by a majority of lawmakers.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - A simmering row in the Philippine Congress that threatened to stall the country's response to the Covid-19 pandemic ended on Tuesday (Oct 13), with lawmakers allied with the powerful daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte officially naming a new Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Representative Lord Allan Velasco was elected House Speaker by a majority of lawmakers who attended a plenary session just before noon, forcing his rival, Mr Alan Cayetano, to tender his "irrevocable resignation" as support for him collapsed.

Mr Cayetano apologised to Mr Duterte in a Facebook post for the turmoil on Monday when he refused to leave office, saying he fought it out with Mr Velasco because he "misread" the president's intentions. He said he thought Mr Duterte wanted him to stay on as Speaker till the 2021 national budget, which contains a slew of measures to address the pandemic, could be approved.

"It was not my intention...not to follow you," he told Mr Duterte.

Mr Velasco, 42, took jabs at Mr Cayetano, 49, shortly after he was named Speaker, blaming him for the "unnecessary" turmoil earlier.

The tensions in Congress stalled deliberations on the national budget which, among other things, set aside over 2.5 billion pesos (S$70 million) for the purchase of a Covid-19 vaccine and some 26 billion pesos for protective gear and various assistance to poor patients.

It also earmarks funds meant to stimulate the Philippine economy, which has fallen into a deep recession, with billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects and other government spending in limbo .

"The message has been received that the priority is the budget, not politics," Mr Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque told reporters on Tuesday.

Mr Cayetano was supposed to relinquish the Speakership to Mr Velasco on Oct 14 under a "gentleman's agreement" engineered by Mr Duterte.

That deal, which was needed to keep Mr Duterte's "supermajority" in Congress intact, allowed Mr Cayetano to take the helm of the House for 15 months and Mr Velasco would take over till national elections in 2022.

But Mr Cayetano refused to step down. He claimed Mr Duterte wanted him to stay on till the national budget could be approved, which he had slated for next month.

The former Speaker's hands, though, were forced when Mr Duterte's daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, stepped in to solidify support among lawmakers behind Mr Velasco.

Pundits said the feud between Mr Velasco and Mr Cayetano, who both have close ties to Mr Duterte, was really about money and Ms Duterte-Carpio's outsized political influence.

Mr Velasco's allies had criticised Mr Cayetano for earmarking significantly larger infrastructure funds for himself, his wife, who is also a congressman, and his political allies.

Ms Duterte-Carpio engineered the ouster of another Speaker in 2018, Mr Pantaleon Alvarez, who took issue with her growing political clout. Mr Duterte later revealed that his daughter thought Mr Alvarez was manoeuvring to oust him.

Her latest intervention in the fight for the Speaker's post is being seen as further cementing her path towards replacing her father when he steps down as president in 2022. It shows she can rally disparate parties with different agendas behind her. That will be crucial in crushing challengers and keeping her father's coalition intact when she finally decides to run for the nation's top office.

Ms Duterte-Carpio helmed a coalition that delivered a near-sweep of the Senate race last year.