Philippine lawmakers elect new Speaker of the House

Decision ends row in Congress that threatened to stall nation's Covid-19 response

Representative Lord Allan Velasco was named House Speaker yesterday by a majority of lawmakers in the Philippine Congress.
Representative Lord Allan Velasco was named House Speaker yesterday by a majority of lawmakers in the Philippine Congress. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

A simmering row in the Philippine Congress that threatened to stall the country's response to the Covid-19 pandemic ended yesterday, 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 next year's national budget - which has 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, shortly after he was named Speaker, took jabs at Mr Cayetano, 49, blaming him for the "unnecessary" turmoil earlier.

The tensions in Congress stalled deliberations on the budget which, among other things, sets aside more than 2.5 billion pesos (S$69.8 million) for the purchase of a Covid-19 vaccine and 26 billion pesos for protective gear and various forms of assistance for 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 yesterday.

Mr Cayetano was supposed to relinquish the speakership to Mr Velasco today under a "gentleman's agreement" engineered by Mr Duterte. The deal, which was needed to keep the President's supermajority in Congress intact, allowed Mr Cayetano to take the helm of the House for 15 months and Mr Velasco to take over till the national election next year.

But Mr Cayetano refused to step down. He claimed Mr Duterte wanted him to stay on till the approval of the national budget that is slated for next month.

The former Speaker's hand, though, was forced when Mr Duterte's daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, stepped in to solidify support among lawmakers for 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 outsize political influence.

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

Ms Duterte-Carpio had in 2018 engineered the ouster of another House Speaker, 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.

Ms Duterte-Carpio's latest intervention in the fight for the Speaker's post is 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, which 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2020, with the headline 'Philippine lawmakers elect new Speaker of the House'. Print Edition | Subscribe