Filipino Politicians Rush for Presidential Perks

In a graphic illustration of the tendency of Filipino politicians to abandon political parties without hesitation, as many as 80 to 90 members of the Liberal Party headed by outgoing President Benigno S. Aquino III have indicated they will shift to Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan or PDP-Laban, the party of incoming President Rodrigo Duterte, including those who played important roles in carrying Aquino’s agenda.

It isn’t the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last. Party loyalty has always been fluid. Prior to Aquino’s victory in 2010, the Liberal Party had fewer than 10 members in the lower house, leading to jokes that the entire caucus could fit into one Volkswagen Beetle. PDP-Laban, Duterte’s party, had even fewer members prior to the 2016 election—three.

The switches come with hefty rewards, the foremost being the chairmanship posts in powerful committees such as appropriations and ways and means committees, which handle fiscal matters and the national budget as well as a chance to steer appropriations to districts of individual members that keep their constituents happy.

One of those leaving the Liberal Party is Ilocos Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, who served as a prosecutor in the historic impeachment trial against then Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012. Aquino wanted the late chief justice removed because he was seen as an ally of the former’s predecessor, now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

But it’s not just the Liberal Party stalswarts. Even before Duterte officially takes his oath as the country’s 16th president on June 30, the majority of the country’s political parties – Arroyo’s Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats or Lakas-CMD, the Nationalist People’s Coalition, the National Unity Party and the Nacionalista Party – some of which used to be LP’s allies, have shifted their support to PDP-Laban.

With almost a hundred members seen to support him, Davao del Norte Rep. and Duterte party mate Pantaleon Alvarez has the House speakership in the bag. Presumably it also protects Duterte, who has issued a long list of controversial statements prior to his election, from the possibility of impeachment.

The same story is unfolding in the Senate. Sen. Aquilino ‘Koko’Pimentel III, PDP-Laban’s chairman, is slated to become the next Senate president with the backing of 16-17 colleagues from different parties, including the Liberal Party.

Coalition for change

The majority bloc in the lower house will form what PDP-Laban calls the “Coalition for Change,” the vehicle for Duterte’s policy priorities – reining in a federal form of government, restoring the death penalty and changing the Pangilinan law, or Republic Act 9344 which prohibits the imprisonment of offenders aged 15 and below even if they committed heinous crimes.

While Pimentel is the only member of PDP-Laban in the Senate, LP stalwart Drilon said they are open to supporting the shift to federalism and studying the re-imposition of the death penalty.

Clarita Carlos, a political analyst and a professor from the University of the Philippines, said that having a PDP-Laban-led Congress will make it easier for Duterte to push for his legislative agenda. “If President Duterte has supermajorities in both Houses, then, his legislative agenda will have smooth sailing.”

Lisandro Claudio, a professor of political science at the Ateneo de Manila University, warned however that having both chambers of Congress controlled by Duterte could not also be good for the country. “What benefits Duterte does not necessarily benefit the country.”

Claudio said that Duterte should use this legislative support “wisely.” “No president has unlimited political capital. And since one of Duterte's big legislative causes is Charter Change, he will need to use his political capital sparingly. Charter change will demand a lot of this capital. “

A question on the independence of the legislative chamber from the executive branch now also hangs in the air since Duterte will have supermajorities in both houses. Claudio said that alliances though are “fleeting” and Congress might not always welcome a loyalty check to the president.

Carlos, on the other hand, said that a legislative chamber dominated by the president’s allies should not be an issue, however, as it is actually a plus that the legislature and the executive “are on the same page.”

The new majority

House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, who will now be replaced by Alvarez, said LP will eventually join the Coalition for Change.

Claudio said this is a move that is to be expected, as the party has to “preserve” itself. “Otherwise its house membership would have disintegrated.”

Belmonte previously said that he is also considering vying for the post of minority leader. If he and LP opted to go that route, they will be facing the United Nationalist Alliance, the political party of outgoing vice president Jejomar Binay. Binay also run for president but lost to Duterte.

The LP vice chair said that they are now open to coalescing with PDP-Laban, however.

Prior to this, Belmonte, who was once a member of PDP-Laban, also said that it might be inevitable for him to go back to his old political party, which was formed amid the growing upheaval against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s. But he is now keen on staying with LP. “It’s the proper thing to do.”

He added that he understands why majority of LP has now joined PDP-Laban. “PDP-Laban only has three members in the House. They need more to be the majority, which means others would have to leave their own parties to join them. But not me.”

But even with the mass exodus from his party, he said that he hopes LP will again be “a party to contend with in the future.”

Carlos said this is not inevitable. “The political party system in the Philippines is broken so party switching does not result in political suicide.”