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Marcos-Duterte Split Widens
UniTeam is less and less Uni…
By: Viswa Nathan
Earlier this month, Asia Sentinel reported political tension brewing in the Philippines between the camps of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte. “It is a cloak and dagger game. Marcos wants to pull a few of Duterte’s fangs out,” a longtime observer of Philippine politics was quoted as saying. A power struggle with eyes on the presidential election a half-decade away has begun.
The current tension is centered on two issues: One, the fate of Leila de Lima, the former justice secretary and the head of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, whom Duterte, as president, ordered arrested more than six years ago and who remains in police custody; and the other, Duterte’s alleged human rights violations and extra-judicial killings for which the International Criminal Court in The Hague (ICC) wants to prosecute him.
Duterte is unhappy that the courts have acquitted de Lima in two of the three cases and that the Marcos administration simply accepted it. The second acquittal, said Duterte’s chief legal counsel and former presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, was “flawed” as “the evidence extant supports a judgment of conviction.” So, there are grounds for appeal, but the Marcos administration has ignored it.
The ICC is a thornier issue. The European Union has warned that Manila’s position on investigating Duterte’s alleged human rights violations would determine the Philippines’ suitability to continue enjoying GSP+ privileges that slash tariffs on exports to the EU market to zero as a special incentive to developing nations for sustainable development and good governance. As Manila’s access to tariff preferences – critical to Marcos’s economic development program – would be up for renewal by the end of this year, a European diplomatic source thinks that Marcos will have to find a way to meet ICC terms at least halfway. Such a deal would surely aggravate the simmering tension between the Marcos administration and Duterte.
If that wasn’t enough of a headache for the president, a much worse situation erupted within his ruling group, the so-called UniTeam. On May 17, the former president, the 76-year-old Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose presidency ended in 2010 mired in scandal, now represents Pampanga’s second district in the House and holds the position of Speaker Martin Romualdez’s second-in-command with the title of senior deputy speaker, was stripped of her “senior” status unceremoniously, without telling her or even attributing a reason for the action.
A few things made it intriguing. For four days, Speaker Romualdez, whose prerogative it is to pick his deputies for House endorsement, kept his lips tight while allegations of Arroyo plotting to overthrow him and take over the speakership spread across the country with the president explainng it away as a "run of the mill" thing that normally happens in Congress. That Arroyo desired the speakership when Marcos won the presidency with the election strategy that she devised is no secret. She has acknowledged it when responding to the claim that she plotted to overthrow Romualdez. According to a knowledgeable source, her explanation that she decided to yield when she realized that the president preferred his cousin as the speaker has the ring of truth.
Romualdez would not have acted without the president’s knowledge, and the president would not have agreed without a compelling reason to cast aside a leader whom he defined as his “secret weapon” in formulating foreign relations and who has gone with him on eight of the 11 foreign trips he has made so far.
According to a seasoned former lawmaker, Marcos might have come under “some unbearable pressure.” He hinted at some sort of horse-trading with the next presidential election five years away. Perhaps, the selection of Arroyo’s successor as the senior deputy speaker—Aurelio Gonzales Jr., the only deputy belonging to Duterte’s political party, PDP-Laban—he says, holds the secret.
Duterte, says this retired lawmaker, wants someone he can count on in Malacañang as well as in the speaker’s chair. He has denounced Marcos as a “weak leader” but has maintained amiable relations with Romualdez, who has greater ambitions than remaining in the speaker’s chair. He is likely to run for a senate seat in 2025 as a prelude to bidding for president in 2028, for which he is being groomed by Marcos. The president has taken the speaker on all his foreign trips and also brought him to one-on-one conversations with his foreign counterparts.
When Romualdez decides on the senate race, Arroyo, remaining as senior deputy speaker, would become the speaker. Such an opportunity for Arroyo is something that Duterte can’t stomach. He is upset with his daughter for not yielding to his call to run for president in 2022 and with Arroyo for persuading the daughter to run with Marcos as his vice-presidential partner on a UniTeam ticket.
So, when Romualdez leaves the speaker’s chair, Duterte would prefer someone he could count on as the new speaker as well as the next president if ICC action continues to hang over his head. If Arroyo were to become the speaker, she might prove unimaginably dangerous to Duterte’s interests as she could help his far-too-independent-minded daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio succeed Marcos in 2028. Duterte could breathe easy if Romualdez, rather than his daughter, took Malacañang in 2028, as he is better disposed towards Romualdez than he is towards his daughter or Marcos. In 2022, when he was contemplating running for vice president, Duterte said he would give up the idea if Romualdez chose to seek the position.
No matter what plots, if at all any, Duterte is suspected of being involved with, his daughter has made a decisive move. Reacting to the shabby treatment accorded to her mentor, Arroyo, Sara has resigned from the Lakas-CMD of which Speaker Romualdez is the president. As the noted current affairs commentator Randy David said in his May 21 column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Duterte-Carpio took Romualdez’s move against Arroyo “as an arrow aimed at her own presidential ambition.”
Sara is the country’s most popular politician, having scored a half million votes more than Marcos in the 2022 election. Arroyo has proven her political acumen by organizing the UniTeam that helped the son of the deposed dictator rise as the head of state with a clear majority that no president since the EDSA uprising has garnered. Together, the two women could prove a formidable force, not to mention that hell hath no fury as a woman scorned.
Twelve months ago, when Marcos scored his stunning victory at the polls, Asia Sentinel raised the question: Will the anti-Marcos forces, though beaten, let Marcos Jr. serve out the six-year term he was elected to? Now, the threat seems to stem from within the ranks than from elsewhere and threatening to rip the UniTeam apart.