Could Duterte Control the Philippine Congress?

With maverick Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte perhaps poised to win the Philippine presidency on May 9, the more important races may well be in the Philippine Congress, which at least for now has little loyalty to the tough-talking Duterte.

Duterte has sparked a political earthquake that in turn has generated rumors of coup talk in Manila even before he takes office, if indeed he does. In addition to vowing extradjudicial killings by police to control crime, he has threatened to simply close the legislature, telling the local news website Interaksyon that if it opposes him “I will close Congress. I will use the billions of money to fix government."

There is always the possibility that either Grace Poe or Manuel A. Roxas, President Benigno Aquino’s picked heir, could pull it out although that is a long shot. Still, a full quarter of the voting population is undecided and compared to the political machinery in the hands of President Aquino to bring out the votes, Duterte is said to be thin on the ground. Nonetheless, Duterte, in the latest Pulse Asia poll April 26-29, was maintaining a 33 percent lead over Roxas at 22 percent and Poe at 21 percent.

That has generated immediate speculation over impeachment even before the projected July 1 inauguration date, with Vice Presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. saying publicly that impeachment is an option. Marcos himself is a frontrunner for the vice-presidency but suggested that if his fiercest rival, Leni Robredo wins, Congress would work to impeach Duterte so the Liberal Party could install her as president. Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, another vice presidential candidate, has also threatened impeachment proceedings.

Thus from the start lines are being drawn, with Duterte saying either you are for me or against me, if you are not, then you go.

The question is whether Duterte would really be able to rein in the lawmakers, or whether the House of Representatives would follow him into power, as inevitably has happened in the past. While supposedly independent of one another, the Congress and the Presidency depend on each other for political survival although this interdependence is more pronounced in the House of Representatives, where political party loyalty is faint and where government patronage dispensed by the presidency plays a major role in determining it. Former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo saw her once-formidable backing in Congress disappear when Benigno S. Aquino III took office and sought her criminal indictment.

The lower house is composed of 292 men and women who were voted into power by their individual constituencies, while the Senate has 24 members elected nationally with half elected in each three-year election period. Turncoatism is to be expected in the house, according to Ramon Casiple of the Institute for Political Reforms, because their concerns are mainly parochial. The Senate, however, will zero in on national issues.

“The House of Representatives will go Duterte’s way due to the balimbing (“two-faced”) factor. Maybe part of the Senate. But the latter is known for independent positioning because of presidential ambitions,” Casiple said.

The Senate has gone against President Benigno S. Aquino’s wishes occasionally, insisting for instance that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the US and the Philippines in 2015 could only be ratified with the legislative body’s concurrence. It has also stalled on the Bangsamoro pact, one of the president’s capstone goals, in providing autonomy to Mindanao’s Muslim population.

There were times, however when the Senate also subscribed to the president’s priorities, passing the milestone reproductive health law and a sin tax law. It also voted for the impeachment of then-Chief Justice Renato Corona, whom the administration perceived as an ally of Aquino’s predecessor, former president and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The House of Representatives got the ball rolling by filing the impeachment complaint against Corona and acting as prosecutors in a historic impeachment trial, the first to involve a chief justice. The Senate, voting 20-3, convicted Corona following his admission that he did not declare a total of P183 million in peso and dollar deposits in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Networth (SALN).

Courting loyalty

Duterte’s political party, the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan or PDP-Laban fielded no senatorial candidates, although Duterte himself endorsed five contenders – former Metro Manila Development Authority chairman Francis Tolentino, who withdrew from the senatorial slate of the Liberal party; former Quezon City Rep. Dante Liban; former Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency director Dionisio Santiago and former Manila councilor Greco Belgica.

None of them, however, has figured well in the senatorial surveys, which were dominated by Aquino’s allies – incumbent senators Franklin Drilon and Ralph Recto, presidential assistant for food security and agricultural modernization Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, Justice Sec. Leila de Lima, former Sen. Panfilo Lacson, Technical and Skills Development Authority Joel Villanueva and Philhealth board director Risa Hontiveros.

The lower house also has not been a PDP-Laban stronghold. In the last set of elected representatives, local news site Rappler reported the party controlled only two of the 241 seats in the lower chamber.

Aquino’s Liberal Party controlled 108 seats in the most recent House term. Historically, however, the president’s political party gets to dominate the lower house. Under Aquino, it was the Liberal party; under Arroyo, it became the turf of Lakas Christian-Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD) and the administration coalition Koalisyon ng Katapatan at Karanasan sa Kinabukasan.

The House of Representatives in Estrada’s time is indicative of what could happen if Duterte wins as president – a majority of the members of Lakas-CMD switched to Estrada’s coalition party of Laban ng Makabayang Masang Pilipino after the former actor was elected.

The other factor that previously made members of the Congress toe the president’s line was the allocation of the priority development assistance, which were wiped out in the notorious Pork Barrel scandal, in which lawmakers simply pocketed millions meant for development of their districts. The Supreme Court declared the PDAF unconstitutional along with the Disbursement Acceleration Program, the source of another set of funds allegedly used by Aquino to secure the Senate votes against Corona.

Duterte’s legislative priorities

One thing worth watching aside from the numbers, however is the regional makeup of the leadership of Congress.

“One of the things we can closely monitor is whether he will appoint more people from Mindanao in the cabinet, whether leadership positions in both houses will be both from the South. This could be a good experiment, especially if this opportunity is used to view governance from the perspective of the South,” Nicole Curato, a research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra.

One thing that Duterte intends to push for is a switch to federalism, which would lead to decentralization and could possibly pave the way for an autonomous Bangsamoro state in the southern region of Mindanao, an Aquino goal which stalled after 44 Special Action Force soldiers were killed in a botched operation in 2014. That would entail a constitutional amendment, a move which would need the support of Congress.

Hontiveros, one of those slated to win a Senate seat and an ally of Aquino, said that she sees the logic behind the push for federalism. “My party Akbayan believes we need to start talking about federalism,” she said, adding that she also supports Duterte’s call to end contractualization.

Hontiveros said however that he does not agree with Duterte’s proposal to restore death penalty.

De Lima, a former justice secretary who saw the investigation of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users and pushers in Davao, said that it will be tough to support Duterte as a senator because for one, he “does not have a legislative agenda.”

“If he has no legislative agenda, how can any legislator declare that he or she will support him insofar as legislation is concerned?” De Lima told Asia Sentinel.

“Even his single-issue platform of government, which is peace and order, he intends to pursue not through legislation or enforcement of the law, but through unorthodox means of extrajudicial killings and by violating the bill of rights. How can any legislator support an agenda that is not based on law and with proposed methods that are illegal?” she asked.

These extreme views and actions have projected Duterte as a president that will divide the legislative branch if ever he wins. “Duterte is polarizing so his leadership is not conducive to coalitional politics,” said Joy Aceron, a political analyst at the Ateneo School of Government. “There will be political butterflies but because Duterte is polarizing, there will be considerable hardliner opposition to a Duterte presidency.”

The tough opposition may not matter to Duterte. If he fails to fulfill his promise of suppressing crime in six months, he said, he will form a revolutionary government and give the funds allocated for Congress to the military. It’s a scenario that calls up the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos’s imposition of martial law in 1972 when he dissolved Congress and gave the military power. That is a story that ended in 1986 with millions on Manila’s EDSA Boulevard demanding Marcos’s ouster. If the same thing happens under Duterte, it may not be the force of Congress that he has to face, but that of the people who voted him in.

Purple Crystyl Romero (purple.romero1@gmail.com) is a Manila-based journalist