Two ex-prexies taken down a notch
Sometimes a picture is worth a few dozen words. When a photo of presidents Biden and Marcos Jr. in the White House cabinet room was released, the more protocol-aware were surprised by the seating arrangements on the Philippine side. Flanking President Marcos Jr. were Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez (to his left) and Senior Deputy Speaker (to his right), Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. To Arroyo’s right was Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo, and to the Speaker’s left was Jose Manuel Romualdez, the President’s man in Washington. What caused a double-take from seasoned observers was that the correct positioning would have been to have Ambassador Romualdez seated beside the President since he is the chief executive’s alter ego in the United States, and then Manalo beside the ambassador. The Speaker for his part ought to have been on the other side of the President and then Arroyo, who was merely Romualdez’s deputy, could have been placed beside the Speaker. As a former president, Arroyo might be entitled to some courtesies but as a sitting congresswoman her current position trumps her previous distinctions, particularly during working visits abroad.
Unreported by the media on which the administration managed to keep a tight rein, was Arroyo’s troublesome tendency to venture opinions during the Washington meetings and almost just as bad, to insist on attending meetings in which her presence was neither asked for nor entitled. As it turns out this state of affairs, which would irritate any incumbent president, isn’t one they’ll likely have to worry about in the future: She has been taken down a notch by being removed from her position as senior deputy speaker and made one of a dime-a-dozen deputy speakers. The timing of the news –first, it was unexpectedly announced, by way of a motion by a National Unity Party (NUP) member, in the evening of May 17 at the tail end of business, before a nearly empty chamber; second, it came as the House was gearing up to adjourn on June 2 for a break lasting until July 23, when it reconvenes to hear the State of the Nation Address.
The motion was calculated to humiliate but not provide the pretext for an outright rupture: Arroyo still has a (more modest) House position, on humanitarian grounds (“to relieve her of her heavy load”) and when news got out of the change, Arroyo at first issued a terse statement, then, a day later, she expanded it to two pages that revealed, first, that she had, indeed, planned to be speaker of the current Congress when it convened in 2022, and second, she views one of her main tasks in the ruling coalition is “to help reduce tensions between the United States and China.” As Randy David observed last Sunday (“Power, secrecy, and the politics of hypocrisy,” Opinion, 5/21/23) “she appears to be conveying her personal apprehensions about this administration’s sharp pivot to America.” The problem with this being of course that foreign affairs is the sole prerogative of the incumbent (and not ex) chief executive. The point had been made by the demotion, which she has had to accept because to refuse it, to do otherwise, would signal a fight. And so she protested she still supports Romualdez and was merely misunderstood, though on background, some representatives have claimed they were approached to support an anti-Romualdez coup. The Vice-President for her part announced her resignation from Lakas-CMD, whose members, she pointedly thanked for their support as they “once demonstrated that unity is possible.”
The protestations of both tells us that whatever their motivations, their political movement is limited by their maintaining public support for the President.
The second year of an administration is midway to the midterms, itself a referendum, depending on the Senate results, on every sitting administration. The ruling coalition knows this which is why it proceeded to stand up to be counted: its component blocs enthusing support for Romualdez. At present the House blocs are: the main national parties: Lakas-CMD, 71; Party-List Coalition, 42; PDP-Laban, 38. (including the member who replaced Mrs. Arroyo as senior deputy speaker); then there are the corporate blocs: NUP , 37; NP, 36, and NPC, 33. Just as the NP had as its spinoffs, the LP and NPC, so too, is PDP-Laban dividing: the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino, KNP, has filed for registration as a national party with nine representatives in its national directorate and the secretary of the interior and local governments, Benhur Abalos, as VP for NCR. It’s not just Arroyo, but also former president Rodrigo Duterte, who calls the shots in PDP-Laban, who’s been taking down a notch.