SONA 2020

Duterte’s fight vs oligarchs, death penalty bill to distract Congress during pandemic

Mara Cepeda
Duterte’s fight vs oligarchs, death penalty bill to distract Congress during pandemic

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte delivers his 5th State of the Nation Address at the House of Representatives Complex in Quezon City on July 27, 2020. PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

Malacanang Photo

'We, in the House of Representatives, are committed to deliver to the President the measures needed to support his vision for the nation in the years to come,' says House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez

President Rodrigo Duterte’s obsession with business tycoons and influential families he dubbed as oligarchs will be a “big distraction” to lawmakers amid the coronavirus pandemic, said former Ateneo School of Government dean Tony La Viña. 

“This oligarchy thing is a misplaced attack on corporations [that are] no longer oligarchs, but corporate organizations that have corporatized, including families that have corporatized,” La Viña told Rappler.

“So that’s going to be a very big, big distraction at the time when you have COVID-19, similar with ABS-CBN,” he added.

Hours before Duterte’s 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 27, Congress leaders said their priority would be the country’s recovery from the crippling coronavirus pandemic. But with Duterte’s impassioned speech to go after oligarchs and his bid to reimpose the death penalty, lawmakers may recalibrate their plans.

During his SONA, Duterte constantly digressed from his written speech to threaten a government takeover of utilities like telecommunications that are owned by what the President described as “oligarchs.” (READ: Duterte’s 2020 SONA: Pandemic plan overtaken by obsession with ‘oligarchs‘)

The scene was reminiscent of how he had attacked ABS-CBN, which eventually shut down its operations after losing a franchise renewal bid in the House dominated by the President’s allies.

The House is also way ahead of Duterte, with its committee on good government and public accountability set to dig deeper into Manila Electric Company’s (Meralco) contract with one of its power distributors, First Gen Corporation, a company also owned by the embattled Lopez family. 

This powerful House panel has the means to also investigate telecommunication firms PLDT-Smart and Globe Telecom, which Duterte threatened with expropriation during his SONA if their signals do not improve by the end of 2020. 

The owners of Smart and Globe – Manny V. Pangilinan and the Ayalas, respectively – have long been labeled as “oligarchs” by the President.

House assurance

After Duterte pushed for the passage of the death penalty bill in his SONA, it became clear that the controversial measure would be taking center stage once more.

On Tuesday morning, July 28, House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez promised exhaustive debates on the revival of capital punishment.

“The House also assures that the death penalty measures will be deliberated on thoroughly. We, in the House of Representatives, are committed to deliver to the President the measures needed to support his vision for the nation in the years to come,” Romualdez said in a statement

Senate President Vicente Sotto III himself believed that the death penalty bill has “better chances” in the Senate as well.

“We can try again another shot at it, especially now that the President focused only on crimes in [the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act]. Better chances,” Sotto told reporters after Duterte’s 5th SONA.

In 2017, the House passed the bill that would reimpose capital punishment for drug-related crimes, but it was dead on arrival at the Senate. 

Time is running out

Duterte listed 21 priority bills during his SONA, of which only 5 are related to COVID-19: the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, a bill that would help banks offload debts and manage non-performing assets affected by the pandemic, the creation of a Medical Reserve Corps and the National Disease Prevention and Management Authority, and the regulation of online selling.

In the coming months, both chambers are expected to juggle bills designed to help Filipinos cope with the pandemic and measures that have nothing to do with COVID-19. These are on top of the annual national budget that Congress is expected to pass before the end of this year and the upcoming charter change hearings in the House.

It will not be realistic for Congress to pass all 21 SONA priority bills, given that Duterte does not have a habit of strongly lobbying for measures he mentioned in his past SONAs – unless they are going to be popular with the masses like the death penalty. 

The President has also yet to certify as urgent any of the pending bills in Congress that are supposed to boost his government’s lacking response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Time won’t be on the side of lawmakers either, as the 2022 presidential elections is looming ahead.

“There’s just a disconnect. You have all of these bills [but] you cannot pass all of those bills. You know that! Election na (It’s time for elections)! This year, we have COVID-19. And then next year is an election budget. So you can only pass a few more bills,” said La Viña. –

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at or tweet @maracepeda.