Senate of the Philippines

Minority and independents: What blocs mean for dissent in the Senate 

Mara Cepeda
Minority and independents: What blocs mean for dissent in the Senate 

SENATE MINORITY AND INDEPENDENTS. Senate Minority Leader Koko Pimentel and Senator Risa Hontiveros form the minority bloc in the 19th Congress, while the senator-siblings Alan Peter and Pia Cayetano have formed their own independent bloc.

Angie de Silva/Rappler, :Voltaire F. Domingo/Senate PRIB, Mong Pintolo/Pool

Which bloc will serve as effective check and balance in the Senate?

MANILA, Philippines – The Senate of the 19th Congress under the Marcos presidency already stands out not just because of the rise of a “supermajority” bloc, but also because the four senators who have refused to ally with the administration have formed two separate groups in the chamber. 

There’s the minority bloc of Senate Minority Leader Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III and Senator Risa Hontiveros, who is now the de-facto leader of the opposition as she was the sole candidate from the movement to win in the 2022 senatorial polls.

For weeks since election night, Pimentel and Hontiveros have tried to convince the veteran senator siblings Pia and Alan Peter Cayetano to join the minority bloc instead. 

But in the end, the Cayetanos decided to form their own “independent” bloc, one that was neither allied with the minority nor the “supermajority” led by Senate President Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri. 

That an independent bloc was formed separate from the minority is nothing new in the history of the Philippine Congress. 

During the past 17th and 18th Congresses, staunch opposition figures openly critical of former president Rodrigo Duterte formed their own “genuine opposition” or “independent minority” groups to distinguish themselves from the minority bloc deemed to be subservient to the majority-allied legislators. 

But what makes the current Senate minority and independent blocs tricky are the composition and the power dynamics involving each of the senators who are part of these two pairs.

The Cayetanos’ choosing to separate themselves from the minority also blurs the distinction between the roles their respective groups would play, as both blocs said they intended to be critical of administration bills, but not to be obstructionist as they scrutinize these policy proposals. 

Statements from Pimentel, Hontiveros, and the Cayetanos, however, seem to indicate the main difference lies in their willingness to be associated – or not be associated – with the opposition movement against Marcos. 

Minority bloc dynamics
THE MINORITY BLOC. Senate Minority Leader Koko Pimentel and Senator Risa Hontiveros hold a media conference on July 26, 2022. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

Hontiveros will expectedly stay as a loud voice of dissent in the chamber. She was a key opposition figure under Duterte and remains critical of the atrocities committed under the dictatorship years of the incumbent President’s father, the late strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Supporters and political pundits now consider Hontiveros as opposition leader under Marcos. Former vice president Leni Robredo, whom Marcos defeated in the May polls, already gave her blessings to Hontiveros to keep the opposition’s fight alive.

But Hontiveros will now have to strike a good working relationship with Minority Leader Pimentel, who was once a Duterte ally until he had a falling out with the former president in the run-up to the 2022 polls.

Pimentel shrugged off his political past with Hontiveros in an interview on Tuesday, July 26. He said what matters now is that they share the same vision for the country. They may, however, disagree on certain policy proposals on how to achieve such vision.

“Kami ni Risa, pagdating sa general direction, halos parehas naman kami na nakatingin sa direksiyon eh. Sa mga detalye lang, minsan nagkakaiba kami…. But the general issues – we have to have a fair and just society, progressive one, inclusive, pati ‘yung poorest of the poor, hindi natin kinakalimutan, ‘yung ekonomiya, hindi lang for the benefit of the oligarchs, of the richest people, distribute economic benefits – ganun po, generally,” said Pimentel.

(Risa and I follow almost the same general direction. We just differ sometimes on the details.… But the general issues we believe in are the same – that we have a fair and just society, a progressive and inclusive one, where the poor are not forgotten and where the economic benefits are distributed, not just benefit the oligarchs or the richest people.)

Hontiveros also said her personal relationship with Pimentel goes way back to their college years, when the elder Marcos was still ruling the Philippines with an iron fist.

Hontiveros was a student-activist, while Pimentel is the son of the late human rights lawyer and senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. who was a leader of the political opposition against the dictator Marcos. 

“So dahil doon, may level of trust na kami sa isa’t isa. Kaya din namin mag-disagree on certain issues at mag-resolve sa mga issues na ‘yon over time,” said Hontiveros. 

(So because of that, we have a level of trust in each other already. We can disagree on issues and resolve our differences over those issues over time.)

Minority and independents: What blocs mean for dissent in the Senate 

In June, Hontiveros already accepted the reality that the “shades” of being opposition would be different for members of the Senate minority for now. That’s okay, she said, as long as the minority maintains its critical stance on key issues

Pimentel wants the minority bloc to have the same healthy working relationship with the supermajority that the previous minority bloc led by the veteran Frank Drilon had in the 17th and 18th Congress.

The Drilon-led minority were openly opposition figures, but they still managed to get many of their personal priority bills passed into law.

Pimentel said the Senate minority would counter questionable proposals of Marcos, but it would also support good bills when the President asks them to pass such measures. 

“Kunyari it’s about food production, how to increase food production, support, supportive [tayo diyan]. But if it’s an imposition of a new tax…lalo na kung indirect tax na applicable po sa lahat ng taongbayan, medyo may clear na kaming usapan ni Risa rito, we will have to examine any new tax,” said the Minority Leader. 

(For example, if it’s about food production, how to increase food production, we will be supportive of that. But if it’s an imposition of a new tax…especially if it’s an indirect tax applicable to all, then Risa and I already had an agreement that we will have to examine any new tax.)

Cayetanos distancing themselves from Marcos opposition?
THE CAYETANOS. Sibling senators Pia and Alan Peter Cayetano sit beside each other during the opening of the 19th Congress’ first regular session on July 25, 2022. Photo by Mong Pintolo/Pool

It appears the Cayetanos decided to form their own independent bloc to distance themselves from the impression that the Senate minority is part of the opposition. 

Alan Peter Cayetano said as much when asked by reporters on Monday, July 25, to explain why he and his sister had to form a separate group from the minority. 

“Kung titingnan mo ang statements of both the majority and the minority in the last 30 days, may hangover pa sa eleksiyon eh. Talagang kapag ka-administrasyon, no ang minority. Pagka sa administrasyon, pro ang majority. I don’t want to operate that way,” said Cayetano.

(If you look at the statements of the majority and the minority in the last 30 days, they still have a hangover from the elections. When it comes to the administration, the minority would say no. When it comes to administration, the majority would be pro. I don’t want to operate that way.)

He mentioned Hontiveros’ push, in particular, to continue mobilizing opposition forces.

“Si Senator Risa already said sana mas maraming oposisyon ang manalo sa midterm, so eleksiyon na ang pinag-uusapan. Eh ang isipan ko wala pa talaga doon eh,” said Cayetano.

(Senator Risa already said she hopes more opposition figures would win in the midterms, so she’s already thinking about the elections. But my mind is nowhere near that now.)

Minority and independents: What blocs mean for dissent in the Senate 

In explaining the role to be played by the independent group, Cayetano’s words mirrored exactly the same vision Pimentel has laid down for the minority.

“In this election, I ran naman as an independent, di ba? So I didn’t criticize anyone specifically, but I criticized the policies na hindi ko sinasang-ayunan and marami naman akong kinorrect doon sa mga policies na magaganda. So I think it will help the Senate this time na there will be two members who are independent,” he said. 

(In this election, I ran as an independent, right? So I didn’t criticize anyone specifically, but I citicized the policies I disagreed with while also correcting politics I agreed with. So I think it will help the Senate this time that there are two members who are independent.)

When Cayetano faced Marcos in the five-way vice presidential race in 2016, Cayetano staunchly criticized his opponent then over the abuses committed under Martial Law. Both lost to Robredo, however.

Though there seems to be an overlap – redundancy even – in the immediate plans of both blocs, Hontiveros said they respect the decision of the Cayetanos. 

Pimentel also takes comfort in the fact that the siblings’ refusal to join the “supermajority” also means two less votes for the dominant bloc.

“I am glad that there is an independent group because they are minus two from the majority,” said the Minority Leader. 

Both blocs remain open to other senators joining their group, so it is possible that the Pimentel-Hontiveros minority and the Cayetanos would join forces someday. 

For now, the performance of these blocs in the next couple of months will be the true test of which between the two groups is actually more effective as check and balance in the Senate. – Rappler.com

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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 mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.