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MANILA, Philippines – It was a little past 10:30 am on February 8 when Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez walked out of his office towards Macalintal Hall at the South Wing Annex of the House of Representatives.
Reporters flocked around Alvarez and asked why he called for a meeting with around 100 lawmakers belonging to the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), the ruling administration party under President Rodrigo Duterte.
“I am meeting with them to tell them that the party stand is the restoration of the death penalty,” said Alvarez, who is also PDP-Laban’s secretary-general.
It was during the same interview that the Davao del Norte 1st District representative told reporters that he would be replacing administration-allied deputy speakers and committee chairpersons should they thumb down House Bill (HB) Number 4727.
After an exclusive meeting with his party mates that Wednesday morning, Alvarez attended another caucus with around 260 lawmakers.
A month after that Wednesday meeting, the House passed on 3rd and final reading the controversial HB 4727, which gives judges the options to punish perpetrators of 7 drug crimes with either life imprisonment or death. (LIST: How congressmen and women voted on the death penalty bill.
A total of 217 lawmakers said yes, while only 54 said no with no abstentions.
Since Alvarez and Deputy Speaker Fredenil Castro filed the first version of HB 4727 on June 30, 2016, lawmakers and political analysts alike agreed the death penalty measure would be passed in the lower chamber.
How did the House manage to pass a controversial priority bill of the President in just 8 months?
It was not smooth-sailing for HB 4727 in the beginning. As early as December 2016, it was clear that a handful of representatives were still ambivalent about their stance on the death penalty.
Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas broke down the numbers at the time. When he called for a majority caucus – which was attended by 100 of the 267 administration-allied legislators – 50 of the legislators were pro-death penalty, while only 15 were strongly against it. Thirty-five were undecided.
They were torn between following the President’s legislative agenda and following their conscience, forcing Alvarez to extend the debate to this year.
The House leadership then had to come up with various compromises to make the death penalty bill more palatable to lawmakers living in a predominantly Catholic country.
Various caucuses were held from December 2016 to February 2017 to decide on these amendments.
In attendance were PDP-Laban members and lawmakers who are members of parties that signed coalition agreements with the administration party – Lakas CMD, Liberal Party, Nacionalista Party, Nationalist People’s Coalition, National Unity Party, and the party-list-coalition.
The first compromise was the removal of the mandatory penalty of death provisions under the measure as well as the addition of safeguard measures for the accused.
Deputy Speaker Ferdinand Hernandez said more of his colleagues softened their hardline stance against the capital punishment bill when this was proposed.
“In fact, because of that position, many members of the House changed their position. Instead of hardline, a lot of them accepted, parang (like) they believe this is more palatable,” said Hernandez.
The tipping point for the rest of the 217 lawmakers who voted in favor of HB 4727 was when the list of crimes under the bill was reduced from 21 to 7, all involving drug-related offenses.
House justice panel chairperson Reynaldo Umali said this was finalized with the help of a survey conducted by the committee on rules.
“Si Majority Leader and si Speaker, merong mga surveys, mga papel na dinistribute sa members to determine kung ano ang sampling ng top 3 crimes na gusto nilang isama sa bill (The Majority Leader and the Speaker distributed surveys, papers, to members to determine the sampling of the top 3 crimes they want in the bill)…It was really democratic and a showcase of how to build consensus,” said Umali, who sponsored HB 4727 since he chaired the committee that approved the measure.
The top crimes that emerged from the survey were drug offenses, rape, plunder, and treason.
Another majority caucus was held on February 27, when Umali brought with him 3 versions of HB 4727 listing different combinations of the top crimes based on the survey. The lawmakers were supposed to choose which version was most acceptable to them.
According Castro, the mood was “so open” during their caucuses.
“Everybody could make suggestions. everybody could make motions. Everybody was free to state and everybody was invited to speak. It was democracy,” said Castro.
But it seems “democracy” in the House could only go as far as the numbers game would allow.
Umali said that during the said caucus, a “big, loud” group at the back of Macalintal Hall was “very vocal” about limiting the death penalty bill to drugs only.
It was, after all, one of the recommendations of the committee on justice when it probed the narcotics trade at the New Bilibid Prison.
“‘Di kasi kami magkasundo. Kung gusto ng iba na isama ang rape, why not this other crime? So nag-propose na lang na drug-related, heinous crimes,” said Umali.
(We couldn’t agree. If some wanted to add rape, why not this other crime? So they just proposed to limit it to drug-related, heinous crimes.)
He could not give an estimate on the number of lawmakers in that group, but Umali said they were “big enough to be able to sway the majority and the Speaker to agree on going back to the original plan of just pursuing [the] drug-related crimes.”
The majority bloc eventually favored the version that listed only 7 drug crimes to be punishable with death.
Riding on the war against drugs
According to Ateneo de Manila University political analyst Rene Raymond Rañeses, limiting the offenses to drugs was a good strategy to have HB 4727 passed.
“I think it’s a strategy because it actually made it more difficult on the part of those against the death penalty to denounce the reimposition of the death penalty because it’s already very limited. They made it in sync with the popular and consensual war on drugs,” said Rañeses in a mix of English and Filipino.
“The argument of those against the death penalty is, the justice system cannot be trusted. So you have all these crimes. But limit the crimes that will be punished, it’s more in sync with what the people want in the country. Some people don’t want the death penalty, but there’s an implicit consensus that the war on drugs is a good thing,” he added.
Duterte won on a campaign anchored on a promise to eradicate drugs and criminality. He also promised to bring back the death penalty.
The President continues to enjoy strong support among the poor, even if more than 7,000 drug personalities have been killed in legitimate police operations and apparent summary killings nationwide.
Duterte taking a step back in the House?
Duterte, however, was not immediately informed about the amendments to the measure.
Reimposing the death penalty is one of his pet bills, but it seems the President preferred Alvarez to pull the reins in the House.
When the President was told that the bill was watered down because lawmakers “could not agree among themselves,” Duterte said he would “let them solve” the issue on their own.
And so it was only during the same night when the House approved HB 4727 on 3rd reading that Alvarez personally explained to Duterte that rape, plunder, and treason had to be stricken out.
According to the Speaker, watering down the bill was needed to enable the House to have an “output” before the end of the 1st regular session.
“Hindi ‘yun matter of convenience kundi alam mo, we have to be realistic. Kasi kung gusto natin sabay-sabay at matagal naman nating pag-uusapan ‘yan, eh mabuti pa ‘yung isa-isa na lang para meron tayong nagagawa,” said Alvarez.
(It’s not a matter of convenience but you know, we have to be realistic. Because if we want the crimes to be added at the same time, but it would take a while for us to talk about it, then it’s better if we do it one by one so we can accomplish something.)