Migz Zubiri

Migz Zubiri, 24th Senate president

Bonz Magsambol

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Migz Zubiri, 24th Senate president
'That's just how politics is,' says Senator Migz Zubiri. He is replaced by Senator Chiz Escudero as Senate president.

On Monday, May 20, Senator Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri stepped down as Senate President. He was replaced by Senator Francis “Chiz” Escudero.

“Today, I offer my resignation as Senate President, and upon stepping down I vow to serve as an independent member of the Senate – my allegiance, as ever, belonging to no one but the people. I leave with my head held high, knowing I did what is right for the Senate and for the nation,” Zubiri declared in his privilege speech.

“That’s just how politics is. There’s nothing we can do about it,” he said in another interview, alluding to the forces that brought about his political demise as president of the chamber.

“Of course, heartbroken. Alam mo naman hindi naman siguro tayo kalaban ng (You know we’re not enemy of) the powers that be. Pero dahil not following instructions kaya nadale tayo (But because we’re not following instructions, we were targeted),” Zubiri told reporters.

RESIGNATION. Senator Miguel Zubiri delivers a privilege speech during the plenary session on May 20, 2024. Screenshot from Senate YouTube channel

Just a week before on May 13, he said that the Marcos camp was angry at him. This was because he supposedly allowed a Senate probe into alleged Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) leaks concerning the alleged involvement of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in illegal drugs to continue under his watch. 

To the Marcos administration, it mirrored weakness of leadership.

“The Marcos group is angry with me, the loyalists, because they say I allowed you to have a hearing today and the past two weeks,” Zubiri said at the Senate probe led by Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa. After four hearings, Dela Rosa still failed to establish alleged Marcos drug links, with his colleagues saying that the allegation was only based on hearsay. 

Zubiri had warned Dela Rosa to stop using Senate hearings for political persecution. Former senator Antonio Trillanes IV claimed that it was former president Rodrigo Duterte who instructed Dela Rosa to conduct hearings on the PDEA leaks. 

This was just one of the many issues that Zubiri has had to deal with almost two years into his leadership. It is also believed to have been the last straw that cost him his Senate presidency.

‘Mr. Congeniality’

In 2023, Zubiri’s leadership style came under scrutiny by a former colleague who had led the upper chamber multiple times. The “prestige” of the institution was at stake if he did not assert his leadership to enforce proper decorum among his members, former Senate president Franklin Drilon warned.

At the time, a video showing neophyte senator Robin Padilla combing his mustache during a Senate hearing had gone viral. Drilon also observed that Zubiri was too lax in enforcing silence in the session hall and in committee hearings.

Zubiri took the veteran lawmaker’s advice like one would an older family member he deeply respected, and promised that he would “do better.” At the same time, however, he asserted that it was just not his style to put his fellow senators on the spot.

Being “Mr. Congeniality” – his moniker – as well as his reputation as a “consensus builder” were among the factors that got him elected Senate president in July 2022. At the time, Senator Grace Poe quipped that Zubiri, as Senate majority leader, had even managed to charm members of the Senate minority to vote with the majority in the previous Congress.

Despite his popularity among his colleagues, there were undying rumors that he would be unseated. Rumors about his supposed ouster began to circulate in March 2023 and became true a year later on May 20.

Legislative ‘workhorse’

His fellow senators have been all praises for Zubiri whom they called an “inspirational leader,” someone who prioritizes his job that, according to Senator Imee Marcos, “nobody else wants.” 

On Rappler Talk on August 31, 2023, Zubiri said that while he is a veteran legislator, leading the Senate has been an exhausting and stressful job. Zubiri has been an elective official for over two decades – nine years as a congressman and the rest as senator. He holds the current record as being the youngest Senate majority leader at age 39, in November 2008. He was again elected to the post from 2018 to 2022.

Migz Zubiri, 24th Senate president

He credits his work ethic as well as his decision to enter public service to his father, Bukidnon 3rd District Representative Jose Maria “Joe” Zubiri Jr.

Joe Zubiri, the patriarch, stamped the family name on Bukidnon politics when he became an assemblyman in 1984. After the 1986 People Power Revolution, he was elected Bukidnon congressman for three consecutive terms, and later served as governor of the province for a total of 18 years. He returned to the House in 2022. 

The younger Zubiri officially joined politics in 1998, when he won the first of his three consecutive terms as Bukidnon 3rd District representative. At the House of Representatives, Zubiri became one of the “Spice Boys,” a group of young lawmakers who opposed the administration of then-president Joseph Estrada and actively worked for his impeachment. 

Other than being a member of the House clique associated with then-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Zubiri also gained a reputation for being a hard worker and for his enthusiasm in pursuing his pet advocacies. At the House, he authored laws on agriculture and the environment. 

Surigao del Norte 2nd District Representative Ace Barbers, among the “Spice Boys” then, said in an interview with Rappler last April that Zubiri showed glimpses of a “promising leader” even when he was still a neophyte congressman. “He is very resourceful. He doesn’t stop until the work is done,” he said in Filipino.

Zubiri is also good at maintaining friendships, said Barbers. “He is very generous. He is the type of a friend who will never leave you during crunch time. He is that kind of leader.”

As he neared the end of his third term in Congress, Zubiri set his eyes on the national stage. He won a seat in the Senate on his first try in 2007, narrowly defeating Bar topnotcher Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III for the 12th and last spot by just over 18,000 votes. Pimentel filed an electoral protest that same year, and won in August 2011, with barely two years left in his term. 

A week before Pimentel was proclaimed the rightful winner of the 12th Senate seat in the 2007 elections, Zubiri announced his irrevocable resignation as senator, citing evidence of poll cheating in Maguindanao that surfaced then. There were mixed reactions to this move – some applauded him for making a “principled” decision, while others, including Pimentel, observed that Zubiri did so for “political profit,” in preparation for his 2013 senatorial bid.

Zubiri lost in the 2013 elections and took a break from politics. He said in media interviews that he contemplated staying out of politics but he decided to try again and landed in 6th place in the 2016 Senate race. He served as Senate majority leader – a job he previously held in the 14th Congress – from 2018 to 2022.

His Senate comeback in 2016 meant working with someone he once exchanged vitriolic statements with, but this was no problem for a seasoned politician like Zubiri who even seconded the nomination of  Pimentel for Senate president. This was in support, he said, for the choice of then-president Rodrigo Duterte.

Position on issues

Being a member of the majority, Zubiri had taken generally safe and pro-administration positions on issues in and out of the Senate, but he had, at times, shed his congenial disposition on matters that angered him.

In November 2016, he joined five other senators in abstaining from the vote on the Senate resolution against the hero’s burial for the dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. Eleven votes were needed to adopt Resolution 86, but it mustered only 8 votes. The hero’s burial of the late dictator was supported by the Duterte administration.

Zubiri was among those who voted to replace then-senator Leila de Lima as chairperson of the Senate committee on justice and human rights just a few months into the Duterte administration as she was “anti-administration” and the panel needed a “fair” chairperson, he said then. At the time, De Lima led the probe into the Duterte drug war killings and was the most vocal critic of the former president.

Body Part, Finger, Hand
OUT. Then-Senate president Juan Miguel Zubiri in a Rappler Talk interview on August 31, 2023.

During the Senate probe into the alleged anomalies hounding the Duterte government’s multi-billion-peso pandemic contracts with Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corporation, the usually even-tempered Zubiri lost his cool and cursed upon learning about the difficulties of the Commission on Audit in getting documents from the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation. In one of the hearings, Zubiri presented Philhealth’s alleged corrupt practices.

Zubiri, however, did not sign the Senate Blue Ribbon report on the Pharmally probe because of the inclusion of Duterte in the list of persons recommended for charges. He argued that he didn’t believe that Duterte had a hand in the deals. 

One issue that Zubiri has become passionate about is the West Philippine Sea. Since the Marcos administration took over, he has become vocal against China’s harassment to the point of questioning government contracts with Chinese state firms. He made oblique references to China as a “bully.”

But back in July 2016, when an arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in its case against China over the West Philippine Sea, Zubiri back-pedaled and echoed the Duterte administration’s position and urged Filipinos to exercise restraint in rejoicing over the country’s historic victory.

An ‘independent Senate’

Keeping the Senate independent from other branches of government, especially the executive, is a challenge for Senate presidents as it can also cost them their job.

The Senate supermajority bloc has 20 members, while its minority and independent blocs have two members each. At the House, the supermajority bloc has 268 members out of the total 316 seats in the lower chamber.

Given these numbers, it’s not hard to imagine a “rubber stamp” Congress under the Marcos administration. But Zubiri promised this would not be the case for the Senate. 

In May 2023, the Senate swiftly passed Senate Bill No. 2020, or the proposed Maharlika Investment Fund Act of 2023. The vote came after an 11-hour plenary session that saw senators scrambling to pass the priority measure that the President had already soft-launched abroad.

Addressing criticism over the Senate’s “haste” in passing the bill, Zubiri argued that the upper chamber deliberated on the bill for six months prior to its approval. He asserted that the Senate maintained its independence and refuted claims that the controversial measure was railroaded.

It has been no different for charter change, an issue that reportedly also threatened his leadership early on. 

As congressman, Zubiri shared the belief that “fundamental changes” in the Constitution are needed for national progress. He changed his tone when he became a senator in 2008, even threatening to resign as member of the majority, if the Senate railroaded charter change ahead of the 2010 elections.

At the time, it was speculated that constitutional amendments would extend the term of then-president Arroyo who was due to step down in 2010. Zubiri said that while he was an administration lawmaker, he was “no grateful stooge,” and cited strong public opposition to a term limit extension for Arroyo.

Fast forward to 2023, Zubiri remained consistent in his belief that the people’s voice, via surveys, should be heard before pursuing charter change. In December 2023, Zubiri said that any such debates would be pointless as most of his colleagues were against constitutional amendments at the time, and that attracting foreign investors could be done through legislation.

But on January 15, Zubiri changed his tune on Cha-Cha, after a meeting with President Marcos and Speaker Martin Romualdez on concerns about the people’s initiative to amend the Constitution. He said that based on their meeting, the Senate would take the lead in reviewing proposals to amend economic provisions in the Constitution.

Adult, Female, Person
CHA-CHA PUSH. Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri holds a press conference to announce that the Senate will now take the lead in reviewing the Constitution’s economic provisions, on January 15, 2024.

Less than a week later, Zubiri read a manifesto signed by senators rejecting the House’s new push for charter change, which proposed that both chambers vote jointly on proposed amendments, and which would have diluted the Senate vote. Malacañang was not pleased.

Too trusting?

Political analyst and Ateneo de Manila University professor Arjan Aguirre said in an earlier interview that Zubiri’s consensus-building style of leadership, his “conciliatory and consensus-building approach in shepherding his peers” may not be appropriate for this time because “there is so much partisanship in the government.”

This was evident, for instance, in how the chaotic charter change discussion unraveled. Zubiri trusted their House counterparts so much that he acted on issues passively instead of preventing them from cropping up.

The supposed people’s initiative for charter change was the triggering point. He thought that the Senate was on top of charter change discussions but they were blindsided by the alleged House-initiated people’s initiative.  

Asked in a 2004 interview with Philippine Star what trait he “deplored most about himself,” he replied, “Being too trusting.”

Retirement from politics?

The public has a better appreciation, perhaps, of Zubiri. In the March 2024 Pulse Asia survey, he was the only top Philippine official who got a higher approval rating compared to the previous survey period – 52% from 49% in December 2023. All the rest – President Marcos, Vice President Sara Duterte, and Speaker Romualdez – suffered lower scores.

Zubiri’s numbers are, however, lower than those of his two immediate predecessors: Vicente “Tito” Sotto III and Pimentel had comparable approval ratings of 73% and 72%, respectively, in their second year leading the Senate. 

Zubiri was also included among the possible contenders for the 2028 vice presidential race in the March 2024 Pulse Asia survey, placing 5th with a 7% voter preference. Senator Grace Poe topped the list with a 35% voter preference if elections were held during the survey period.

While he welcomed the survey, Zubiri reiterated that he had no plans of running for public office when his term ends in 2028, and that he has been “contemplating on his retirement from politics.”

After his resignation as Senate president, Zubiri now has more time to contemplate his other options – whether political or not. – Rappler.com

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler.