Sara Duterte

Amid Uniteam power struggle, can a ‘new opposition’ be in the works?

Kaycee Valmonte

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Amid Uniteam power struggle, can a ‘new opposition’ be in the works?

ILLUSTRATION BY MARIAN HUKOM

'A new opposition is bound to show up. It's a matter of how this opposition deals with the ideal and promise of unity,' political science professor Anthony Lawrence Borja says

Last of 2 parts
Part 1: Sara Duterte gives up bid for confidential funds: Mere political strategy?

MANILA, Philippines – On November 29, 2021, the Marcos and Duterte camps entered into a marriage of convenience to form Uniteam – a powerhouse electoral coalition meant to ensure the victory of the Bongbong Marcos-Sara Duterte tandem in the 2022 elections.

Uniteam won on a generic platform of “unity” – mouthed by their supporters online and offline – but even before Marcos and Duterte could officially assume the top posts of the land, political observers were already wondering how long the coalition would hold, given that the President and Vice President belong to different political camps. Would they even make it to the next elections in 2025?

A year and a half into the Marcos administration, Uniteam has started showing fissures despite key players insisting all is well. While this was anticipated, political analysts are surprised at how quickly the coalition was unraveling.

“I was not really expecting [the divide to happen] this fast, but I already knew this won’t last,” political analyst and Ateneo de Manila University professor Arjan Aguirre said in an interview on November 17.

Aguirre said that an electoral coalition like Uniteam was created “just to win the presidency.” This makes it weaker than a government coalition, which has a “reason to stick together.”

In 2021, surveys showed Duterte as the leading presidential contender for the 2022 elections – a fact that her father, then-president Rodrigo Duterte, was apparently banking on to persuade his daughter to succeed him. At the time, his loyal aide, Bong Go, was eyeing the vice presidency. The then-president said as much in an ambush interview with broadcaster Rey Langit in early October 2021, as reported by ABS-CBN. When he was asked about a “Sara-Go” tandem, he responded, “Sara-Go na ito (It’s Sara-Go).”

Marcos, however, convinced the Davao mayor to slide to the vice presidency, a decision that angered her father, who had said that it was obvious that Marcos had “decided” for Sara.

Evident cracks

The former president had been largely out of the public eye, but this year, he resumed his program with US fugitive Apollo Quiboloy on SMNI. In one episode, he attacked the House of Representatives and Speaker Martin Romualdez after the lower chamber stripped the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the Department of Education (DepEd) of requests for confidential funds in 2024.

The former president called the chamber the “most rotten” institution in Philippine government and threatened to kill ACT Teachers Representative France Castro. He also claimed that Romualdez was politicking as he was positioning to run for president in 2028, which the Speaker denied.

The House leadership’s response to Rodrigo Duterte’s rants not only showed evident cracks in the Uniteam but also the former popular leader’s fast diminishing clout.

Following the former president’s attacks, the House adopted House Resolution 1414, which championed the institution’s integrity and pledged support for Romualdez. It also gave way to a loyalty check that Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Davao City 3rd District Representative Isidro Ungab failed to pass. The Duterte supporters did not co-author the resolution, costing them their posts as deputy speakers.

Arroyo reiterated her support for Romualdez and explained she did not co-author House Resolution 1414 as the “resolution does not contain anything new.” Anyone who has been in politics for decades, however, would understand the significance of supporting House Resolution 1414.

It was the second demotion for Arroyo, a staunch ally of the Dutertes who has been reduced to an ordinary lawmaker. In a display of support for Arroyo, who was first stripped of her post as senior deputy speaker in May, the Vice President resigned from Lakas-CMD, the party led by Romualdez.

Political science professor Anthony Lawrence Borja said Arroyo’s first demotion in May due to alleged talks of a coup against Romualdez was the ultimate sign that the ground the Uniteam was propped up on had shifted.

“A new opposition is bound to show up. It’s a matter of how this opposition deals with the ideal and promise of unity,” Borja told Rappler on November 9.

Analysts have noted her waning influence, though she had been touted as the “secret weapon” of the Marcos administration in the President’s overseas trips. She is also known as a key player in forging the Marcos-Duterte coalition.

Arroyo is also notably a mentor of Vice President Sara, who has been the subject of impeachment talks and who analysts think may become the face of the new opposition.

“Because Arroyo was president for a long time, she was able to expand her political networks and have mentored some politicians,” UP political science professor Jean Franco told Rappler on November 15.

“For as long as she manages to be elected as a legislator, she will remain influential but maybe not very much if she is not allied with the President,” she added.

Rodrigo Duterte’s shrinking clout

Among the principal authors of House Resolution 1414 is Senior Deputy Speaker Aurelio Gonzales Jr., who resigned from the Rodrigo Duterte-led PDP-Laban after the former president rebuked the lower chamber and its leader. He moved to the Romualdez-led Lakas-CMD, along with other lawmakers, days after session resumed.

Lakas-CMD is now the dominant party in the House. The Speaker’s Office said in a statement on November 28, that 10 former PDP-Laban officials and members jumped ship to Lakas-CMD in the last 20 days. Town mayors and other local officials also moved to Romualdez’s political party.

“With the balance of power slowly tilting in favor of the House Speaker…[Rodrigo Duterte] may finally be losing ground in the House of Representatives,” Dennis Blanco, who teaches governance and public policy at the University of the Philippines, told Rappler on November 10.

“But in the Senate, he still might have wielded his old magic and charisma with the presence of old allies, holdovers and remainders of the former regime still holding power in the Senate.”

One of them would be Senator Imee Marcos, who reaffirmed her loyalty and support for the Dutertes after the House’s actions against the father and daughter. Politiko reported in early November that at least nine senators indicated in an executive session that they would seek the reinstatement of the Vice President’s 2024 confidential fund requests for the OVP and the DepEd during Senate plenary deliberations on the national budget. The senators denied this, and threatened to have the news site probed.

Amid calls in the House and the Senate for the government to cooperate with the International Criminal Court probe into the Duterte administration’s drug war, only senators Marcos and Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, as well as the Vice President, have opposed it so far.

Room for miscalculation

Political analysts warned that the ruling faction in the Uniteam runs the risk of “miscalculating” moves against the Dutertes and their allies.

“They may miscalculate their strategy, the more that the public will see that they are using the power of the presidency or the executive branch along with the legislature just to pull down the Duterte family,” Aguirre said in mix of English and Filipino.

With the Dutertes’ influence waning, a new strategy may be in the offing: to play the underdog.

The Vice President eventually dropped her bid for confidential funds during budget deliberations at the Senate. The Vice President noted her requests “seemed to be divisive” but she never answered the questions surrounding her controversial confidential funds spending of P125 million in 2022.

“It is her subtle and dignified way of gaining sympathy, admiration, and redemption from the senators and the public at large which could actually translate to a political support and political acquiescence the next time she’ll ask for support,” Blanco said

“Because Filipinos love political underdogs and who end up as victims,” he said.

Challenge for traditional opposition

So, what is the role of “traditional opposition” lawmakers in all this? The Uniteam alliance proved to be a formidable electoral coalition, resulting in a majority in both houses of Congress.

Blanco said it may be beneficial for the opposition to merge with the Vice President’s allies in Congress to “prevent the incumbent’s consolidation of power.”

Is this conceivable? Opposition lawmakers in both houses of Congress had exposed irregularities in Duterte’s confidential funds in 2022, and succeeded in having these funds put to better use in protecting Philippine interests in the West Philippine Sea in 2024.

Romualdez took note of the opposition’s role in shaping the 2024 budget bill: “The House of Representatives, during the budget deliberations a few months ago, did not miss a beat in dissecting, scrutinizing, and deliberating every figure and item in the 2024 budget proposal.”

“And we have an alert minority to thank for doing their share of spadework in digging into the finer details of the budget,” Romualded said in a speech on November 6.

ACT Teachers Representative Castro dismissed allegations that the Makabayan bloc has an alliance with Romualdez or the ruling party at the lower chamber. With that, political analysts say now is the time to recalibrate how and where they plan to position themselves.

“I’m hoping that, that extant opposition will regroup real fast to take that political space and be the sole counter political force to these warring political factions of the Uniteam,” Aguirre said.

“They should continue to be the real alternative voice on issues, a real opposition voice that can tackle critical issues of the day.” – Rappler.com

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