History repeats itself: Senate had mace-chase almost 30 years ago

Jee Y. Geronimo, Camille Elemia
History repeats itself: Senate had mace-chase almost 30 years ago
In 1991, a controversial coup that sought to oust then Senate president Jovito Salonga triggered a childish mace-chase in the chamber

MANILA, Philippines – Ouster plot, check. Missing mace, check. Two chamber leaders fighting for power, check.

The Game of Thrones-like House debacle before President Rodrigo Duterte’s 3rd State of the Nation Address was not the first time it happened in Philippine politics. Nearly 30 years ago, on December 12, 1991, senators were embroiled in what looked like a childish game of chase-the-mace. (READ: PH’s Cersei Lannister? Arroyo as ‘House Speaker’ confuses netizens)

The Manila Times and The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported about a power struggle between then Senate president Jovito Salonga and former senator Neptali Gonzales, who had the support of 13 senators to replace Salonga. The late senator Ernesto Maceda, who was supporting Gonzales, was part of the plot. 

 COUP. The Philippine Daily Inquirer article on the ouster of then Senate president Jovito Salonga, prompting a mace chase. Photo by Camille Elemia

The House drama was highly reminiscent of the 3-decade-old Senate episode. Like in the House, incumbent Salonga held a morning session on December 12. The resolution calling for his ouster was supposed to be discussed then. But with a lack of quorum, it was adjourned.

What happened next might bring back the rush you felt as the House drama unfolded on Monday, July 23.

Senators in the Gonzales group “defiantly convened a session in the afternoon” to pass the resolution ousting Salonga, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer report. They reportedly assigned Maceda to temporarily preside over their session.

Jimmy Policarpio, Maceda’s former chief aide, said Maceda was to become majority leader then, but Senate records showed that he eventually became the Senate president pro-tempore under Gonzales.

Before the rump afternoon session could start, the infamous mace-chase happened.

“Aides from both sides wrestled for the Senate mace, a 5-foot-high wooden staff bearing the Senate seal,” according to The Manila Times story published on December 13, 1991.

“As the 14 senators who sought the ouster of Salonga took their seats for a rump session in the session hall… about 7 staff members from the Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms (OSAA) grabbed the mace where it stood on the elevated dais beside the chair of the Senate president. The men quickly left the session hall with the mace,” reported The Inquirer.

Policarpio recounted the event to Rappler. He said he was standing by the entrance of the session hall when someone shouted that somebody stole the mace. He remembered grabbing the mace from OSAA members and holding on to it so tightly that they supposedly resorted to hitting and kicking him.

Well actually may nagtakbo, kasi yung grupo nila (Well somebody stole it because the group of) Manong Maceda and Neptali Gonzales had the majority vote to replace Salonga. With that, they wanted to convene to oust him. Yung tao ni (A staff of) Salonga, ran away with the mace. I was standing by the door, niyakap ko yung mace (I hugged the mace). ‘Yung mga Sergeant-At-Arms were kicking and hitting me. They hit me, so I let go,” Policarpio told Rappler in a phone interview on Wednesday, July 25.

Under Senate rules, the Sergeant-At-Arms has the duty “to keep under his custody the mace of the Senate.” After the chase, the mace was reportedly taken to the office of Salonga.

Improvised mace to the rescue

So how did the Gonzales group succeed in installing him as the new leader without the mace? Necessity forced their creativity and imagination, as they used an improvised mace.

The Inquirer reported that the Gonzales group got the mace of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, which was on exhibit at the lobby just outside the session hall, and tied the framed replica of the Senate seal around its head.

IMPROVISED MACE. Photo obtained from The Manila Times December 13, 1991 article.

At the time, Saguisag criticized his colleagues for taking the value of the mace lightly.

Gusto n’yo bigyan pa natin sila tig-iisa para everybody happy (If you want, we can even give them one each),” Saguisag was quoted by the Inquirer as saying.

But Maceda, quoted in the same article, said in response: “We can just donate the [official] mace to Salonga as a remembrance.”

So for a time – just like in the House – there were two Senate presidents. The Senate also held a special session days later on December 16 to settle the issue. Salonga and Gonzales already had a so-called “gentleman’s agreement”, with the former relinquishing the post to the latter.

This happened not without drama, as then minority senator Juan Ponce Enrile, a Salonga supporter, questioned the afternoon session – prompting former senator John Osmeña, a Gonzales ally, to hurl expletives at Salonga for not following the “agreement”.

Clearly, Congress is no stranger to power games. – Rappler.com

*Rappler accessed The Manila Times article from the Ateneo Library; The Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) articles from the PDI Library.

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Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.


Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a former multimedia reporter for Rappler. She covered media and disinformation, the Senate, the Office of the President, and politics.