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MANILA, Philippines – In 2023, the country saw the tide turning for two political foes: former president Rodrigo Duterte and former senator Leila de Lima.
Following the 2016 elections, Rodrigo Duterte became the most powerful person in the land. He had a massive base of supporters whose passion, especially online, allowed him to keep his foulmouthed and vindictive ways throughout his watch.
In that same year, Leila de Lima was elected senator and kept true to her human rights advocacy – she led a Senate investigation into Duterte’s drug war killings and the Davao Death Squad. While Duterte ruled the land, De Lima languished in a detention facility in Camp Crame over what she and her supporters called trumped-up drug charges designed to pander to the then-president.
Their situations have changed over a year after Duterte stepped down from power. They’re not the only ones.
Over in Congress, the confidential funds debate became a pivotal issue in local politics. Confidential and intelligence funds had been a standard topic in budget deliberations, but the bane of high prices in 2023 inflamed public interest in how the government spends – or squanders – taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
The confidential funds issue not only turned the spotlight on Vice President Sara Duterte’s vulnerability to public opinion but also showed a shift in political alliances under the new administration. Political stock rose and fell, depending on whose side you chose to be on.
Let’s look back at these key moments in Philippine politics in 2023.
Leila de Lima is free
Leila de Lima was on top of the world after she won a seat in the Senate in 2016, but barely a month into her six year-term, then-president Rodrigo Duterte began attacking her in public addresses. He initially vilified her as an “immoral woman,” and later alleged her involvement in the illegal drugs trade, which spawned a congressional inquiry that further exposed the repugnant face of Philippine politics.
She was arrested on February 17, 2017, the beginning of her long wait to clear her name. She continued issuing handwritten notes from her cell, speaking up on her justice and human rights advocacies, as her supporters, various groups, and foreign lawmakers joined calls for her release.
Nearly seven years later, with the Duterte administration out of the picture, De Lima was finally released on bail as state witnesses who had earlier testified against her recanted one after another.
Now, her priority is to aid in the International Criminal Court’s probe into the Duterte drug war. She is also eyeing legal action against Duterte and his former justice secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre II, for her alleged wrongful detention – a plan backed by human rights advocates and other cause-oriented groups.
While she has not given any hints about resuming her political career, she has been designated as the official spokesperson of the Liberal Party.
“I cannot say I’m back with a vengeance, but I’m back with very high hopes and aspirations. I’m back with renewed energy and a renewed outlook on life, knowing that I can still do a lot of good for this country, not necessarily in politics,” she said in an exclusive interview with Rappler.
France Castro sues Rodrigo Duterte
While De Lima enjoys life outside detention, former president Duterte faces the prospect of jail time.
Duterte’s foul mouth and thuggish antics not only helped him win the presidency in 2016, but also sustained his teflon immunity to criticism while he was in Malacañang. He maintained high public approval and trust ratings even as he cursed God and Barack Obama, called the United Nations “stupid,” and revealed during a public address that he molested their househelper when he was a teenager.
Curses and death threats became regular features of his presidential addresses while his allies in Congress applauded and laughed along with the rest of his loyal supporters.
Duterte probably thought he would still get the same treatment when he made death threats against ACT Teachers Representative France Castro after she questioned his daughter’s confidential funds.
Months before the 2022 elections, then-president Duterte campaigned against the election of Makabayan bloc members to the House of Representatives, claiming that the progressive party-list groups were “legal” fronts of the Communist Party of the Philippines, which the groups had denied.
It was not unusual for the House leadership then to keep silent on the matter – aside from being Duterte allies at the time, who would dare speak up against the wildly popular and unpredictable president?
A clear indication that political alliances had further shifted in the lower chamber was in mid-October, when the House leadership came to Castro’s defense after Duterte, in a televised program, threatened to kill the congresswoman and again tagged her as a “communist.”
Speaker Martin Romualdez noted that the lower chamber had “an alert minority to thank for doing their share of spadework in digging into the finer details of the budget.”
Following the threats, Castro presented a test case for the Philippine justice system with the filing of grave threats complaints against the former president – the first legal action against Duterte after he had shed his presidential immunity from suits.
The resolution on the case is expected to be released in January 2024.
The House claps back at ex-president Duterte, SMNI
Former president Duterte also targeted the House of Representatives and Speaker Romualdez for junking his daughter’s request for audit-free funds.
After Duterte messed with the House, the committees on justice and human rights adopted the resolutions urging the Marcos government to cooperate with the International Criminal Court’s probe into Duterte’s drug war. A similar resolution has been filed at the Senate.
No longer in the seat of power, Duterte found himself with few people – like his son, Davao City congressman Paolo Duterte and Senator Imee Marcos – taking his side. In the meantime, the once ruling PDP-Laban, which he chairs, continues to be a sinking ship.
Meanwhile, Romualdez found himself surrounded with a growing number of political allies, many of them former PDP-Laban members who had jumped ship to his party, Lakas-CMD.
The House also probed the Apollo Quiboloy-owned Sonshine Media Network International after its anchor, Jeffrey Celiz, falsely accused Romualdez of racking up exorbitant travel expenses. The congressional inquiry was apparently a factor in the decision of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board to suspend two SMNI shows, including former president Duterte’s Gikan Sa Masa, Para Sa Masa, where he had ranted against the House leadership and Castro.
Risa Hontiveros vs Sara Duterte
If the House had France Castro and the Makabayan bloc, the Senate had Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros, who asked all the right questions on Vice President Sara Duterte’s confidential funds.
Hontiveros and Duterte did not trade barbs face-to-face but through statements. Social media became their battle ground as news feeds were updated with side-by-side “instaquotes” from their colorful exchanges.
While Duterte skirted questions on the confidential funds mess by tagging her critics as “enemies of peace,” Hontiveros presented the issue in a way that ordinary people could relate to.
In illustrating her disbelief over the OVP’s disbursement of P125 million in confidential funds in just 11 days in 2022, Hontiveros said: “Anong uri na naman ng magic ang ginamit nila para ubusin ang P125 million sa loob ng 11 araw? Hindi na lang ‘yan spending spree. ‘Yan ay paglapastangan sa mamamayan. Napakagaspang. P11 million kada araw? Daig pa ang may patagong credit card sa national budget. Hindi ‘nyo pera ‘yan!”
(What kind of magic did they do to use up P125 million in just 11 days? That’s not just spending spree. That’s an affront to the people. So crude. P11 million each day? It trumps having a secret credit card charged to the national budget. That’s not your money!)
The Vice President seemed like his father’s daughter early in her term, as shown in her consistently high approval and trust ratings. By September of this year, however, the runaway winner in the 2022 vice presidential elections had a rude awakening.
The controversial funds debacle exposed the Vice President’s vulnerability to public opinion – unlike her father who managed to get away with even the most outrageous, unimaginable antics. Her first taste of public outrage was enough to spark impeachment rumors against her, indicating deeper cracks in the UniTeam, the electoral coalition that supported her tandem with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the 2022 elections.
Public outrage over the confidential funds mess is believed to have pulled down Duterte’s approval rating to 73% in September, an 11-percentage point drop compared to her 84% score in June.
After the House denied her requests for confidential funds, Duterte decided to drop the bid when the Senate began plenary deliberations on the proposed OVP and Department of Education budgets. She said the issue had become “divisive,” but political analysts viewed it as a strategy to cut her losses.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gets demoted at the House twice
Several House lawmakers were affected by the confidential funds mess, among them Pampanga 2nd Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Arroyo has stuck it out with her longtime allies, the Dutertes. But like all other political moves, this too came at a price.
In November, Arroyo was stripped of her deputy speakership post after failing to sign a resolution upholding the integrity of the lower chamber and pledging continued support for Romualdez. This came after the confidential funds-related attacks of former president Duterte.
Arroyo said she was abroad when the resolution was signed, and she felt she did not have to co-sponsor it as she had always supported Romualdez. House leaders, however, noted that Arroyo was already aware of the draft resolution and that, if she really wanted to, she could have directed her chief of staff to signify her intent to co-sponsor the document.
It was Arroyo’s second demotion this year alone. In May, she lost her “senior” rank in the House of Representatives supposedly in a bid to unburden her from the “heavy load required from the position,” House Majority Leader Mannix Dalipe had said. The demotion came amid talks of an ouster plot against Romualdez which Arroyo denied being part of.
Stella Quimbo: A political star loses her luster
Another politician who did not have such a good 2023 was Marikina lawmaker Stella Quimbo, who would be remembered this year as the staunch defender of Duterte’s confidential funds.
This year, the Philippines’ struggling opposition went hard after Quimbo, and it was not without reason.
Once seen as a consistent voice of dissent in the House of Representatives, Quimbo joined the super majority alliance under the Marcos administration and subsequently became the second top official of the powerful appropriations committee.
Her initial unwavering defense of the controversial Maharlika Investment Fund, as well as the receipt by Vice President Duterte of the P125-million confidential funds, did not sit well with government critics, who saw Quimbo’s actions as tantamount to political turncoatism.
She later flagged the short period of time in which Duterte’s confidential funds were spent, but she continues to stand by the Maharlika Fund, a measure she primarily authored.
Quimbo, in an exclusive interview with Rappler in September, insisted she defends policies, not personalities. She asserted that she’s still the same person that her original supporters admired, but rebuilding trust with the opposition may be easier said than done. (READ: Stella Quimbo, controversial star at a political crossroads)
Arnie Teves: First Filipino lawmaker to be expelled from Congress
In 2023, former Negros Oriental 3rd District Representative Arnie Teves made history in Congress, but not in a good way.
The road to Teves’ downfall was inevitable after his name was dragged into the assassination, but it was a wild ride nonetheless: he went into hiding abroad, faced criminal cases, got suspended in the House twice, lost most of his political and personal allies, and was declared a terrorist.
Teves had been a deputy speaker – the second highest-ranking post in the House – under the Duterte administration, but his apparent failure to penetrate the Marcos government’s circle of power may have just been his undoing. – with reports from Dwight de Leon, Kaycee Valmonte, Bonz Magsambol/Rappler.com