Alan Peter Cayetano is a brilliant politician who found an opportunity in the coronavirus pandemic to hold on to power at the House of Representatives, despite a “gentleman’s agreement” a year ago with an inexperienced politician whose claim to fame rests on family and political connections.
The congressman from Taguig’s rise to power is no fluke. He is a master political tactician who showed his neophyte rival what experience can do without merely relying on the graces of President Rodrigo Duterte.
He has made himself indispensable to the administration but his patron should really be worried because his loyalty is to himself and he will never hesitate to step on somebody to get to the top.
Five years ago, the ambitious lawmaker allied himself with the administration to destroy then Vice President Jejomar Binay to derail his bid to succeed Benigno Aquino III as the leader of the country, by exposing corruption from the time Binay was mayor in Makati City until he became the nation’s spare tire in 2010.
Then he parted ways with his allies and latched on to Rodrigo Duterte who was the fast-rising presidential candidate in the 2016 elections. He waited patiently for his time to strike by taking the foreign affairs position, building a power base among millions of overseas contract workers by looking after their welfare.
After winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 2019, he made sure he would get the leadership of the lower house of Congress by seeking an endorsement from his patron and from the president’s Cabinet by promising swift passage of the administration’s legislative agenda.
A three-term congressman and nine-year member of the upper house of Congress, Cayetano used his skills and vast experience in dealing with lawmakers to get things done very smoothly in the House, passing the budget on time and seeing to it that fiscal measures and political bills got through the legislative mill.
But it was not an easy task because he had no support from his peers in 2019. Imelda Marcos’ nephew and an ally of the former speaker, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, also a former president and a senator, was the most popular congressman and was likely to become the next leader.
Martin Romualdez was challenged by a faction of lawmakers from Duterte’s home region who supported Lord Allan Velasco. But the congressman who had no supporters emerged as the leader after he went straight to the president and asked for his endorsement.
Technically, the executive and legislative are supposed to be co-equal branches of government and the president should leave it to lawmakers to select their leader.
In 2018, the president did not meddle when congress chose to replace Davao del Norte Congressman Pantaleon Alvarez, his close political ally, with another ally, Arroyo, as speaker.
But Duterte was forced to intervene last year, brokering a deal among the three protagonists. Cayetano agreed to take the first 15 months and Velasco the last 21 months in a win-win solution to resolve the controversy.
However, Cayetano no longer wants to honor the agreement made with Velasco by holding next year’s national budget hostage, and promising to deliver the fiscal measures needed by the president’s economic managers to help the economy recover from the slump caused by the pandemic.
On the other hand, Velasco and his band of inexperienced lawmakers are counting on the president to intervene again and hand them over the leadership on a silver platter.
Duterte’s hands are tied. At this crucial time, he needs a more experienced politician to get his legislative measures passed not only in the lower house, but also to navigate through rough waters in the upper house.
Cayetano seemed fit to do the job as a former senator and a skillful congressman who has distributed concessions to powerful and influential members.
He has demonstrated his influence and clout at the House after his peers voted overwhelmingly to reject his offer to resign, openly defying the agreement with Velasco who continued to rely on the president’s intervention.
Velasco’s supporters threatened to declare the positions vacant on Oct. 14, the day Cayetano had initially agreed to step down as speaker and give way to Velasco. They said the leadership question was resolved after Congress rejected Cayetano’s offer to resign.
Cayetano’s allies also vowed to oppose the motion if and when the positions are declared vacant, an escalation of the leadership row that threatens to derail further the passage of the national budget.
The last time Congress failed to pass the budget on time, the economy suffered and it could not afford to lose some more by default as the pandemic has already plunged the country into a recession for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Expect a showdown before Congress takes a month-long by the middle of the month. Can Cayetano continue to defy the agreement with Velasco without tarnishing his own reputation for walking back on a deal?
Duterte appeared to be invincible after the 2019 midterm elections when he completely demolished the political opposition, helping his trusted assistant, Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, win a seat in the Senate.
This early, there are some groups pushing Go to run for president in May 2022, joining half a dozen pro-Duterte politicians who want to run for the top position. If that happens, the mighty administration will implode.
This could be a signal for Cayetano to jump ship again to save his own skin. But, he will not part ways with the president while he still needs him on his side to hold on to power.