Being 'dilawan' in the Duterte-controlled House

MANILA, Philippines – They're not just a small crew nowadays. They also can't seem to get their act together even on pet issues concerning the party.

From around 100 members in the previous administration, the once-powerful Liberal Party (LP) has been decimated to just 27 in the House of Representatives – and with split loyalties at that.

Twenty-two of the LP lawmakers are allied with President Rodrigo Duterte's Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), an alliance that took months to bring together. (READ: Why the Liberal Party stayed in the House majority)

The remaining 5 are in the independent minority, part of the so-called "Magnificent 7" who serve as the real opposition bloc as they take very strong positions vis-à-vis Duterte's questionable policies.

This sad state of affairs goes beyond the lower chamber. In the Senate, LP senators have been stripped of their leadership posts and Senator Leila de Lima was jailed due to drug charges.

Vice President Leni Robredo, party chairperson, also resigned as housing czar after being barred from joining Cabinet meetings. Supporters of the President have since called for her resignation from her post altogether.

Because of this, some say the LP in the House should just have left the PDP-Laban alliance, joined the minority, and become the opposition party.

But it hasn't done so. Instead, it has played the safe, neither-here-nor-there game that the party as a whole believes it has to do to survive.

Ironically, this is also seen as the reason it is not gaining political steam either.

With a looming impeachment complaint against Robredo, LP stalwarts argue they may need to resort to unpopular political moves for now.

If the "dilawans" are to survive the Duterte administration, goes the thinking, perhaps being in the good graces of PDP-Laban may work in their favor in the long run. (READ: The Liberal Party and realpolitik in the House

Counting votes this early

So why stay in the majority?

It all boils down to politics being local, especially for lawmakers whose constituencies are their respective districts.  

While the LP as a party may be against several administration policies – like the bloody war against drugs and the reimposition of the death penalty – most of the LP lawmakers represent districts where voters remain solid supporters of Duterte.  

Their stand on issues naturally reflects both their personal convictions and the election terrain that they will be navigating in the 2019 local elections.

This explains why half of LP lawmakers voted in favor of the death penalty bill even if the party is against the measure. (READ: 4 death penalty votes that surprised us

Bolting their alliance with PDP-Laban might also mean LP lawmakers losing their leverage to get budgets for their district projects. A lawmaker allied with the administration party will have an easier time fighting for his or her district's projects compared to a minority legislator critical of the administration.

COMPROMISE. Former speaker and Quezon City 4th District Representative Feliciano Belmonte Jr and Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez shake hands after LP signed a coalition agreement with PDP-Laban on July 24, 2016. File photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

COMPROMISE. Former speaker and Quezon City 4th District Representative Feliciano Belmonte Jr and Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez shake hands after LP signed a coalition agreement with PDP-Laban on July 24, 2016.

File photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

Deputy Speaker Miro Quimbo, the highest ranking LP member in the House, said local politics dictates the movement in the lower chamber "95% of the time." 

"Being part of the administration party protects their districts in a number of ways. First, you are able to get the national government's support for your district needs in terms of social and infrastructure programs. You feel a certain degree of certainty that being part of the administration party ensures that you are closer to the kitchen, so to speak," said Quimbo.

He added being part of PDP-Laban will give a candidate "more leverage" in the upcoming 2019 midterm polls, where congressional seats will once again be up for grabs. 

Quimbo, a longtime politician, said this is more felt by candidates in the provinces compared to those in Metro Manila, who are closely followed by the national media. 

"This aspect of politics, we never really experience in Metro Manila because of the media's active role. But in the provinces, based on stories of my colleagues, the PNP (Philippine National Police), AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines), and the Comelec (Commission on Elections) can make or break a candidate. So people moving towards the administration is the by-product of how they anticipate 2019," said Quimbo.

Keeping plum posts

Completely moving to the House minority would also mean LP losing plum posts in the House.  

LP currently holds one deputy speakership through Quimbo and a seat in the powerful Commission on Appointments through the feisty Occidental Mindoro 2nd District Representative Josephine Ramirez-Sato, LP's national treasurer. But she may soon lose her seat if more LP members leave the party. 

LP LEADER. Deputy Speaker Miro Quimbo explains why he and 21 of his party mates remain allied with the administration. File photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler

LP LEADER. Deputy Speaker Miro Quimbo explains why he and 21 of his party mates remain allied with the administration.

File photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler

Four LP legislators previously held committee chairmanships as well – Batanes 1st District Representative Henedina Abad for government reorganization, Dinagat Islands Representative Kaka Bag-ao for people's participation, Quezon City 6th District Representative Jose Christopher "Kit" Belmonte for land use, and Batangas 6th District Representative Vilma Santos-Recto for civil service and professional regulation.

But these LP lawmakers were ousted after they voted no to the controversial death penalty bill, an aftermath of Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez's threat to replace House leaders who would oppose the measure.

Three other LP legislators were able to keep their chairmanships because they voted yes to the death penalty reimposition: Quezon City 4th District Representative Feliciano Belmonte Jr for West Philippine Sea, Zambales 2nd District Representative Cheryl Deloso-Montalla for human rights, and Bohol 1st District Representative Rene Relampagos for agrarian reform.

Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat Jr, an LP member in the opposition bloc, admitted the reality of local politics has a bigger impact in the House compared to the Senate.  

"For instance, being a chair is already a big advantage in the House in terms of allocations, resources," said Baguilat. 

Only majority lawmakers also get to vote on bills being discussed at the committee level. Minority lawmakers are only allowed to – at most – interpellate during hearings, but they're essentially powerless to stop or show support for a measure at the committee level.

God save the queen

PROTECTING LENI. LP lawmakers will be at the forefront of the fight should the impeachment complaint against Robredo push through. Photo from the Office of the Vice President

PROTECTING LENI. LP lawmakers will be at the forefront of the fight should the impeachment complaint against Robredo push through.

Photo from the Office of the Vice President

But beyond the House dynamics, LP lawmakers have bigger fish to fry: The two impeachment complaints drafted against the Vice President.

Two groups – the tandem of Marcos loyalists Oliver Lozano and Melchor Chavez as well as the Impeach Leni Movement – are urging lawmakers to endorse their respective impeachment complaints against Robredo. 

While no legislator has endorsed the two documents, the party is aware that their moves in the House can influence the future of these impeachment complaints against the Vice President.

This is why the LP lawmakers in the majority released a statement saying they "will not support any of the impeachment complaints filed against the leaders of the land" after Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano filed the now-junked impeachment complaint against the President in March.

At the time, the Speaker himself said he was mulling filing an impeachment complaint against Robredo, believing she was behind the one filed against Duterte.  

Quimbo later faced the media to clarify the LP had nothing to do with the impeachment complaint against Duterte, a statement echoed by Alejano as well. (READ: Alejano denies impeach bid part of destabilization plot)

Instead of just talking about the LP's goal to protect Robredo at all costs, Quimbo also said the impeachment complaints against her and Duterte were both "doomed to fail." 

"It also become clear that Vice President Leni Robredo was becoming collateral damage. An impeachment complaint was filed against her mainly on the wrongful accusation that the LP was the prime mover of Digong's impeachment case, which was completely false. It was important thus for us LP members in the majority, to protect the VP from a serious and snowballing impeachment complaint against her," said Quimbo.

Sources said Alejano had even informed the LP of his plan to file the impeachment complaint. But Robredo did not want to have anything to do with it, thinking that impeaching Duterte is not going to be effective.

There were also talks within the LP on how to protect Robredo should her critics push through with their impeachment plans.  

Sources said some in the LP want to immediately stop the impeachment complaint should it be filed at the House. But others believe they should let the complaint reach the Senate, where LP senators supposedly guaranteed they can kill the ouster plot.

PARTY DISCUSSIONS. LP president and Senator Francis Pangilinan, Baguilat, and Belmonte face the media after a closed-door party meeting on February 28, 2017. File photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler

PARTY DISCUSSIONS. LP president and Senator Francis Pangilinan, Baguilat, and Belmonte face the media after a closed-door party meeting on February 28, 2017.

File photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler

But Baguilat said the latter option is not really sitting well with Robredo, who was Camarines Sur 3rd District representative and therefore knows how things run in Congress. 

"Of course for her, you nip it in the bud as much as possible because it's really a political question. If you allow it to fester and debate and they will continue to hammer on the accusations, I'm pretty sure there might be additional charges," said Baguilat.

For now, this internal discussion in the LP remains just that – a debate.

But should the ouster plot against the Vice President proceed, her party mates have vowed to protect their queen.

"Siyempre ipagtatanggol natin. Hindi naman puwedeng hindi," said Quimbo. (Of course we will defend her. We have to.)

Key personalities

At the forefront of making party decisions given these realities in the House are certain lawmakers who have long been identified as loyal LP members, the "pinakadilaw," if you will. 

Among them are what sources describe as the LP's triumvirate in the House: Quimbo, Kit Belmonte, and Quezon City 3rd District Representative Jorge Banal. 

Banal and Kit Belmonte, the party secretary-general, often work behind the scenes, their respected inputs heard and heavily considered in closed-door LP meetings. Their media appearances are close to none.

Quimbo, by virtue of him being the House leadership's choice for deputy speaker, was tasked to publicly speak for the LP lawmakers in the majority bloc.

Graphics by Nico Villarete/Rappler

Message discipline has been strict within the LP lately, given the party's delicate position under the Duterte administration. LP lawmakers, when asked to give comments about the party's stand on certain issues, would always point to Quimbo and refer to him as their "designated spokesperson."

Quimbo, Kit Belmonte, Banal, as well as Bag-ao, are also known to act as close advisers to the Vice President when it comes to House affairs. Then there are the LP elders, like former speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr and Northern Samar 1st District Representative Raul Daza.

Sources say the seniors mostly leave the final decision-making these days to the younger members. But the LP, especially in making crucial decisions, considers the opinions of its veterans in high regard.

Three other LP lawmakers join Baguilat and Daza in the House opposition: Capiz 1st District Representative Emmanuel Billones, Caloocan City 2nd District Representative Edgar Erice, and Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman. 

Lagman is the staunchest Duterte critic out of the 5 legislators, with Baguilat even describing him as the "driving force" of the opposition bloc.  

But Lagman only joined the LP for the 17th Congress. During his last term under the 15th Congress, he was a member of Lakas-CMD and was a known supporter of former president and now Pampanga 2nd District Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Baguilat is the go-to guy whenever the opposition bloc needs representation in LP meetings.

LP and party politics in the PH

According to Baguilat, the LP members in the House struggled at the beginning because they were divided into two blocs. 

Faced with a controversial Duterte policy, the LP lawmakers in the majority would often come up with a more pragmatic stand, whereas the opposition lawmakers would hit the Duterte administration head on. 

"So what we do is okay, let the majority speak out and then we'll meet too, then more or less we will know where these people will come from," said Baguilat. 

"But [if it is a] party decision [already], then all of us will be involved," he clarified.

The LP finds itself in a unique position compared to the other parties in the House. But its situation is also indicative of the country's lack of a genuine political party system.

"By being part of the majority or by being selective minority, they are only a minority on selected aspects or issues. They are able to have their cake and eat it too," said University of the Philippines political analyst Aries Arugay. 

"They are taking full advantage of the weakness of the party system in the country. If I am part of the supermajority, I don't need them… But no harm, no foul if you want to join us," he added.

The challenge for LP lawmakers now is to determine their clear role under the Duterte administration – and for the party to stick to it. 

But when? "Our time will come," said Kit Belmonte. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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