The women behind the fall of Alvarez

MANILA, Philippines – The end began for Pantaleon Alvarez the moment he made enemies with 3 of the most powerful women in the land.

It was only a matter of time for the political forces of former president and now Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, presidential daughter Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte Carpio, and Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos to come together and unseat the man with whom they or their allies locked horns with in the past two years.

But even before Alvarez’s gripping ouster on July 23, discontent over his leadership had been festering in the House of Representatives.

The Davao del Norte 1st District representative did not bother to cultivate relationships with the lawmakers, leaving the dirty work to Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas.  

"Generally, the sentiment after his election is, he failed to take care of the lawmakers. The projects the congressmen wanted weren't followed. The regular meetings with the party leaders stopped. But when you're the Speaker, you need to have regular contact with the party leaders," a source privy to the ouster movement told Rappler in Filipino.

The source said Alvarez barely visited the lounge at the Batasang Pambansa where legislators eat merienda before the session. In contrast, Arroyo would always have coffee with the lawmakers who had long been loyal to her since her presidency.

To make things worse, Alvarez’s crass statements on pushing for a Constituent Assembly even without the Senate, as well as floating the People’s Initiative and a no-elections scenario in 2019 simply did not sit well with his colleagues. 

Many lawmakers are already sure of their victory in the midterm polls next year, but not him.

“It wasn't really something that was planned,” Nueva Ecija 4th District Representative Magnolia Antonino told Rappler on their plan to boot out Alvarez. She was the one who moved to declare the speakership vacant on July 23.

“It was more of a clamor that many congressmen started saying that they would like a change in leadership, and many people were saying that GMA is the one who can unify Congress,” she said. 

Alvarez himself made the House ripe for a coup of his own undoing. 

The feisty heir of the king 

Alvarez’s deadly clash with Duterte Carpio fuelled the longtime talks of a possible change in the House leadership.  

The ouster rumors began in March 2017, when Alvarez started feuding with his longtime friend-turned-foe Davao del Norte 2nd District Representative Antonio Floirendo Jr, President Rodrigo Duterte’s biggest campaign donor. (READ: Alvarez to his ouster 'plotters': 'Go ahead, make my day’)

The tipping point happened in February this year, when Alvarez reportedly said Duterte Carpio had formed her regional party Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP) without her father’s blessing.

The President’s daughter lashed out at Alvarez, calling him an "asshole", "insecure slob”, and a "fat sleaze” on social media. She openly called on lawmakers to unseat him. (READ: Alvarez denies calling Sara Duterte part of opposition)

"I do not understand why members of the House of Representatives do not tell the President what the fat ass is up to and just coup d'état the Speakership," Duterte Carpio said. 

"He is not a leader. He will never be a leader. Many congressmen can do more [than] what he is delivering for the President," the mayor added.

Before HNP, Duterte Carpio already formed the Tapang at Malasakit Alliance with local leaders across the nation, politicians who wanted to coalesce with a party strongly associated with the President himself.

The Davao City mayor's political alliances became the perfect vehicle to launch a massive attack against Alvarez.

So it looks harmless as far as Alvarez is concerned, pero ginagapang na. 'Pag na-convince mo kasi 'yong mayors, governors, nakatuntong doon 'yong congressmen. 'Di naman mananalo 'yong congressman kung kaaway niya 'yong mayor saka governor, 'di ba? Usually nga, the same family ‘yan eh,” said the source.

(So it looks harmless as far as Alvarez is concerned, but the plan was already set into motion. Once you convince the mayors and governors, the congressmen follow. The congressman won’t win if he is against the mayor and governor, right? Usually, they’re even from the same family.) 

Back in Davao del Norte, Alvarez already lost his allies in relatives Floirendo and Governor Antonio del Rosario, who slammed the former speaker for slashing the public works budget of the province.

All the local politicians had to do was stoke the fire that was already burning against Alvarez in Batasan. 

And with the blessing of Duterte Carpio – the President’s favorite child whose opinions have greatly shaped Duterte’s actions in the past – the stage was all set for the House coup. 

Antonino said the political parties in the House – the National Unity Party (NUP), the Nacionalista Party (NP), the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), Lakas-CMD, the party-list coalition, and some members of the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) – all have been wanting to boot out Alvarez for a long time now.

“The parties – NP, NPC, NUP, some members of PDP-Laban – they were the ones who really put it together,” said Antonino.

“It’s something that has been slowly festering. I mean, the rumors have been going around for what, 6 months? And those kinds of things, when there's smoke, there’s fire,” she added.

It all came to a head the weekend before Duterte’s 3rd State of the Nation Address (SONA). There was an organized operation to call lawmakers across parties to secure the votes. Lawmakers called other lawmakers. Calls were also made by Duterte Carpio's allies, even the mayor herself. 

Long before the battle for the mace at the House plenary on July 23, at least 150 lawmakers were already supporting an Arroyo speakership the night before. In the end, a total of 184 legislators voted for Arroyo as Speaker. The 12 lawmakers who abstained were from the Liberal Party, the last to be informed about the ouster plot. 

“I think the catalyst really here is the sentiment, the overall sentiment of the congressmen towards the leadership of Bebot Alvarez,” said the source. 

Kasi if they're happy with Alvarez, no matter what you do – even if God will call you, Sara Duterte, GMA – kung you're happy with the Speaker, walang mangyayari, 'di ba? In other words, the soil was fertile,” added the source.

(Because if they’re happy with Alvarez, no matter what you do – even if God, Sara Duterte, or GMA will call you – nothing will happen, right? In other words, the soil was fertile.) 

Duterte Carpio remains tight-lipped about her involvement in the ouster plot. After Arroyo’s election, the President’s daughter merely congratulated Arroyo and called her a “strong leader”.

The queen in the north

Then there’s Imee Marcos, who is embroiled in her own political rivalry with Fariñas, Ilocos Norte 1st District representative and the right-hand man of Alvarez. 

Since 1998, the Fariñas and Marcos families have been either allies or rivals in Ilocos Norte after the Marcoses returned to the province when patriarch and late dictator Ferdinand Marcos died in exile in 1989.

In 2015, the Marcoses cut ties with Fariñas and dropped him from their "One Ilocos Norte" ticket.

Relations have since soured between Marcos and Fariñas. Their respective children – Ilocos Norte 2nd District Senior Board Member Matthew Marcos Manotoc and Ilocos Norte 1st District Senior Board Member Ria Fariñas – are said to be running for governor in 2019.

Last year, the elder Fariñas and two of his allies in the House filed a resolution that set off a probe into the alleged misuse of P66.45 million worth of provincial tobacco funds to purchase vehicles.

Both the House committee on good government and public accountability and the Commission on Audit recommended the filing of administrative and criminal charges against officials of the Ilocos Norte provincial government. Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales herself said on July 12 they are now looking into the same anomalies.

So it was not surprising when Marcos joined Duterte Carpio’s HNP. The dictator’s daughter was not only seeking a Senate seat in 2019; she also saw an opportunity to finally bring down her biggest enemy in the House. 

Marcos is a key figure in the Alvarez ouster, as her clan commands control of the so-called “Solid North” provinces. 

“So like GMA, the Marcoses also have a network. In fairness to Imee, Imee called only the Ilocanos and her close friends,” said the source.

Marcos was even reported to be in the same room when Duterte spoke to Arroyo before delivering his SONA. Sources said the President met with Alvarez and Arroyo separately after the start of the House coup, which delayed the SONA by an hour. (READ: 'Why is he inside?' Tempers flare after Alvarez ouster)

Marcos denied this, however. Asked to confirm if she was present during the meeting, Marcos replied in the negative. She did not comment on Arroyo’s election as Speaker. 

But her presence during the night session that formalized Arroyo’s speakership on July 23 was quite telling.

Marcos, in her blood red gown, sashayed down the plenary with the biggest smile on her face. The House was Fariñas Land no more.

Arroyo, the omnipotent

The crowd was already demanding for the head of Alvarez.

Arroyo, the astute politician who survived scandal after scandal during her 9-year term as president, finally gave in to her allies’ call for her to become their Speaker. 

But that was not always the case. In April, the Pampanga 2nd District representative said she was “not interested” to lead the lower chamber. 

After all, becoming the Speaker would mean exposing herself to harsh criticisms once again. The left-leaning Makabayan lawmakers already tagged her as the plunderer, murderer, and election cheater who was allowed by the Duterte administration to become Speaker. 

It seems that, for a time, Arroyo was content to be the quiet force behind the curtain. (READ: Duterte admin revives Arroyo policies, controversies

“You know, she was very reluctant to be back in the limelight, to be in the middle of something so controversial again. But in the end, the good of all prevailed. And she's always been that way – that she will try and do what's best for everyone rather than thinking of herself,” said Antonino. 

While Alvarez made enemies in the past two years, Arroyo just kept on doing what she does best: strengthen relationships with her loyal allies, then strike when the iron is hot.

Many lawmakers were her former party mates at Lakas-Kampi-CMD. Other legislators used to be her Cabinet members. Even Alvarez, who removed Arroyo as deputy speaker because she voted against the death penalty, was Arroyo’s transportation secretary

“Honestly, we all look up to her. She's been a president, she's been a senator, she's been a vice president. And really, you see even in the committee hearings that she attends, when she speaks, she really knows what she's talking about and she knows how to make all sides happy,” said Antonino.

“She really tries to find solutions that can be win-win. So, many people were saying that she's the one that can unify Congress, who can bring people together for the change in leadership,” she added.  

As chaos erupted at the Batasan during the coup, Arroyo calmly sat down on her chair, silent, waiting. Her allies did all the work. 

That’s power as raw as it can get.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is back? No, she was never gone. – 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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