Spectacle at the Senate

Spectacle at the Senate
Ousted Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri —PHOTO FROM SENATE.GOV.PH

It’s not as though such a spectacle hasn’t happened before, whether in the Senate or in the House of Representatives. But a week after the fact, bits and pieces of information regarding Juan Miguel Zubiri’s removal as Senate president by his peers continue to keep it grist for the mill, as well as to demonstrate realpolitik and to underscore yet again the caliber of the composition of the chamber. The respective images of the power grabber and his suspected sponsor—a coup such as what recently occurred is, after all, never merely a bold solo flight—are not exactly burnished by these tidbits emanating as reported from the power grabber himself and his colleagues, granting that Filipinos grappling with high prices, a weakened peso, and the threat of arrest by Chinese forces for fishing in their own exclusive economic zone, could be sufficiently bothered to care. 

But then Francis “Chiz” Escudero, the new Senate president, is a survivor if nothing else. There’s no doubt that, as he has said, the “Solid 7” senators—Zubiri and his allies who are feeling “betrayed,” as Nancy Binay put it—are “not enemies,” and that they should all be able to work together in the next regular session of the 19th Congress.

(And Filipinos should care, and care enough to treat the information not as points of amusement but as urgent reminder to watch the configurations of the midterm elections and the opportunities and pitfalls they present, the underlying idea being that meaningful change in the political landscape can yet occur. Hope still springs.)


Senate of the Philippines
New Senate President Francis Escudero —PHOTO FROM PNA.GOV.PH

The attentive observer may be amused by Escudero’s claims of masterminding and maneuvering Zubiri’s ouster and of being unsure of the results until he was actually sworn in. It’s like saying his glamorous spouse took time off from her hectic fashionista schedule to be present at the ceremony just in case he got lucky. 

Also amusing was that a couple of days after the deed, Escudero himself filed a resolution singing paeans to Zubiri’s leadership, which the other senators, including those who did Zubiri in—the showbiz bloc, the Cayetano siblings, the Villar mother and son, strongman Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s eldest child, FPJ’s adopted daughter,  etc.—unanimously approved. “Nothing personal” was the apparent message couched in the usual syrupy language. “Traditional parliamentary courtesy” was the straight-faced explanation for putting in words the physical act of hugging Zubiri at the end of his resignation speech, the better to stick a knife in his back.  

But that’s the way it goes in this peculiar political system. Part of the spectacle presented by the senators was the observed behavior of Ronald dela Rosa, who was tearful and sniffling when Zubiri said his formal goodbye, and who was eventually reported as having signed the resolution calling for Zubiri’s replacement. The former chief of the Philippine National Police who wielded frightening power when he was chief implementor of the Duterte administration’s “war on drugs” was later quoted as saying, as though to deflect guilt though he denied attempting to do so, that it was the  “artistas” who instigated Zubiri’s removal. 

There’s more that went on in that exalted chamber in the course of the dumping of Zubiri for reasons that will likely remain vague to the public, as suggested by Escudero’s statement that “many” of them had “several concerns” about the man’s leadership. Per Zubiri’s own narration, he was “heartbroken” to see the earlier avowed support for him swiftly petering out in the weekend preceding his fall from power, and he was “dumbfounded” to realize that Dela Rosa, whose inquiry into the “PDEA leaks” he, Zubiri, had stuck out his neck for, was the 15th signatory to the resolution declaring his doom (a perfect “Et tu, Brute?” moment, granting everyone remembers their Shakespeare).

A long way

For all that, the new Senate president has come a long way from when he. playing second fiddle to Grace Poe, damned the torpedoes and sailed full speed into their rout at the presidential election in 2016. A fillip: Now any of his vehicles can use the road reserved for buses and certain privileged personages without being blocked by authorities and his driver panicking and, scandalously, taking off. And he is conceivably nearer his professed goal.

In a poster lately making the rounds online, apparently a leaf from a publication of the Alpha Phi Beta Fraternity of which he eventually became lord chancellor, the young (college-age) Francis Joseph G. Escudero is photographed with a weird haircut and described as “a very private and discreet person.” 

The rest of the blurb runs thus: “He is highly sensitive how he is treated by others, but never loses his trust and confidence in himself. Although Chiz may appear aloof to some, he is really loyal and considerate of the needs of others. His one and only dream ever since childhood is to become President of the Philippines and follow the footsteps of his idol—Ferdinand Marcos. LOYALIST!” (Caps in the original)

How will that specific ambition drive the 54-year-old’s actions on the burning issues when Congress resumes session? His stated position on the proposed Absolute Divorce Act recently passed by the House—that, his own long wait for freedom notwithstanding, he prefers making annulment affordable and accessible—suggests another period of delay for this long-stalled piece of legislation and earns him an approving nod from the conservative sector. His stance on Charter change can go either way. There is (yet) no apparent change in the conduct of the Dela Rosa hearings linking President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to illegal drugs. Etc. 

What seems certain is that those who pulled the plug on Zubiri’s Senate presidency and those who were startled by it enough to threaten a break from the supermajority will find grounds to be able to work together again. They have covered a lot of ground together and have much in common, including quite another case in 2016 that also involved numbers and required individual soul-searching. That case was triggered by the inquiry conducted by then Sen. Leila de Lima into the extrajudicial killings (EJKs)under Rodrigo Duterte’s watch, which resulted in her swift removal by her peers as chair of the Senate committee on justice and human rights and replacement by then Sen. Richard Gordon.

Per Rappler’s record, the 16 senators who voted to oust De Lima—for what Alan Peter Cayetano said was her smearing of the Philippines’ global image by amplifying on the EJKs—included the Solid 7 and Aquilino Pimentel III. Of the four senators who voted against, only Risa Hontiveros is still serving. Escudero did not vote on the matter.

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