Philippine Congress enters crisis over leadership standoff

MANILA, PHILIPPINES (AP) — A large faction of Philippine legislators in the House of Representatives elected a new leader yesterday, but the incumbent Speaker declared the vote a “travesty” in a tense political standoff between two allies of the President.

President Rodrigo Duterte warned last week that he would intercede if the leadership row between House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and Representative Allan Velasco threatens the passage of next year’s budget.

The PHP4.5 trillion (USD90 billion) budget is crucial in helping finance the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in a country with the largest number of confirmed infections in Southeast Asia.

The dispute, however, took a turn for the worse when Velasco’s supporters gathered in person and online yesterday in a sports club in Quezon city in the capital region, declared Cayetano’s position vacant and elected Velasco to replace him.

Cayetano and his allies declared in a news conference at the House that the vote for Velasco violated the law and the rules of the 300-member legislative chamber, which is dominated by Duterte’s allies. They mocked Velasco and his supporters for holding a session in a sports club outside Congress and said they used a fake mace, a symbol of House authority.

“They’re throwing away the constitution, they are asking for a revolutionary government,” Cayetano said. “What happened today is really a travesty.”

Cayetano’s camp said it has the backing of 205 legislators. It asked Velasco to identify the 186 lawmakers his camp claims voted him to the speakership, along with a new House secretary-general and sergeant-at-arms.

Duterte has called for a special session of the House starting today to hasten the passage of the national budget, but it’s unclear how that will occur with two rival speakers claiming the post.