PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte nearly succeeded in giving people a heart attack when he gave his third state of the nation address (SONA) on Monday afternoon without using a single cuss word or savaging any of his usual political targets. Whatever reputation for rudeness he had built for himself since he assumed office, he managed to lose all of it. In my case, nothing had prepared me for it: after attending the opening session of the Senate in the morning, where Senate President Vicente Sotto 3rd gave a well-pointed speech against any attempt of the House to use the joint session to railroad any of its initiatives, I decided to skip the Batasan proceedings and watch them on television instead.

GMA steals show
A bungled bid by the allies of former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to oust Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez delayed DU30’s address by one hour and 17 minutes. Alvarez’s henchmen apparently smelled the brewing plot to unseat their chief, and before Arroyo’s people could move to vacate the Speakership, Deputy Speaker Gwen Garcia of Cebu “adjourned” the session until 4 p.m., for the joint session of Congress.

This cost the House the chance to ratify the controversial Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which the Senate has already ratified, and which DU30 had wanted to sign before his address. Although temporarily outmaneuvered, Arroyo’s forces, said to number 161 congressmen, returned to the session hall without being officially convened by the presiding officer and without the mace in its place. The mace is the symbol of legislative or parliamentary authority, without which no session of parliament or congress is valid. The 161 then “named” Arroyo as the new Speaker.

This number constituted a majority of the 292 members of the House of Representatives, but the sitting Speaker may be removed and his successor elected by its members only in a formal session of the entire House. Despite the numbers therefore that supported the naming of Arroyo as the new Speaker, and the number of people outside Congress that welcomed the removal of Alvarez, the act cannot possibly be considered valid. The official Journal of the House cannot possibly take cognizance of what happened on the floor after the morning session’s “adjournment,” so there could be no official record of Arroyo’s “election” as the new Speaker by the rump assembly.

On radio silence
At 3.48 p.m., Arroyo ascended the Speaker’s chair, but eventually rose and left the hall followed by some supporters. During this time cell phone signals in the area were down, and the whole Batasan complex was on radio silence. To resolve the impasse on the Speakership, DU30 met with Arroyo and Alvarez inside the holding room at the back of the session hall. At 5.06 p.m., Alvarez joined Sotto at the podium. DU30 entered the hall at 5:13 p.m. and started shaking hands with congressmen. At 5:17 p.m., the joint session was called to order. DU30 spoke for 52 minutes, after which the joint session was adjourned.

With Deputy Speaker Rolando Andaya Jr. presiding, according to reports, the pro-Arroyo forces reconvened after the joint session to formalize Arroyo’s election as Speaker. It is not clear what legal formalities were followed, and whether the Alvarez group will concede the validity of the proceedings. If they do not, we could be seeing an extended crisis in the House and inside the DU30 administration. Both Alvarez and Arroyo are personally close to DU30, but the name of DU30’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, has been brought into the conflict to explain the move against Alvarez.

Arroyo and I live in the same neighborhood, and months ago I spoke to her about the possibility of her taking over the Speakership, just to restore some civility and self-respect to the leadership of the House, after Alvarez had proudly bragged about his keeping a mistress, to which DU30 himself casually gave his imprimatur, saying how many others do not have one or two mistresses? At that time, GMA said she had no interest in the position, and there were no plans to replace Alvarez. I thought then a change would be helpful to DU30, and the image and reputation of the Congress, but I never expected her people to make it look like a crude power grab.

Learn from the Senate
In the Senate, where changes in the leadership occur even when least expected, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel 3rd, whom DU30 had anointed in 2016 purely on the basis of his being a fellow Mindanaoan and president of the PDP-Laban which he used to get elected as president, recently stepped down in favor of long-time Senate Majority Leader Sotto, after it became clear that majority of the 24 senators wanted a change. The Senate is used to it. In the 1990s, during my watch as Senate majority leader, the Senate presidency changed five times, but there was nothing indecorous or disruptive in any of the changes.

The power play on the Speakership is not as critical or momentous as that on the presidency in 2001 when Arroyo, then vice president, took over from Joseph Ejerito Estrada after he vacated Malacañang at the height of popular protests against him, only to claim later that he had not resigned, but merely taken a leave of absence. This was resolved in her favor when former Chief Jusice Reynato Puno said Estrada resigned “constructively,” without having to submit a written resignation. But Monday’s power play may have succeeded in stealing the show from DU30’s major event, no matter how momentary.

The real show-stealer though proved to be DU30 himself, who left everyone wondering what happened to the old DU30 who could never deliver a speech without insulting anyone and creating enemies. Was this his long-promised metamorphosis?

DU30 proved that contrary to what he had been doing the last two years, he was perfectly capable of reading a prepared speech after all, and using temperate language, without creating a riot among his supporters and admirers. He did not have to curse God, the Church or any foreign politician; at one point, he even inserted the phrase, “God willing.” Was this the real DU30 speaking, or has Malacañang employed an actor and impersonator to deliver his address?

This device has been resorted to by some governments, although not for the same reasons one might imagine DU30 doing it during an important address. In the 1976 British film, “The Eagle Has Landed,” Hitler plans to have Winston Churchill abducted while visiting Norfolk; the British get wind of the plan and prepares to counter it, but it is executed to its last detail, and Churchill is “killed.” But the “Churchill” here turns out to be George Fowler, an actor and impersonator, while the real Churchill is very much alive, attending a conference in Tehran.

Perhaps it is time to ask our military intel to tell us where DU30 really was, and what he was doing from 5:17 p.m. to 6:09 p.m. of Monday afternoon while his lookalike was delivering the President’s first decent nationally televised speech?

This is not to say we agree with and applaud the contents of the speech; we do not. Since he has failed to deliver on nearly all of his campaign promises, we are under no obligation to hold him on to his new promises, including his promise not to stay a day longer than his elected term of office. In any case, most of the things he wants done in the days ahead, he has put in the hands of Congress, the private sector and others.

The killings as promised
But we have to take his word that his war on drugs, which has already killed thousands of suspects, “will not be sidelined” and will be as “relentless and chilling.” The killing will not stop, and the killer will not stop. “You’ve got it all wrong,” he said, referring to human rights activists and church workers. “Your concern is human rights, my concern is human lives.” “You worry about the present, I worry about the present and the future.” The formulation is all wrong, but it seems to show that he might now be willing to examine and debate the issues instead of instantly drawing his pistol like Himmler.

Human rights and human lives are not opposites and contradictory. The highest human right is the right to live, and no one can say that by killing criminal suspects and people one does not approve of, one is protecting any human life. It is an absurdity. There is also no immovable wall that separates the past, the present, and the future: the present becomes the past after a day, just as the future becomes the present after a day. You cannot protect the future by harming the present, and you cannot protect the present by renouncing the future. This is all elementary, Dr. Watson; to maintain the contrary is to perpetuate the most costly and ruinous error.

Quoting Lincoln
DU30 ended his speech with a quote from Lincoln: “If I were to read, much less answer. all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the best I know how — the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

It reminded me of what Victor Hugo said in his funeral oration on Voltaire: “When darkness issues from the thrones, we must turn to the tombs.” It’s a good time to do this. But with all due respect to Lincoln, I cannot imagine a single angel swearing I was right when I was wrong. Is killing right or wrong? Is blaspheming God right or wrong? Neither one is a debatable question. The objective rightness or wrongness of the act can be seen as it happens, or even before it happens; it does not have to be answered in the future.

What DU30 can’t do
DU30 showed great courage and candor when he said he did not have the power to end the contractualization of workers, which he had earlier promised to end in a few months. He asked Congress to provide the necessary remedial legislation. On a more fundamental question, does he have the right, the duty, the authority and the power to propose any amendment to, or revision of the Constitution? This is not a matter of opinion. The Constitution itself provides the answer. He does not, he does not, he does not, ad infinitum. And we will say it again and again and again, ad infinitum.

But why is he so determined to push his so-called draft constitution for a Federal Republic of the Philippines? And why does he seem so convinced he can get away with it, and that the Filipino people will not mind?

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