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 Monday, 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 Rep. Lord Allan Velasco threatens the passage of next year’s budget. The 4.5 trillion peso ($90 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 on Monday 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 says 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 Tuesday to hasten the passage of the national budget, but it’s unclear how that will occur with two rival speakers claiming the post.

Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte Jr., a close Cayetano ally, said if Velasco can prove he has the support of a majority of the lawmakers, Cayetano’s camp will agree that he get the speakership in a legal House procedure after the budget is passed.

“We’re lawmakers. We’re starting to become a laughing stock because those who attended there are showing they’re law breakers. Let us not destroy the institution,” Villafuerte told reporters.

Duterte brokered a power-sharing deal last year in which Cayetano would assume the speakership for 15 months until this month, to be followed by Velasco, who would serve as speaker for the remaining 21 months.

Cayetano recently offered to step down but his camp said a majority of lawmakers voted to reject his resignation. After Cayetano steered the initial approval of the budget, his camp abruptly suspended congressional sessions, pre-empting Velasco’s assumption of the speakership under the power-sharing deal. Several lawmakers protested that the suspension blocked them from scrutinizing the budget, including crucial appropriations for the Department of Health, which is spearheading efforts to contain COVID-19 outbreaks.

The Philippines has reported more than 339,000 coronavirus cases, including more than 6,300 deaths.

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