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Something afoot in the Senate?

The Manila Times logo The Manila Times 12/03/2023 Francisco S. Tatad
Senate President Juan Miguel 'Migz' Zubiri. Photo from Senate © Provided by The Manila Times Senate President Juan Miguel 'Migz' Zubiri. Photo from Senate

SENATE President Juan Miguel "Migz" Zubiri was certainly acting out of pique when he declared on Thursday, March 9, that he was ready to step down if at least 13 of his honored 23 other colleagues — a simple majority of one — would just vote him out of office.

Indeed, if 13 senators signed him out as Senate president, then he'd be out by now. After Julius Caesar's foul murder at the Theater of Pompeii in 44 BC, this has been the fate of so many Senate presidents. It isn't a unique experience.

The last time I heard a Filipino Senate president say anything like it was during Joseph Estrada's impeachment trial in December 2000 when Senate President Aquilino "Nene" Pimentel Jr. said, "I resign my presidency of the Senate as soon as my successor is elected." He said it after 11 senator-judges had voted not to admit a suspicious envelope which a private bank had offered to the court without the benefit of a subpoena.

The anti-Estrada media hyped Pimentel's non-existent "resignation." As Senate majority leader then, I pointed out that Pimentel did not at all resign; he merely said he would resign as soon as the Senate had chosen his successor. This was no resignation at all, I said: a Senate president resigns by actually resigning; if he waits for his successor to be elected before he vacates, then he would simply be removed when it happens, instead of being allowed to resign.

Pimentel stayed through Estrada's ouster and the regular opening of the next Congress.

In Zubiri's case, the general impression is that this is a man of many parts who has been doing non-controversially well. Elected unopposed at the beginning of his term as the second highest official in the line of presidential succession, he has been a charming, almost perfect poster figure for his institution. We have not heard of anyone plotting against him.

Now comes this unusual statement. It is a total surprise even to those who have kept the closest watch over the tiniest political maneuverings anywhere. As a former senator who had served two consecutive terms, the last one mostly as Senate majority leader to six Senate presidents, I am a bit confused. I have seen more Senate coups than I care to remember, but this is the first time I am seeing the intended victim announcing the impending coup against him before the plotters are known and the knives are out.

Is it perhaps because Zubiri believes that despite his eminent qualities as a Senate leader, the Senate under his leadership has not done as well as it should have as the highest deliberative assembly of the land? That it has failed to become the nation's thinking chamber where real options are examined and debated in the wake of maddening calls for war and nuclear annihilation?

As the President's "right arm" in the making, articulation and implementation of foreign policy, was the Senate at all consulted when Marcos Jr. formulated his Philippine foreign policy of being "a friend to all and an enemy to none" in the middle of a changing international order? And when eventually the President decided to abandon his "angelic" vision of a heaven-on-earth policy on foreign affairs, did he at least consult the Senate or any of the congressional leaders on this dramatic U-turn? Or was this probably beyond the subject of polite consultations between the President and any of his advisers?

As an old Marcos supporter, I listened to Marcos Jr.'s pronouncement at his July 25 State of the Nation Address (SONA) with all my hopes and fears. Thus on Oct. 5, 2022, at the Manila Overseas Press Club's (MOPC) "President's Night" three months later, in the first of the only two questions from the press that evening, I asked the President whether he was prepared to present the world with a "working model" of his exalted vision of Philippine foreign policy in the middle of a conflicted global environment. It was my humble way of expressing support for his obviously difficult position, while reminding him of its obvious difficulties.

Unfortunately, I had not finished asking my question when the over-friendly moderator that evening cut me short, despite his having taken so much time himself for the normally one-sentence presidential introduction.

Whether or not Zubiri stays on as Senate president, some hard questions on foreign policy must be heard from the Senate now. These should include the following:

1. What is the real state of the Philippines' foreign policy as of now?

2. Where exactly do we stand in the growing conflict between the US and China on Taiwan, and in the growing conflict between the US and Russia in Ukraine?

3. Have we pivoted completely to the US and its allies and abandoned all friendly and conciliatory ties with China and Russia and their satellites?

4. After Defense Secretary Loyd Austin's official statement that the EDCA sites in the Philippines are part of US preparations for possible war with China over Taiwan, have we become part of US plans in confronting China over Taiwan?

5. In 1975, when we established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China in Beijing, we simultaneously withdrew diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China on Taiwan: Are we reverting to the status quo before 1975, with respect to Philippine diplomatic relations with Taiwan and Beijing?

These are just some of the questions for now. If the senators take their rights and responsibilities seriously, we should be hearing so much more from them.

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