MANILA — A leadership row erupted in the Philippine House of Representatives on live TV Monday, delaying President Rodrigo Duterte’s delivery of his annual state of the nation address and passage of a crucial Muslim rebel autonomy deal.
As Duterte arrived on a helicopter in the heavily secured congressional complex, Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, backed by dozens of allied legislators, took the main seat in the center stage of the House’s plenary hall in a sign that she was taking over the post of House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez.
Arroyo, a former president, tried to speak from the stage during the dramatic standoff but her microphone was turned off. She tried to yell, apparently to explain what was happening, but later stepped away from the stage, waving at the crowd.
Alvarez, along with Senate President Vicente Sotto III, fetched Duterte and led the visibly confused leader to a holding room as the dispute over House leadership unfolded in the chamber, which was packed with diplomats, legislators and other dignitaries for Duterte’s speech. Alvarez and Arroyo are both Duterte allies.
The leadership row earlier prevented the House from ratifying a Muslim autonomy deal that many hope will settle one of Asia’s longest-raging Muslim separatist rebellions.
Earlier Monday, the Senate unanimously ratified the bill, which aims to establish a new Bangsamoro autonomous region in the country’s south, but House members adjourned early due to the leadership row. The government negotiated the pact for more than two decades with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group.
Duterte had been expected to sign the autonomy bill into law as early as Monday and highlight it in his state of the nation speech as an early legacy of his presidency, which has come under heavy criticism over his human rights record and deadly anti-drug crackdown.
Thousands of protesters rallied outside the House, where Duterte was to speak.
“We find it unfortunate that the Bangsamoro Organic Law was not ratified before the adjournment of today’s session,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said. “We consider this as a temporary setback.”
There was no immediate reaction from the Muslim rebels over the latest difficulty in achieving the Malaysian-brokered peace deal, which seeks to replace an earlier poverty- and conflict-wracked autonomous region with a potentially larger, better-funded and more powerful region for minority Muslims in the south of the largely Roman Catholic nation.
In 2008, a planned signing of a preliminary pact was scuttled when opponents went to the Supreme Court, which declared the agreement unconstitutional. New fighting erupted when three rebel commanders attacked Christian communities, leaving more than 100 people dead and about 750,000 villagers displaced before a cease-fire ended the violence.
Presidential adviser Jesus Dureza said House legislators had no issue with the autonomy bill but that it was accidentally embroiled in the House leadership row, adding that he expected the legislation to be ratified at some point.
The proposed deal is the latest significant attempt by the government to negotiate an end to nearly half a century of on-and-off Muslim fighting that has left more than 120,000 people dead and displaced about 2 million others.
The two largest Muslim rebel groups in the south have dropped their demands for a separate Muslim state in exchange for autonomy and have renounced terrorism. Western governments, however, have worried about the presence of small numbers of Islamic State group-linked militants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia seeking combat training and collaboration with Filipino insurgents.
Last year, heavily armed Filipino insurgents who have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State group, along with dozens of foreign fighters, laid siege to the southern Islamic city of Marawi. Troops, backed by U.S. and Australian surveillance aircraft, routed the militants after five months of airstrikes and ground assaults that left more than 1,200 people, mostly Islamic fighters, dead and the mosque-studded city in ruins.
Aside from the Muslim autonomy pact, Duterte was expected to reaffirm his resolve to fight illegal drugs and introduce a draft constitution that would shift the country to a federal system of governance. The moves, including opening the country’s 1987 constitution to amendment, have been opposed by several groups and opposition politicians, who fear they are designed to prolong Duterte’s rule and give him dictatorial powers.
Duterte, who took office in 2016, has played down such fears, saying he is ready to step down as early as next year and cut short his six-year term before a new federal government is put in place.
Story: Jim Gomez