Philippine Congress enters crisis over leadership standoff

MANILA, Philippines (AP) - A large faction of Philippine lawmakers in the House of Representatives elected a new leader on Monday, but the incumbent spokesman declared the vote a "travesty" in a tense political conflict between two of the president's allies.
President Rodrigo Duterte warned last week that he would intervene if the leadership disputes between House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and MP Lord Allan Velasco threatened the approval of the budget for next year. The peso 4.5 trillion ($ 90 billion) budget is critical to funding the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic in a country with the largest number of confirmed infections in Southeast Asia.
The dispute worsened, however, when Velasco supporters gathered in person and online on Monday at a sports club in Quezon City, capital region, declared Cayetano's position vacant and elected Velasco as his successor.
Cayetano and his allies said in a press conference in the House of Representatives that voting for Velasco was against the law and the rules of the 300-member legislative chamber dominated by Duterte's allies. They mocked Velasco and his supporters for holding a meeting at a sports club outside of Congress, saying they used a fake mace, a symbol of the House's authority.
"They're throwing away the constitution, they're calling for a revolutionary government," said Cayetano. "What happened today is really a travesty."
The Cayetano camp is supported by 205 legislators. Velasco was asked to identify the 186 lawmakers for whom his camp claims had elected him to speak, along with a new General Secretary of the House and a non-commissioned officer.
Duterte has scheduled a special session of the House from Tuesday to expedite the approval of the state budget. However, it is unclear how this will happen when two rival speakers claim the post.
Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte Jr., a close ally of Cayetano, said if Velasco can show he has the support of a majority of lawmakers, Cayetano camp will agree to give him spokespersons in a lawsuit after the budget was adopted.
"We are lawmakers. We are starting to be ridiculed because those who were there show that they are lawbreakers. Let's not destroy the institution," Villafuerte told reporters.
Duterte closed a power-sharing deal last year that would see Cayetano serving as speaker for 15 months up until this month, followed by Velasco, who would act as speaker for the remaining 21 months.
Cayetano recently offered to resign, but his camp said a majority of lawmakers voted to oppose his resignation. After Cayetano managed the initial approval of the budget, his camp abruptly suspended congressional sessions to prevent Velasco assuming the role of spokesperson for the power-sharing deal. Several lawmakers protested that the suspension prevented them from reviewing the budget, including crucial funding for the Department of Health, which is driving 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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