WHEN one reaches certain advanced natal milestones, it is customary to humbly take stock of one’s life and meditate on the journey thus far. Not so for House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, the red-faced power-engorged proud philanderer from Mindanao, for whom the meaning of “quiet reflection,” I suspect, is a post-coital breather. Alvarez chose to mark his 60th birthday last week by throwing a loud, lavish party and inviting over a thousand of President Duterte’s allies and diplomatic friends, including the Chinese and Russian ambassadors. It was some major political muscle-flexing done on behalf of the President. After all, it takes a lot of effort to haul one’s arse to Tagum City in Davao del Norte, where the celebrations were held, and where there isn’t a local airport. The clear show of force sent an unambiguous message to the country—those in charge can and will do what they damn well please.
Alvarez and Duterte are close friends. Thick as thieves, as the saying goes. They have known one another since Alvarez’s election as representative of Davao del Norte in 1998.Like his buddy, Alvarez believes in strong-arm methods. For him, the best way to get rid of the obstacles in one’s path is to drive a steamroller over them. He is Duterte’s attack dog in Congress. He was handpicked for the job. When the President wanted to reinstate the death penalty and lower the age of criminal liability, Alvarez got on it and relished his job of keeping unruly Congress members in check by threats and bullying. He showed what he thought of those majority representatives who voted against the death penalty by declaring their positions vacant. Just before Christmas, he punished 24 lawmakers rash enough to publicly criticize the Duterte administration by removing their funding allocations.
One of those people was Davao del Norte Rep. Tony Boy Floirendo. He was a good friend of Alvarez and had donated millions to Duterte’s presidential campaign. His transgression against Alvarez is hard to pin down. What is known is that last March, in response to a very public feud between their respective girlfriends, the two men had a bitter falling out. Alvarez axed Floirendo’s infrastructure budget and filed graft and corruption charges against him. It was a remarkable demonstration of his capacity for vindictiveness. Alvarez saw nothing wrong in wielding his political weight to punish those within his own private circle.
Most importantly of all, however, Alvarez has Duterte’s back. He was one of the first to accuse Sen. Leila de Lima of coddling drug lords at the Bilibid prison, a charge that seemed to have been plucked out of thin air. The President’s arch-critic before she was locked up, De Lima was then mounting an investigation into the hundreds of bodies that had begun piling up soon after Duterte declared his war on drugs. Alvarez belittled her efforts, calling the probe a waste of congressional time. He would have her investigated instead, he said, and proceeded to viciously malign her reputation.
Amending or even scrapping the Constitution and foisting a new form of government on the country, whether that form will be federalism or a so-called revolutionary government, are the next big tasks for Alvarez. It’s a tall order given that the Speaker has all the legal and political skills of a cheap goon.
Before the speakership, Alvarez possessed a wholly undistinguished career. He graduated in law from the Ateneo but practiced for only two years, discovering he neither had the discipline nor temperament for it. He then worked for a bit for Sen. Wigberto Tañada, his duties vaguely recorded as a “staff member.” He then took up a job at the Manila International Airport, rising to some managerial capacity. He caught the eye of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who appointed him acting secretary for transportation and communications from January 2001 to July 2002. Not much can be said of his accomplishments during that period although he clearly learned a few tricks from his former employer.
In 2005, graft charges were filed against him. He had set up a construction company, Wintrack, registered under his wife’s name. The company was then awarded the contract for excavation work on Terminal 3 of Manila’s international airport. Wintrack got billions from the deal and he and his wife got very, very rich. As so often happens, the charges were dismissed in 2010.
As a congressman, his own pet project is a bill allowing the easy dissolution of marriage. While far from being the kind of progressive divorce bill the country badly needs, it’s a measure that would permit “irreconcilable differences” or “severe and chronic unhappiness” as grounds for marriage dissolution. As someone who has made light of his many mistresses and children, eventually deserted his wife of 30 years, and argued that he was from the Manobo tribe and therefore had the right to be polygamous, his advocacy sounds a touch self-serving.
Power seems to act as an intoxicating elixir on Alvarez. It’s an addiction that has intensified along with Duterte’s own appalling rise. Alvarez now quite fancies himself the noble statesman. At the opening of Congress last July, he declared: “I simply want to be remembered as the Speaker of the people who listened to—and acted upon—the often unheard cries and complaints of the marginalized and voiceless members of our society. Together, let us empower the disempowered.” One could almost hear the swelling crescendo of trumpets and clash of cymbals resounding in the Speaker’s own head.
No doubt the Tagum City birthday bash has left Alvarez more swell-headed than ever. But perhaps, somewhere deep down, beneath the lard of pretensions, he knows that his political survival hangs on his ability to deliver for Duterte. Regardless of their cozy friendship, he’ll always be just one of Duterte’s hatchet men.