Using his unmatched political savvy, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has kept the City Council under his thumb.

By Germelina Lacorte

DAVAO CITY A few months ago, war erupted at the City Council. It was between a large group of people identified with Mayor Rodrigo Duterte against a smaller group of people identified with Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte was not pitting these people against each other. It was just that these feuding groups were dying to please him.

But far from undermining Duterte’s influence on the City Council, the feud only tightened his hold on it. This display of power over the legislative branch has once again highlighted the reality that, in this city, Duterte is in full control.

His control of the City Council is so thorough that councilors hardly question the mayors proposed legislative measures, especially those that have something to do with peace and order.

Duterte, in an interview with last week, explained that his relationship with the City Council is all for comfortable governance.

Why would you crucify yourself with a very adversarial council? Look at (President Gloria Macapagal) Arroyo muntik pa madisgrasya, Duterte said, referring to the presidents troubles at the Congress and the Senate. You have to respect the independence, the individuality of the councilors but when it comes to common good, you have to always toe the line, he said.

He said he leaves room for the City Council to exercise its mandate to provide check and balance in government but, according to him, they cant find anything wrong with me. What would they criticize me for?

Duterte is so politically savvy that even those who have fallen by the wayside in these political intramurals end up not lambasting him but praising him.

In the case of the revamp in August, 18 councilors led by Dutertes ally, vice mayor Luis Bonguyan, stripped six of their colleagues of the chairmanships of juicy committees that had long been viewed as graft-prone.

The revamp came on the heels of a Social Weather Stations survey on traders about corruption at City Hall. Bonifacio Militar, one of the 18, said they had wanted to follow City Hall’s example after Duterte overhauled several departments in reaction to the survey.

The six were, not surprisingly, unhappy over the revamp, which Bonguyan claimed had Duterte’s consent. But the mayor managed to win over the disgruntled councilors. The way he treated us showed a mark of a good leader,” said Danilo Dayanghirang, one of the six.

“He never turned against us. Despite the gravity of the accusation against us, he did not deprive us of the chance to explain our side,” Dayanghirang said. He said Duterte had talked with his group on the eve of the City Council revamp.

“The party could not probably last without Duterte,” Dayanghirang added, referring to the administration party called Hugpong sa Katawhang Lungsod. “I doubt if Bonguyan, as Duterte’s next in line, can ever hold the political party intact.”

Still, both factions had been hurling accusation of corruption against each other. Among the six councilors were those allegedly delaying the approval of subdivision projects while Bonguyan himself had been accused of involvement in questionable deals involving a project that would have improved the roof deck of the City Council building.

In his 17 years in politics, Duterte has wielded his power so well that he practically holds the whole City Council under his thumb. Of the 26-member council, only two ran against his party in the last elections and won. Hardly a dissenting voice could be heard from within the council, which had always been dominated by Duterte’s Hugpong.

Even opposition councilor Dante Apostol, who ran under the opposition party Alyansa, had vowed to support the administration as soon as he assumed his post, said Allan Simoag, Apostol’s chief of staff. Instead of serving as the opposition’s mouthpiece in the Hugpong-dominated council, Apostol earned his reputation as an independent.

All this means that Duterte, unchallenged by those who are supposed to monitor his use of power, can do whatever he wants.

His projects and programs such as the one in which he spent more than half a million pesos for dinners for thousands of people for a month during Christmas last year — are implemented without complaint from the councilors.

The councilors even entrusted to Duterte some 311 million pesos of peace and order fund, which he spends at his own discretion and which is exempt from the prying eyes of the Commission on Audit (COA).

“We hardly question the mayor about it because we know that it is for the good of the city,” said Bonifacio Militar, chair of the councils finance committee, of the peace and order fund.

Throughout the recent history of Davao politics, the strongest political party has always been the political party of whoever is the mayor. As a result, the City Council has never gone against any mayor.

Most councilors were Dutertes allies when he was the mayor for three consecutive terms. When he won a seat in Congress in 1998, the councilors quickly shifted to the party of the new mayor, Benjamin de Guzman, Duterte’s ally who later ran against Duterte when Duterte made his comeback in 2001. When Duterte regained City Hall, the councilors again clambered over to his political party.

Councilor Peter Lavia, who ran as an independent in the last election, said it was crucial for a mayor to get the support of the majority of the council in order to get things done during his term. It’s the council, for instance, that approves the city governments budget that the mayor will use for his services and programs that will be carried out the following year.

Hence, one can imagine the constraints a mayor who does not have the support of the council has to face before any of his projects can be implemented. “As a former vice mayor, Duterte knows the workings of the City Council,” said Lavia.

The story of Duterte’s political group called Hugpong is also the story of how one man wielded his power as the leading political leader in this city. Hugpong was the same political group Duterte put up to pave the way for his comeback at City Hall in 2001, after a lackluster term as congressman.

His old political party, composed of the remnants of the former Lakas ng Dabaw who later formed into the Alyansa, was used against him by de Guzman, his own political protg.

In 1998, Duterte had to run for Congress to break his three consecutive terms as mayor, the maximum allowed under the Philippine Constitution. To ensure that he could regain City Hall after his three-year congressional term ends, he campaigned hard for De Guzman, his vice-mayor and former city administrator, whom he groomed for mayor. Duterte thought that installing an ally as mayor would pave the way for his easy comeback.

Dutertes political rival, Prospero Nograles, a three-term congressman considered as a more seasoned politician, was running against de Guzman.

It was such an uphill climb for de Guzman that Duterte had to campaign much harder for de Guzman than for himself. They even came up with a poster showing Duterte raising de Guzman’s hands.

Largely because of Duterte, de Guzman won against Nograles. But three years later, something happened that Duterte apparently never thought would happen: de Guzman decided he wont just give up City Hall to Duterte. At least not without a fight.

In the 2001 elections, de Guzman ran against Duterte, using the resources of an incumbent mayor and the political machinery that Duterte had built for years. Except for a few, most of the councilors were with de Guzman, who even had to ally himself with Nograles, who had run against him in the previous election, to fight Duterte.

Isolated, Duterte set up Hugpong, which was not even a political party but a mixed group of local politicians affiliated with national political parties such as Lakas-NUCD, the Liberal Party, and Reporma.

Duterte defeated de Guzman as mayor, but only four of the councilors in his ticket won. But even before de Guzman could leave City Hall, most of the 11 councilors under his party were already over to Duterte’s side. “If it’s for the best of the public service, you may cooperate with the executive department,” was de Guzman’s parting words.

Duterte conceded to that this comeback had been the most difficult for him because he was up against someone who knew, as he put, the system. He doesnt feel betrayed by de Guzman though, he said. Everyone has the right to dream, he said.

Today, only one member of de Guzmans Alyansa survived and he was not especially critical of the ruling party, allowing him to retain his committee after the August revamp.

Duterte, meanwhile, continued strengthening his political group. In 2004, he aligned it with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s party, the Lakas-NUCD. This had the effect of turning Duterte into an ally of Nograles, his fiercest political rival who is a Lakas-NUCD stalwart.

He keeps councilors happy, supporting their agendas as they support his. Every now and then, Duterte shows them some generosity by giving them cars, for example.

Except for two councilors, Duterte’s Hugpong practically runs the City Council. But some councilors will dispute this. “As the city mayor, Duterte has given the City Council the free hand to enact legislation,” said Lavia, the young councilor who used to be Duterte’s media consultant. “But as head of the political party, he has to intervene when his wards are quarrelling.

“It’s not true that we are a mere rubber stamp of City Hall,” Bonguyan, the vice mayor, said. “The city mayor never intervenes on issues that pertains the City Council.”

But Duterte keeps a quiet but ubiquitous presence in both the feuding factions of the City Council. Since both groups listen to him, he’s the only one who could stop their political tug-of-war. He did it before the city’s Kadayawan festival, when he made the feuding parties make a pledge to put a stop to their political bickering. Since then, Bonguyan has refused to give any statement that would irk the other group.

The other group also vowed to do the same, said Dayanghirang, who even promised to cooperate with Bonguyan’s group as long as the program they’re proposing had Dutertes approval. “The mayor is such a strong leader that I think it’s crazy for anyone not to support him,” Dayanghirang said. (

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