Row delays Duterte speech, rebel deal; Arroyo named speaker

MANILA, Philippines — A leadership row in the Philippine House of Representatives delayed President Rodrigo Duterte's delivery of his annual state of the nation address and passage of crucial Muslim autonomy legislation aimed at ending one of Asia's longest Islamic rebellions.

As Duterte arrived Monday afternoon 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 that played out live on television, but her microphone was turned off. She tried to yell, apparently to explain what was happening, but later stepped down 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 foreign diplomats, legislators and other dignitaries. Alvarez and Arroyo are close Duterte supporters in the 292-member House, which is largely dominated by the president's allies.

"They chose to disrespect their own president and attend to their own ambitions in full view of the nation. For almost an hour, it seemed that nobody was in control," opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros said.

"This is the true state of the nation. It is petty infighting, backstabbing, and brinkmanship, all done at the people's expense," Hontiveros said.

Others called the squabble a "circus" that bared a deep crack in Duterte's ruling coalition. An arrangement was later reached allowing Alvarez to lead the joint session with Sotto to break the impasse, which delayed the president's speech for more than an hour.

Backed by nearly 200 legislators, Arroyo was sworn in late Monday as the new House speaker in an impressive political comeback. The 71-year-old ex-economics professor and classmate of former U.S. President Bill Clinton at Georgetown University was detained in a hospital in 2012 for nearly four years for alleged large-scale corruption but the Supreme Court dismissed the case and ordered her freed.

The leadership row earlier prevented the House from ratifying a Muslim autonomy bill that was part of a peace deal with the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Earlier Monday, the Senate unanimously ratified the bill, which would establish a new Bangsamoro autonomous region in the country's south, but House members adjourned early due to the infighting. The government had negotiated the pact for more than two decades with the largest Muslim insurgent group in the south.

Duterte had been expected to sign the autonomy bill into law and highlight it in his state of the nation speech. The peace deal, which he promised to sign within 48 hours, is a bright spot in his two-year presidency, which has come under heavy criticism over his human rights record, deadly anti-drug crackdown and vulgar language.

"I make the solemn commitment that this administration will never deny our Muslim brothers and sisters the basic legal tools to charter their own destiny within the constitutional framework of our country," Duterte said.

Thousands of flag-waving protesters rallied outside the House and burned his effigy. They condemned him for the drug killings and for failing to ease poverty and inflation.

There was no immediate reaction from the Muslim rebels over the latest delay 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.

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 hampered development in the country's poorest regions.

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 reaffirmed his resolve to fight illegal drugs and introduced 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 was ready to step down as early as next year and cut short his six-year term if a new federal government is set in place.

"I have no illusions of occupying this office one day longer than what the constitution under which I was elected permits or under whatever constitution there might be," Duterte said.

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