A coach named Zuleika

By the will of Sara Duterte, her budget hearing in the Senate could have proceeded according to plan.

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian queried on her so-called “Libreng Sakay” program where buses lent to the office of the Vice President are fielded in Metro Manila routes to augment the similar program of the Department of Transportation.

No problem there. Sara promptly responded by asking her chief of staff to answer the question.

A side note: Sara has said these buses, emblazoned with her name (a.k.a. epal), were lent to her. She has not made any disclosure as to who lent these buses. Why is that important? It has long been believed in Davao city that public transport buses are one of the businesses of the Duterte family. If she were not so confidential about it, that could have dispelled rumors.

Gatchalian then followed up with a question on how the program is being affected by the increases in fuel. Promptly, Sara replied, “The budget officer will answer the question.”

Following that query, Gatchalian asked about the plan to construct a permanent edifice to house the office of the vice president. “What are the plans in the pipeline?” Gatchalian asked.

Now predictable, Sara replied, “Mr. Chair, your honor, USec Lopez will answer the question.”

The pattern of how prepared she was for the Senate interpellation was becoming clear as crystal. By the will of Sara Duterte, everything was smooth because it was not she who was interpellated. That burden was passed on to her subalterns.

And then the chair, Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, called on Senator Christopher Go to pose questions. Go announced he will not interpose any questions and that he will just manifest his support for the vice president’s budget. Go praised her projects, among them the medical and burial services, which of course are familiar to Filipinos as normal barangganic programs anywhere in the archipelago.

It was very easy navigation so far for Sara who just sat there listening to the proceedings, surrounded by her subalterns who spoke at her beck and call. Not until it was the turn of Senator Risa Hontiveros to interpellate her.

At this point, it is interesting to read the transcript provided by the Senate records.

Hontiveros: “Maayong buntag, Madame Vice President. Madame Vice President, during the six years of your term, ano yung ipu-pursue niyong primary mandates nang iyong opisina?”

Duterte: “Mr. Chair, your honor, Usec. Lopez will answer the question.”

And then the unthinkable, to the will of Sara Duterte, happened. Hontiveros replied: “Mr. Chair, it’s a general question kung ano yung primary mandates ang ipu-pursue ni VP during the six years of her term, so kung maari po si VP ang sumagot.”

Sara was openly opposed. She began by mumbling about projects (office building, a vice presidential museum, and an omnibus charter for the OVP), not mandates. Hontiveros clarified that she was asking for “primary mandates.”

Angara the committee chair appeared to be jittery at that point, and interjected by reminding Hontiveros that Duterte was also concurrently the secretary of education, “one of the toughest portfolios to hold in government.”

But Hontiveros insisted: this was Sara’s second year in government and because of which her office should be more specific and distinct on the mandate of her office.

And then Hontiveros segued to the topic that no other senator dared to ask: confidential funds. The questions were pointed: Which mandates of the OVP are supported by the confidential funds? Sara muttered that the vice president is merely a benchwarmer. Is benchwarming also funded by the confidential funds? That was a biting question.

Now lost in Hontiveros’ interrogation of the confidential funds, Sara groped by repeating her mantra of “safe, secure and successful” implementation of her projects. Her failure to connect her projects to her request for confidential funds was being projected before a public audience.

Which now brings us to Atty. Zuleika T. Lopez, the chief of staff of the office of the vice president who holds the rank of undersecretary. Had the will of Sara Duterte been followed, USec Lopez would have been on the hot seat instead of her. But because Hontiveros insisted that Sara herself answer all questions, Lopez was reduced, under the glare of television cameras and within view of the other senators who sat across, to a coach. Lopez, sitting to Sara’s right, provided all the answers to her. Her whispers were not whispers at all. They were recorded on camera.

Who is Zuleika T. Lopez? She was Sara’s city administrator in the Davao city hall from 2010 to 2013, and then again from 2016 to 2022. How many of the current OVP staff come from Davao city? Sara herself had announced in July of last year, that “four high ranking Davao city hall officials have joined the OVP.”

What exactly did Lopez do for Sara when was city mayor that makes her indispensable to her? It was Lopez who tackled problems of all departments at city hall. Whatever agenda the mayor wanted, Lopez implemented. Her boss did not handle the nitty-gritties. Lopez did, even preparations for the Kadayawan Festival.

The Dutertes do not rule. They reign. They bark out orders and erupt in vitriol if the orders are not followed. That vitriol can be dangerous.

True to form, days after the Hontiveros grilling, Sara erupted and responded by saying Hontiveros was a liar. Name-calling — that is all she knows about governance. She said Hontiveros and the Makabayan Bloc in the House undignified her. No they didn’t. Simply, her will not to be held accountable just didn’t work out according to her plan.

The Dutertes believe their brand of tyranny is a foolery the people of the Philippines can succumb to, much like how Davao city has bended its knees to obey them as the whimsical monarchs in new clothes that they think they are.

It must be said: Sara Duterte is no public servant.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.