March 10, 2017 5:00 am JST

Duterte in the hot seat after nixing of foreign secretary pick

Environment secretary also faces strong headwinds

JUN ENDO, Nikkei staff writer

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay © AP

MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's choice to fill his cabinet with old friends and left-wingers has come back to bite him, with a foreign secretary forced out for lying about his U.S. citizenship and an environment secretary facing pushback for her hard stance on environmental protection.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay's nomination was rejected on Wednesday by the Commission on Appointments, forcing him to step aside. Duterte filled the vacancy on Thursday by naming Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Enrique Manalo as acting secretary. Manalo had served as the Philippine ambassador to the U.K., among other posts, before becoming foreign undersecretary for policy last April.

The Department of Foreign Affairs "is here, it's working, and we'll continue to serve the people," Manalo said in a media briefing. Duterte meanwhile is searching for a permanent replacement for Yasay.

The Commission on Appointments, the congressional body tasked with confirming cabinet appointees, rejected Yasay for providing conflicting testimony. The former top diplomat previously claimed that he has never been a U.S. citizen, but admitted that day that he was actually granted American citizenship in 1986, which has since been voided.

Like Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, Yasay is a longtime friend of Duterte and was appointed to the cabinet when the president took office last June. He championed Duterte's decision to keep a distance from the U.S. while improving ties with China. He was playing a key role in organizing meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, since the Philippines is the bloc's chair for 2017.

Yasay was also known for providing more palatable interpretations of Duterte's brazen remarks. After Duterte announced a "separation" from the U.S. in October, Yasay explained that the president wanted to signal a break from a "mindset of dependency and subservience." When Duterte suggested putting an end to joint military exercises with the U.S., Yasay said this simply meant the Philippines was pursuing an "independent foreign policy."

Environment Secretary Gina Lopez has come under fire as well. She ordered 28 domestic companies to close or suspend operations at their mines. But industry and labor groups have slammed the move, claiming that she does not understand relevant legislation. Dominguez also urged her to reconsider.

Despite coming from a wealthy family, Lopez is considered a left-winger for her environmental activism, such as years spent campaigning to halt coal-fired power plants in the country.

In addition, she is facing criticism over a 2010 pipeline accident caused by her family's Lopez Group conglomerate, which damaged the environment and the health of those near the site. Lopez faced tough questioning during a confirmation hearing on Thursday.

In the Philippines, cabinet members are often confirmed long after the new administration takes control. All major appointees aside from Yasay and Lopez have received the green light. 

Duterte remains extremely popular with approval ratings of around 70-80%. He is also working to eliminate his political rivals, such as by effectively driving Vice President Leni Robredo -- a vocal critic of his deadly war on drugs -- out of his cabinet. But recent troubles could embolden his critics and threaten his hold on power.

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