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Remembering Jose Avelino

A HEARTBEAT AWAY FROM THE PRESIDENCY
[Second Edition]

By QUINTIN L. DOROQUEZ
November 03, 2007

In mid October each year since 1949, Calbayog City celebrates its founding. It features, among others, Jose Avelino who single-handedly, while the president of the Philippine Senate, founded the city with Republic Act No. 328 in 1948.

But Avelino’s image across the years has been tainted by malicious fabrications.

The dirty tricks on Jose Avelino, many people of probity and learning had thought and said, are the ugliest treatment a politician in the Philippines had ever been subjected to by his political enemies.

These tricks started to climax one night in January 1949. The setting: Malacañang Palace, the official residence of the Spanish and American governors-general during the colonial eras of the Philippines and of the Philippine presidents since 1935 upon the establishment of the Commonwealth. It was a bit tense and suspenseful night the sitting president of the Philippines, Elpidio Quirino, and the president of the Philippine Senate and concurrent head of the Liberal Party (LP), as well as virtual vice president of the Philippines, Jose Avelino, had called their fellow party leaders to a caucus in order to resolve allegations and brewing controversies about party matters. It was agreed to be a no-holds barred, wide-ranging, spontaneous discussion of yet-undefined political issues but gentlemanly nonetheless in any case as expected of men of integrity and national stature. It was agreed further that no notes were to be taken and neither secretarial staff of anyone nor any representative of the media would be allowed to be present.

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Actually, there was more to the caucus than party matters. A rivalry between Elpidio Quirino and Jose Avelino for the leadership of the young republic had developed intensely since the premature and unexpected death of President Manuel A. Roxas due to heart failure on April 15,1948. Quirino, although the president of the country and experienced in politics and government, nevertheless became president by rare twist of fate. Becoming president right after Roxas, a well-known figure of towering intellect, perceptively made Quirino look a meek and a weak president. Further, when elected vice president as Roxas running mate in April 1946, Quirino received much fewer votes than Roxas despite the fact that Quirino was the son of the so-called solid north, the Ilocano region known as a solid voting block. In fact Roxas had been quoted by Marichal Lichauco, a Roxas biographer, that his choice of Quirino for vice president was mainly a matter of geography.

This fueled the speculation that Quirino was not the strongest presidential timber of the Liberal Party for purposes of the November 1949 national election.

Avelino, on the other hand, was president of the Liberal Party, a position he ascended to in part upon the instance of Roxas, first president of the party, who was elected president of the Philippines by virtue of his party’s triumph in the April 23, 1946 national election. By party rule at the time, when a member who is president of the party becomes president of the country, as in the case of Roxas, that member becomes the president of the entire nation and relinquishes the dual role of also being the president of his party. Likewise, with Roxas and a host of others, Avelino was a pillar in the founding of the Liberal Party in January 1946. In fact, it had been the consensus by many that side by side with, or next to, Roxas, Avelino was the moving spirit behind the founding of the Liberal Party.

As the general campaign manager of the Liberal Party’s maiden outing for the national polls of April 1946, Avelino, after campaigning hard all over the country sometimes on foot, was widely credited for the strong victory of the party in that election in which he was also elected senator with resounding votes. In recognition of his leadership qualities and hard work in propelling the young and untested party to victory, in addition to his proven argumentative prowess and being a skilled parliamentarian [since 1922 when he became a representative and then in 1928 when he first became a senator], Avelino was elected president of the Senate. He was charismatic with towering intellect and was undisputedly popular.

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By Constitutional rule, under the circumstances after the death of Roxas, Avelino was next in line to presidential succession. In fact, A Republic Is Born, an official narrative and pictorial book on the inauguration of the 1946 Independence proclamation published in September 1948, states that Avelino in effect was also the vice president of the Philippines in the absence an elected vice president upon the death of Roxas. Avelino was thus just a heartbeat away from the presidency. Therefore, not to mention that he was the head of his party, he virtually belonged to two branches of the government – the Executive, as the vice president [by incidence of his being next in line to the presidency], and the Legislative, where he commanded awesome power as president of the Senate.

Thus at that moment, there was no question that if there was someone in the Liberal Party who should be groomed to run for president in the November 1949 national election, it was Avelino. And Avelino was not making his availability a secret through his admirers and supporters.

Avelino’s prestige and popularity was so commanding it was even rumored that Quirino, initially at the time when serious planning for the November 1949 national election had arrived, was considering simply giving way to Avelino. But there were of course other elements in the Liberal Party and the nation – however inactive or reticent they outwardly appeared to be at the later part of 1948 following the untimely death of Roxas – who had agenda of their own other than the postwar reconstruction of the Philippines, or the education of the youth, or the well-being of the working man, which were all the concerns of Avelino. Avelino’s track record as champion of the common man and the laboring class did not appeal to those elements. To them, he had to be totally destroyed politically at any cost or means before he could ascend to the highest magistracy of the land, the presidency.

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With their agenda drawn, those interests or elements, largely the economic oligarchs, found Quirino their perfect tool. Although Quirino had been in government and national politics for sometime like Avelino, he – unlike Avelino, however, who was considered champion of the working class and the father of the Philippine Workmen’s Compensation Law – had no track record of his own. If anything, Quirino’s track record was as a yes man to the stunts of Manuel L. Quezon. Put simply, he was an opportunist.

With their agenda and tool in place, these economic oligarchs were ready to move in. Their number one target: Jose Avelino.

At this juncture, it is in order to examine further the background of Jose Avelino.

Calbayog City will always remember Jose Avelino. By virtue of his one-man crusade to get Calbayog chartered a city, Jose Avelino is considered the father of the city, which is located in northwest of Samar. Samar itself is a large island in central eastern Philippines now consisting three provinces.

Jose Avelino was born on August 5, 1890, to an upper middle-class family. His father, Baltazar Avelino, was a successful planter by local standard and sportsman. His mother, Ildefonsa Dira, was a grade-school teacher. Baltazar was a native of Bulacan and migrated to Samar penniless, but by his resourcefulness, he prospered to the point that he could afford to send his only son Jose and only daughter Iluminada to the most exclusive schools in Manila at very young ages. He also owned a fairly large house and a Spanish-style, horse-drawn carriage in Calbayog, which at that time was a symbol of economic and social class in the locality.

At the time Peping, as Jose was adoringly called at home and by his playmates and in later years by his associates, was growing up in Calbayog, i.e., when he was in grade school, he saw almost daily what appeared to him to be overworked men laboring in the town’s port area. He was doubly shocked upon learning that those men were working for a pay that very hardly could put three modest meals on the table a day for their families. He developed a deep feeling of revulsion.

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In those days, Calbayog was the center of commerce in the entire island of Samar, the third largest in the Philippines. Accordingly, the Port of Calbayog was the busiest in central eastern Philippines along with Tacloban in the then one-province island of Leyte. What made the port busy was of course the commerce of northwest Samar largely carried on with Cebu, Tacloban, Iloilo, and Bacolod? Such commerce, using cheap labor of underpaid men virtually working under conditions of forced labor, was controlled by the economic oligarchs in the region [who later became Avelino’s arch political enemies].

Early in his childhood Jose Avelino displayed a grasp and flare for learning complicated concepts of both classical languages – primarily in the area of speech making, as well as prose and poetry – and societal organization. He was a very charming boy already magnetizing men [and inviting the gasp of young ladies]. Upon discovering these personal qualities, Baltazar and Ildefonsa worked harder to enable them to send the young Jose, along with his only sister Iluminada, to a boarding school in Manila.

After finishing his secondary education with high marks at a Catholic school in Manila, young Jose thought of becoming a priest; however, his parents wanted their son to be challenged with more rigorous, disciplined learning at the most exclusive schools then in Manila. They encouraged him to pursue college at the Ateneo. He did with emphasis in the humanities, classics, and science. But he also enrolled at a business school outside Ateneo to obtain specialized studies in business and stenography. It turned out later that he wanted to use the knowledge in business he would acquire to get a better feel of the business practices by economic oligarchs and stenography to catch lectures in law school where law books were perennially in short supply and expensive.

At the Ateneo, Jose proved early on to be a brilliant student. In his first year he met another bright student, Claro M. Recto. They became classmates and were attracted to each other in the learning processes. They later were to develop a lifetime of friendship and professional association in which both proved to be great debaters but Avelino was a better public speaker. In college, they were almost inseparable, garnering prizes in their academic works. Individually they posted scholastic records even better than that of Dr. Rizal. Together in 1909 they graduated co-summa cum laude with the degree of Bachelor of Arts, A.B.

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Subsequently, immediately upon graduation from the Ateneo, both went to study law at the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas (UST). They displayed academic excellence again where Avelino took more interest and excelled in labor and mercantile laws, for obvious reason – he had in mind the laboring class in his hometown of Calbayog.

Back in Calbayog, there were off and on frictions between the economic barons who were the local economic oligarchs and the laborers in the port area. Avelino even took long leaves from his law studies just to be in Calbayog painstakingly observing personally the situation. At one point his law dean at UST warned the brilliant law student that his graduation from law school might be delayed because his self-prolonged leaves were beyond the permissible time allowed law students. He was allowed to graduate in time anyway, and took the Bar without review. He passed it on his first attempt with flying colors in 1914. This was notwithstanding the fact that in that year, the Bar Exams were entirely conducted in English whereas in the past, after the Americans came, an examinee had option between Spanish and English.

[His friend Claro M. Recto flunked the Bar that year because he had difficulty on the English questions in Civil Procedures and Mercantile Law – but the following year, after immersing himself in the study of English, posted perfect in those two subjects.]

Upon passing the Bar, Avelino immediately took a bride, Enriqueta Casal, the daughter of a Spanish officer who had joined General Emilio Aguinaldo in the Philippine Revolution, and went home immediately to Samar. They had their honeymoon in the waterfront of Calbayog as the young barrister was organizing the longshoremen, heretofore helpless, into a labor union to thwart the local economic barons’ continuing exploitation. The labor union he organized, the first in the Visayas, still lives on to this day, the Gremio de Obreros Stevadores de Calbayog, now Gremio Services under the Anak Pawis Labor umbrella.

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Yet the labor movement that Jose Avelino planted in Calbayog spread quickly in Samar and Leyte. It galvanized the resolve of labor movements in Bohol, in the ports of Cebu, Bacolod, Iloilo, and elsewhere, to the chagrin and dismay of the economic barons in those places who had become rich by exploiting the laboring class. And he became the idol of the poor longshoremen. On visitations to towns in Samar and Leyte, when Avelino was already holding national positions, it was not uncommon that longshoremen would carry him on their shoulders from his vehicle, boat, or aircraft to public squares or churches where he was to speak or attend religious service, a practice in those days very common among high officials to do before attending to civic functions.

Avelino was such a handsome man and eloquent and passionate speaker, especially in the local language of Samar and Leyte, that when he was speaking some ladies would swoon and unashamedly would wish he could father their babies.

While Avelino was organizing the longshoremen of Calbayog, the entire town, except the rich residents who constituted the local economic oligarchy, felt it needed his liberal and legal educations from the most exclusive schools in Manila. The people quickly elected him to the municipal council in 1918. Calbayog, being the cultural, commercial, and religious hub of Samar, easily exposed Avelino’s passion for helping the needy. He even gave free counsel to those badly in need of legal help but who were unable to afford the usual fee. This in time made him so popular in the region, which constituted at the time the first among the three districts of Samar in the lower house of the then bicameral Philippine legislature. In 1922 by popular clamor he was elected representative of the first district.

Back in Manila working as the representative of the first district of Samar, Jose Avelino became personally known to other representatives of Samar and Leyte, which constituted the ninth senatorial district in the pre-Commonwealth bicameral Philippine legislature. The economic oligarchs, like the Velosos and Rosaleses of Samar and Leyte and the Romualdezes and the Enages of Leyte, naturally felt threatened by a young man so bright and charismatic whose devotion was the upliftment of the working class. But Avelino’s popularity soared beyond challenge. In1928, after serving two terms as a representative of the first district of Samar, he was elected senator of the ninth senatorial district. He represented this senatorial district continuously until the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1935.

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When the Constitutional Convention that framed the 1935 Constitution was constituted, Avelino opted not to be a delegate. He indubitably thought that Quezon, under the bidding of the Americans, would rig up the proceedings. And Quezon did.

But Avelino, being a man of public service, could not afford to stand by once Roosevelt approved the Constitution. He had to work for the people. Under the Commonwealth, President Quezon considered Avelino for secretary of Finance, but Avelino preferred to be the secretary of Labor in view of his concern for the working class. This was also perfect to Quezon. The labor unrest that started in the 1930’s needed to be addressed once and for all before the advent of the Independence. The Sakdalista movement in Luzon was rooted on peasant discontent and the laboring class’ desire for tangible and measurable progress in the government’s effort to lift the poor from the morass of poverty. With cunning, charisma, and courage, three attributes of Avelino’s personal traits and demeanor as a public servant, Avelino was instrumental in the Commonwealth government’s effort to pacify the unrest.

Avelino’s bravery in dealing with complex situations in harm’s way was almost mythical. During the Japanese occupation, he did not do any hiding even under threats of arrest by the Japanese Army generals who tried to recruit him to serve in the Japanese puppet government, although he did constant movements.

At this juncture, it is fitting to recall a would-have-been catastrophic incident at the height of the 1947 parity referendum campaign. At Plaza Miranda while the Liberal Party was holding a rally, a certain Julio Guillen lobbed a live hand grenade into the stage. President Roxas and other top Liberal Party bigwigs, including Jose Avelino himself, were on the stage. Avelino, showing quickness and presence of mind, as well as his near-mythical bravery, jumped onto the live explosive and kicked it causing it to explode off stage, saving all those who were on the platform from sustaining any fatal or serious injuries.

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At the height of the Huk’s insurgency, after the country’s Independence was restored in 1946, Avelino as president of the Senate and president of the Liberal Party, accompanied only by his driver, went on his own to the heartland of Huklandia – where even lower level government officials never ever ventured to visit even as incognitos or as private citizens – to talk to the people. It was not a case of showmanship for he was not given to stunts; it was raw courage and pure bravado driven by his love of country.

From the Department of Labor, Avelino simultaneously moved to the Department of Public Works and Communications (DPWC) likewise as secretary. President Quezon, knowing that the country badly needed infrastructures for economic development – certain to come once Independence was restored by the Americans – needed Avelino for the job. And Avelino readily accepted thinking that when Independence had been reestablished, after 48 years since America snatched it from the first successful revolution in Asia at the turn of the 20th century, industrialization would in time follow. That meant good roads, improved port facilities, airports, and modernization of the country’s airwave and telegraphic facilities.

Quezon’s choice of Avelino to be secretary of the DPWC was under the national perception that he was the man to solve innate public work problems in view of his proven ability and conviction in dealing with the workingman. But an unfortunate incident took place. And Avelino, as always, was not a yes man.

While Avelino was secretary, Quezon interfered on behalf a relative-in-law who had close connection with him. [And why not? He was interfering for the Americans even in fashioning the 1935 Constitution! And he was interfering for his ego when he had the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Bill rejected and Roxas sacked from the Lower Chamber’s speakership by his sycophants at the pre-Commonwealth legislature.]

The president appointed Vicente Fragante as a director in one of the bureaus in the DPWC. To Avelino, placing a relative by Quezon was one thing, but interfering for that relative was entirely a different matter he could not tolerate. Quezon continued his nepotistic interference nonetheless.

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At one point Secretary Avelino directed the purchase of the country’s asphalt need at the time, 70 percent imported and 30 percent from local supplier in order to perk up and develop the fledgling domestic manufacture.

Director Fragante, obviously under Malacañang’s bidding, went ahead, defying Avelino, to import 100 percent of the purchase. As one could imagine, Avelino reprimanded Fragante and protested to Quezon, but the president unexpectedly sided with Fragante. It was the talk then that Quezon had a cut in the deal.

Still there were rumors that Quezon was threatened by Avelino’s rising star. For the 10th Legislature – 1934-1935, short-lived because of the inauguration of the Commonwealth – Avelino, due to his sharp argumentative prowess and charisma, was elected Senate president pro-tempore. That made him second to Quezon in command of the Philippine Senate, and higher in stature than the venerable Sergio Osmeña who was then a senator. So, Quezon had come to the conclusion that Avelino’s political career had to be nipped at an opportune time before the man became a real threat to Quezon’s preeminence in Philippine politics. He already had Roxas’ and Osmeña’s threats contained, at least temporarily.

It is well to remember that while on his first term as president of the Commonwealth, Quezon started maneuvering to amend the 1935 Constitution. His game plan was to have himself allowed to run for a third term in the four-year term system or change the four-year system to six-year term system with reelection so that upon restoration of Independence by the Americans in 1945 (1946 was a delayed proclamation because of WWII) – after 10 years of the Commonwealth, also called preparatory period – he would still be the president of the Philippines. That would make him the last and only president of the Commonwealth and the first president of the [Third] Republic of the Philippines.

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To assure that his game plan will work, he had to eliminate anyone on his way who would pose a serious threat. Avelino was. He had to be eliminated (by hoax or by crook, as the saying goes). And Quezon had a pioneering track record of this brand of politics. Hence, the scheme was husked to clip Avelino’s political wings by disgracing him as secretary of the DPWC and by denying him a run for an elected national position, such as a senator. As it turned out, he was even denied his old seat (as representative for the first district of Samar) in 1941 via a fraudulent, very dirty balloting.

Avelino promptly resigned as a matter of principle and Quezon, with regret, accepted. And the asphalt scandal of 1941 broke loose into the open. But Quezon, the fair-haired boy of the Americans, was untouchable as usual.

The second national election under the Commonwealth was up that year, after Avelino’s departure from the Department of Public Works and Communication. Avelino wanted to run for senator as he was once one before, but Quezon, ever the vindictive and arrogant that he was and having tremendous influence among his sycophants vastly controlling the Nacionalista Party, blocked Avelino’s inclusion in the national ticket.

At that time senators, under the 1935 Constitution, as they are today under the 1987 Constitution, were already elected at large. Unable to run for the Senate, Avelino instead ran for representative of his old district in Samar. Quezon came down on Avelino also, and hard! He mobilized all the forces, power, and resources of his office and, to compound the insult, picked Decoroso Rosales, an unknown Calbayog local attorney untested in the polls and pitted him against the seasoned Avelino. Not content, he, Quezon, housed in Malacañang the newly created Budget Commission and placed it under his direct watch – instead of, say, by logic in organizational function, in the Department of Finance. He appointed Serafin Marabut, a controversial accountant and a native of the second district, now Western Samar, as the budget commissioner. This he did to effectively use the commission as a piggy bank against Avelino.

After the 1941 election, it was said that Quezon utilized gold, goons, and guns to defeat Avelino who was virtually penniless. And Marabut, who was not even from Avelino’s first district, was the virtual campaign manager and bursar for Rosales.

After WWII, when this writer was a small boy and growing up, he remembered the political ballad written against Marabut by local political songwriters as sung by mothers to their babies as lullaby in the first district of Samar. The opening line is as follows:

Marabut, Marabut, ayaw paglinabut, ayaw si Rosales denhi igsinuksok.
(Marabut, Marabut, don’t be meddling, don’t be plugging Rosales here.)

Yet toward election day in November of that year – 1941 – survey after survey indicated Avelino was unbeatable. The day before the balloting, papers in Manila were proclaiming the anticipated victory of Avelino, and the Philippines Herald, edited by Carlos P. Romulo, shouted in its headline, “Avelino for Speaker!”. Scared, Quezon after the balloting had the ballot boxes hauled to his yacht, the Casiana, and had the votes counted privately for Decoroso Rosales, his protégé from Calbayog. This episode provided the last building block to clip the perceived Avelino’s political threat to Quezon.

Evidently helpless and penniless, Jose Avelino could not lodge a protest. He immediately prepared to retire instead to his cattle ranch in Masbate musing what to do during the next four years other than to refresh and ameliorate his knowledge of government and law. Joining prestigious law firms in Manila, of which he had plenty of invitations to join and practice law, was one option.

But world events interfered. World War II broke out and with it came the Japanese occupation. Generals Homma, Koruda, and Tanaka – all at different times in succession commanding generals of the Japanese Imperial occupation forces in the Philippines before General Yamashita – each pilgrimaged to Masbate and offered Avelino all the comfort and honor he wanted if only he would join “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Avelino turned them down individually at great risk to his person and family. He could not collaborate with the enemy. He made only few trips to Manila during the Japanese occupation – once just to retrieve some personal effects from his home – and others just to keep him constantly moving so as not to be pinned down again by the Japanese.

After the war, Avelino lost no time returning to public life. Quezon was dead; his nemesis was gone. In his endeavor on behalf of the laboring class, Avelino became the voice of the workingman as he had become their idol. He quickly worked with his long-time, pre-war friend and associate Manuel A. Roxas who had become in turn the idol of the youth in view of his steadfast service as a soldier and fiery in his speeches denouncing the war collaborators and those who were short of ideas for the post-war reconstruction.

Together with a few others in the beginning, Avelino and Roxas conceived of a new political party of progressives to oppose the candidates that the old guards of the Nacionalista Party would field. Consequently, the Liberal Party was born on January 19, 1946 to prepare a younger generation of leaders for the national election slated for April 23, 1946. This election was doubly important for it would usher in the return of Philippine sovereignty lost to the United States at the turn of the century.

The new political party, with Manuel Roxas as the standard-bearer and Elpidio Quirino his running mate – boosted by Jose Avelino, the able and energetic general campaign manager and as head of a robust senatorial slate – easily emerged victorious. Yet to field candidates in a national election requires huge amount of funds, especially after the war. And for the Liberal Party, like any incipient political party, financing was a dilemma. But Avelino as the president of this fledgling political party steered it – after the April 1946 national election—through the choppy waters of post-war reconstruction.

When the post-WWII Senate convened on May 25, 1946 to reorganize after the April 23 national election, Jose Avelino was quickly elected Senate president, not to mention that upon the founding of the Liberal Party, he was also elected permanent chairman and president of the party. Thus, he was the last Senate president of the Philippine Commonwealth and the first Senate president of the [Third] Philippine Republic.

Avelino’s rapid rise to regain his national stature prior to his resignation as secretary of Public Works and Communication in 1941 – due (on the surface) to the asphalt scandal, which was not of his own making – and his “loss” later that year on his candidacy to represent his old district in Samar, which in the early 1920’s he represented in the legislature, confirmed that his “loss” in 1941, as engineered by Quezon, was superficial and had no effect on his stature as a national figure.

On July 4, 1946, Independence was inaugurated, but in just a little over two years the youthful Roxas succumbed to a heart failure due, it was reported, to the gargantuan task of post-war reconstruction.

Quirino, by virtue of presidential succession under the Constitution, became president. But he was perceived to be a weak and unpopular leader. His ascendancy to the presidency created a vacuum in national leadership, it was widely perceived. But nonetheless he was president, the most powerful office in the country under one man. And there was Jose Avelino visibly in strong contention. An open rivalry surfaced that could only be settled in the November 1949 national election, with dirty inroads and mud-slinging along the way.

This takes us back to the Liberal Party caucus in Malacañang on January 15, 1949.

Elpidio Quirino was president. He had the power no single man in the Philippines could match. But it takes electability – and hence popularity – to win an election. And he was aware he was not that popular compared to Jose Avelino.

Quirino knew his perceived weak leadership and sagging popularity. Once he had decided to run for president, after first mulling the idea of simply giving way to Avelino, Quirino in the later part of 1948 started courting certain elements of the Nacionalista Party, then the minority party, with the end in view of facilitating the eventual demise of Avelino by ousting him as the undisputed leader of the Senate once all the Nacionalista senators had agreed in the change of the Senate leadership. Hence, Quirino and his operatives focused on the Nacionalista senators. At that time, i.e., before November 1949, of the total 24 senators there were 13 Liberal and 11 Nacionalista. This was somewhat a delicate balance in so far as control of the Senate was concerned which was of course controlled by the majority party, the Liberal Party. And hence, Jose Avelino, the foremost Liberal, was Senate president.

Quirino and his men started figuring out the correct equation. Of the 13 Liberal senators, 10 were solidly supporting Avelino including Avelino himself; three – Melecio Arranz (the Senate president pro-tempore), Mariano Jesus Cuenco, and Lorenzo Tanada were Quirino men, or Quirino men for purposes of ousting Avelino. But of the 11 Nacionalista senators, two were steadfastly for Avelino. This situation presented an even split if all the nine other Nacionalista senators could be coaxed to align firmly against Avelino. However, this would keep Avelino Senate president in the absence of a tie-breaking vote in a showdown, assuming a 100% attendance of senators.

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