By Inday Espina-Varona*
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s federalism dream depends on a constitutional overhaul that temporarily concentrates executive, legislative and, indirectly, judicial powers in the hands of the mercurial strongman.
The Lower House of Congress has already approved a resolution convening Congress into a constituent assembly to revise the country’s constitution.
Duterte may banner federalism but proposed changes to the charter focus more on gifting legislators and local government officials with term extensions until May 2022. The proposals also allow the president de facto control over the legislature.
The transitory provisions advanced by Congress shut down the current legislature until a new constitution is ratified. Incumbent legislators, however, will be absorbed into a new federal parliament under Duterte’s control.
During the remainder of his term, Duterte will be able to kick out the current heads of constitutional and independent commissions, and even members of the lower courts, doing away with checks and balances to his rule.
Charter change has run into strong opposition from the country’s Catholic bishops and a broad coalition of citizens who call themselves the Movement Against Tyranny.
In their statement, the bishops said that amending the constitution “requires widespread people’s participation and consultation, unity of vision, transparency and relative serenity that allows for rational discussion and debate.”
Duterte had promised voters a constitutional convention but has since reneged, claiming the government could not afford the financial cost.
When he ran for president in 2016, the former mayor of the southern city of Davao captured the imagination of Filipinos by riding on the long-festering discontent toward what people in the south dubbed “imperial Manila.”
Duterte framed federalism as the permanent solution to poverty and conflict, claiming that Metro Manila, with its 13 million population, has been siphoning off resources and imposing its will on the rest of the Philippines’ 103 million population.
Few Filipinos dispute that diagnosis.
The national government has been known to run roughshod over environmental protection measures in the provinces. Philippine law mandates decentralization of power, but tweaks by the legislative and executive bodies on internal revenue policies have concentrated funds in the bigger and already rich cosmopolitan centers.
Previous administrations also initiated fiscal programs that punished slow-moving provincial projects instead of aiding capacities, diverting monies to schemes in aid of election campaigns.
The federalist proposal of Duterte’s allies, however, does not address these problems. Proposed drafts of a new charter strike out constitutional safeguards for indigenous communities, workers, farmers, fisher folk, the urban poor and small businesses.
The most dangerous changes trample on civil liberties, the separation of powers of the legislative and executive departments, and the judiciary.
Duterte’s allies want to strip the Supreme Court of its powers to review executive actions charged as unconstitutional.
Press freedom and freedom of expression are now subject to the legislators’ definition of “responsible” exercise of these rights. The people’s sovereign authority would be limited to suffrage and everything else left to the tender mercies of politicians.
The Duterte camp also wants to lift constitutional restrictions on foreigners owning land and controlling extractive industries. It would give parliament full discretion in charting “economic expansion” and exempting industries from protection. It grants federal states the freedom to cut deals on extractive industries, with hardly any oversight from the national government.
A politically mature nation could probably survive these changes. But the Philippines, for all its reputation as a free-wheeling, vibrant democracy, remains a semi-feudal society where political dynasties make up 80 percent of the legislature and local governments.
Most of these clans have multiple members controlling key positions in national and regional law-making and executive bodies. They are also among the richest Filipinos, controlling most of the country’s still alienable lands — having resisted the distribution to farmers of a million hectares covered by the agrarian reform law — and using their political power to benefit economic interests.
All of them will enjoy the powers of deal-making when corporate bigwigs come calling to divide the country’s resources for exploitation.
The Movement Against Tyranny noted that the proposal to change the constitution is a recipe for civil war, pitting big interests against rural communities already struggling to hold on to ancestral lands and keeping the country’s last pristine areas safe from big developments. It also raises a potential security nightmare if foreign entities are allowed to control land along the archipelago’s 36,289-kilometer coastline.
The guidelines issued by the Catholic bishops on discussions of the proposed charter revision stressed that changes should allow the broadening and strengthening of democratic institutions, the enhancing of separation and distinction of powers, the fostering of social justice, the resolution of issues of poverty and corruption, patronage politics, political dynasties and disregard for human rights.
Duterte’s federalist dream would tear down the good in the Philippines’ flawed democracy and cement everything wrong with it.
*Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.