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By Richard Heydarian
As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte enters his third year in office, he has been fixated on his next big project: constitutional change. Under a new proposed constitution, drafted by a Consultative Committee composed of experts handpicked by the president, the Philippines is poised to potentially shift to a more federal form of government.
Duterte and his supporters claim that the new constitution would empower the impoverished peripheries of the country and end the reign of so-called “imperial Manila.” The national capital region, the seat of power, generates more than one-third (36.5 percent) of the country’s entire GDP, but only contains roughly 10 percent of the country’s population.
By providing individual states more autonomy under a more federal system, advocates of the constitutional reforms argue, the agricultural central and southern islands of Visayas and Mindanao would be able to close their development gap with the more industrialized north. As the first president hailing from Mindanao, and steeped in his Visayan heritage, Duterte made federalism and decentralization—which have been successful in neighboring Indonesia—a major campaign promise during the 2016 elections.
Under the new proposed form of government, the Philippines would be broken down into eighteen regions, with their own regional assemblies and executive agencies. Senators would no longer be elected through nationwide elections; instead, similar to in the United States, they would hail from individual states. In this way, the new constitution hopes to make the Senate more representative of the entire country. Meanwhile, a new federal House of Representatives composed of four hundred members would replace the current lower house. The members would be selected based on geographic representation as well as proportional representation for marginalized groups.
Economic and political dynasties rule the Philippines. According to academic studies, about one hundred eighty Philippine political dynasties dominate seventy-three out of a total of eighty-one provinces in the Philippines. A weak party system makes it easier for dynasties to thrive. They constitute up to 70 percent of the national legislature. In 2013, according to the World Bank, only forty family-dominated conglomerates absorbed more than two-thirds of newly-created growth in the country.
The new constitution hopes to democratize the country’s socioeconomic landscape by reducing protections for domestic conglomerates, strengthening political parties, and placing tighter restrictions on the proliferation of political dynasties. Despite many reforms introduced in the new constitution, many experts, however, as well as much of the Philippine public, remain unconvinced.
Indeed, the constitutional reform does not appear to be popular with the majority of public, according to surveys by Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations, or with many opinion leaders. Close to three hundred of the country’s leading academics, including the presidents of the country’s top universities, have signed an open letter opposing the move for constitutional change. They have questioned the preparedness and capacity of peripheral regions to raise enough revenues on their own, the seemingly arbitrary designation of new regions in the constitution, the massive additional cost of the transition process, and the challenges of adding new layers of government as part of the proposed reforms.
Duterte’s critics further claim that the idea of constitutional change is a thinly veiled plot to extend the president’s term in office, potentially up until 2030. The new proposed constitution abolishes the current single six-year term for the office of president in favor of a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms. Duterte is proposing a nationwide popular referendum on the new constitution, which is yet to be vetted by the legislature, by May 2019 and a full shift to a federal form of government by May 2022 if the referendum succeeds. But there are concerns as to whether the final version of the proposed constitution will have explicit prohibitions against Duterte running for president again beyond 2022.
Duterte has sought to reassure the public by claiming that he will not seek office beyond his current term in office, which ends by 2022. But many remain unconvinced. Surveys show that the majority either oppose constitutional change or are unaware and unconvinced of its relevance. Indeed, there does not seem to be any public clamor for the move, which remains deeply controversial among the public.
Even if Duterte does not try to gain more terms as president, the constitutional reforms could give him enormous influence over the country past his time in the presidency. Back in the early-1970s, former strongman Ferdinand Marcos extended his stay in office though introduction of a new constitution, which gave him almost unlimited powers over the country. Prominent constitutionalist Christian Monsod has described the new proposed constitution as a “Trojan horse” for the establishment of “constitutional authoritarianism.” After all, the draft constitution gives Duterte significant power to shape the contours of the Philippines’ entire political system through his chairmanship of an all-powerful Federal Transition Committee (FTC).
The new body, which will come into effect shortly after the prospective approval of the new constitution, will oversee the formulation, design and implementation of the shift to a new form of government. In effect, critics claim, Duterte will become the overlord of the entire process of political transition, assuming powers that will allow him to determine, together with his handpicked members of the transition committee, the shape and direction of the new government, from its operating rules and regulations to the institutional design as well as who will be in favorable position to dominate the newly-created offices.
Yet the perceived power grab has unleashed widespread backlash in government and in the broader civil society. No less than Duterte’s own allies in the more independently minded senate have opposed the railroading of the constitutional deliberation process. Most senators also remain skeptical of the need for a wholesale constitutional change.
Major businesses as well as religious groups have also joined the chorus of opposition. The Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum, composed of Catholic and Protestant leaders, has criticized the proposed constitutional change as a “sinister” move, which could grant “Duterte the power to exercise a monopoly of executive, legislative and judiciary powers,” paving the way for “one-man rule.”
As the president and his core allies seek to overhaul the country’s political system, a greater section of the society is pushing back with growing determination. Despite his popularity, Duterte is struggling to get his way on this issue.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic, columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and author of Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy (Palgrave, 2018).