Rodrigo Duterte’s term as president still has 20 months to run but fin de regime signs are beginning to appear. Most startling was a proposal by a group of Duterte supporters meeting at Clark Free Zone, the former US Navy enclave north of Manila, calling for a ‘revolutionary government” which would institute changes in the 1987 Constitution. Exactly what changes were not spelled out.
Presumably, the changes would include a federal system of government as promised by Duterte but which has been stalled, and possibly a means to enable Duterte to stay in office whether by enabling two terms or changing to a parliamentary system.
However, far from being a ploy to keep Duterte in power, many saw it as a sign of concern about Duterte’s health. This has long been a matter of rumor but these have recently gathered strength, raising concerns among his supporters that he may not survive his term, or be unable to have a decisive influence on the choice of successor.
Duterte loyalists will go a long way to keep the popular if inexperienced vice-president Leni Robredo from the highest office, preferring either Duterte’s acolyte Christopher “Bong” Go or Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr as a successor. Robredo, elected separately from the president, embarrassed Duterte last November when she accepted a dare from the president to take over his drug program and promptly used the program’s own statistics to show it wasn’t successful. He fired her less than three weeks later.
The constitution can be changed by an assembly comprising both houses and requiring 75 percent support. That is usually taken to mean 75 percent of each house, but given the flexibility of court decisions, 75 percent of the total might be construed as sufficient. Currently, administration supporters control about 85 percent of the 304 members House but not 75 percent of the 24-member Senate.
The call for a “revolutionary government” met with a torrent of denial and criticism from members of the administration. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana dismissed the idea. There was no need, the president was elected and enjoyed popular support. Senate President Vicente Sotto III said it would turn the country into a “rudderless ship.”
However, others were more ambiguous. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the idea came from a private group free to express their opinion. Presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo said he was “titillated” by the idea which might be workable but had come too late. It certainly riled the opposition, the leftist Bayan Muna Representative seeing it as “just another ploy in the arsenal of schemes” of Duterte’s people to perpetuate themselves.
At the very least it raised the specter of uncertainty about the succession, whether in 2022 or earlier. It also coincided with signs that Duterte’s grip is weakening. Government handling of Covid-19 has come in for widespread criticism as severe lockdowns have caused a steep rise in unemployment and poverty and disrupted other public health efforts yet the Philippines has the highest case to population ratio.
Coincidentally, evidence has come to light of massive corruption over several years involving the Philippines Health Insurance Corporation, or Philhealth, in payments for procedures never performed. This may have disabused those who had continued to believe that the Duterte administration was tackling corruption as forcefully as its extra-judicial killing campaign against alleged drug dealers.
Even the mostly compliant Supreme Court with its several Duterte appointees has shown signs of independence. Last week it ruled against warrantless police searches of vehicles for illegal drugs based on unverified tip-offs. It declared the practice, common for the police force as part of the official anti-drugs campaign as “a war against the people” rather than a war on drugs.
The decision was greeted with a remarkable joint statement by eleven business groups hailing the decision. They included the Makati Business Club, the Management Association of the Philippines and the American, European and Canadian chambers of commerce in the Philippines. This was a snub to the administration that once would have been unthinkable at the height of Duterte’s popular standing and shock and awe tactics.
His obeisance to China has also come under increasing criticism with the ranks of the armed forces. AFP Southern Luzon Command head General Antonio Parlade said the government should send the message that it was serious about defending its sea right. “It does not matter is we only have a few floating vessels or fighter jets. It is not about capabilities but our resolve, our political will”.
Although Parlade also criticized the Aquino administration for its failures to stop Chinese incursions, his words were clearly aimed at Duterte’s claim that as one could not win a war against China it was better not to confront it but (hopefully) reap economic benefits from not standing up for Philippine sea rights.
At home bombings in Jolo have not only claimed many lives, mostly of the military, but exposed hostility between police and military in Sulu as well as the various divides which exist between armed groups in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.
None of this adds up yet to a rejection of Duterte and his ways. But the signs of weariness are there, and signs of progress whether on the economy or drugs hard to find. Easing lockdowns and boosting infrastructure spending will start to revive some of the economy but a decline in remittances, probably of 15-20% will leave a lasting impact on family finances and consumption. There is scant prospect of a V-shaped recovery meanwhile the impression that Duterte, now seldom seen, is a sick man further weakens his formerly iron grip.
The call for a “revolutionary government”, however much just rhetoric from a small group of enthusiasts, just adds to question marks about how the Philippines can manage a transition from nominally democratic strongman rule to the balance of power between the executive, legislature and judiciary enshrined in its constitution.