The Philippines Sets Out to Commit Political Suicide Again

The future of President Rodrigo Duterte’s plan to turn the Philippines from a unitary state to a federal one was once regarded as imprecise as the future of the European Union and Brexit.

However, the draft of a new federal constitution just released suggests that Duterte’s ambitions at sustaining himself in power are at the core of the proposal rather than a well-thought-out blueprint for more effective government of the archipelago. “Be very afraid” wrote Solita Carlos-Monsod, a drafter of the current, post-Marcos constitution.

Most startling is a proposal to create a Federal Transition Commission which would rule while the details of the new federalism are worked out and set in place. This would be a 10-member body appointed and headed by Duterte himself. It would have power to issue decrees and executive orders – very much the same powers that the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos used on declaring martial law on Sept. 28, 1972. It would not only run all branches of government but be able to set define the details and processes of federalism, and hence create its power bases.

There would be no elections, national or regional, until mid-2022. Thus assuming the that the new constitution passes with a year, Duterte would have three years of absolute power via the Transition Commission. He would then be free to stand for president under the new constitution – which allows two four-year terms for all officials. So in theory he could be in power till 2030, if his body allows.

Duterte says he won’t run for President again, but there is nothing to stop him if he changes his mind. He is now 73 and suffers from a variety of ailments. He remains phenomenally popular despite a sharp drop recently, with a net satisfaction rating hovering around 45 percent despite inflation, which has risen to 5.2 percent annually, and his remarks calling God “stupid” in a nation that is 85 percent Catholic. Those issues have brought his popularity down.

After all, to many the Philippines seems already to be quite decentralized compared for example to Thailand due to the power of local clans and provincial dynasties, and the weakness of the centrally-based bureaucracy.

There is in practice little parallel between the Philippines and Indonesia, where much power was decentralized following the fall of Suharto. Indonesia had been under a highly centralized, military-based system, unlike the Philippines, and decentralization was mostly to smaller units, the 416 kabupaten, (regencies), not to regions as proposed for the Philippines.

The prospect of a federal system, which would devolve more power and revenue onto regional governments, seems to excite the populace, with a majority, according to opinion surveys appearing to be against the change. That may be natural conservatism, a lingering regard for the constitution delivered in 1987 in an attempt to prevent repetition of the Marcos use of the its predecessor to engineer authoritarian rule under the cover of constitutional legalisms.

Others may see it as likely to give even greater power to regional families at the expense of a central government where professional standards are seen as higher and graft more readily exposed. It will entrench the kind of local bossism of which the families of the likes of Duterte and Ampatuan (of Maguindanao massacre fame) are prime examples.

Spreading government spending more widely, away from Manila and Central Luzon, may be desirable but (unlike Indonesia with its mining and plantation economies) non-metropolitan regions mostly have few local revenue sources. The Philippines would be divided in to 18 regions, each with its own assembly and regional supreme court – an additional judicial level which could make the justice even more convoluted and subject to graft than it is today. Devolution in Indonesia, implemented after the fall of Suharto, made a corrupt system even more corrupt. The Philippines already ranks 111th of 180 nations in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, somewhat below Indonesia at 96th.

The Congress (possibly called parliament) would remain a two-chamber body but appoint a Prime Minister who would undertake some of the duties of the current president, but be answerable to him.

Despite the lack of either popular, business or elite enthusiasm for this drastic constitutional change it seems likely to easily carry through any joint House-Senate vote because of the sheer number of congressmen who rely on central patronage even though most senators in principle should be against what will amount to a reduction in their own power and as regional rather than national exposure becomes the key to senate seats in future.

A plebiscite is also promised, which seems likely to approve the change, though with singular lack of enthusiasm for what is the product of a politicians’ playground. Unworried by these very real concerns, a week ago a consultative committee assigned to review the 1987 Constitution approved the draft of the proposed charter.