The Philippine president is working towards a constitutional amendment in favour of greater federalism and parliamentarism. Could this empower the country’s citizenry and strengthen democracy? And how does it fit in with Duterte’s controversial policies against drugs and crime?
The new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has garnered global attention for his controversial policies and fiery rhetoric. He is waging an all-out war against illegal drugs which has already led to more than 4,400 deaths resulting from a combination of police operations and summary executions by unidentified agents.
Duterte is steadfast in resisting criticism of human rights abuses, and has consistently made headlines for his acerbic remarks about eminent people such as Barack Obama and Pope Francis. Many are concerned about the impact of Duterte’s leadership style on the rule of law and democracy, as well as foreign relations.
What have attracted less attention, however, are Duterte’s other campaigns, and in particular his desire to amend the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Duterte is convinced that rewriting the rules, and redesigning the country’s institutions, are critical to achieving meaningful change for all Filipinos.
The 2016 elections marked a critical point in the history of Philippine democracy. Political maverick and former city mayor Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency with a plurality of more than 16 million votes. The triumph of a relative outsider from the south of the country is an important rebuke of the elites who have dominated Philippine politics for decades.
Under the watch of those elites, Philippine democracy has neither matured nor collapsed. Instead, it has become trapped in a grey zone where weak political institutions coexist with widespread economic disparities, governance deficits, and lingering internal conflicts. Duterte’s electoral mandate was in part a result of the collective rage of many Filipinos against the status quo, but also a result of their belief that as a catalyst for change, Duterte can provide decisive leadership to curb crime, inequality, and corruption.
Many provisions of democracy exist only on paper
Philippine democracy is today in a state of stagnation, as the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) demonstrates in its latest Philippines Report. The defective democratic regime has been unable to integrate disparate societal groups into either the electoral process or policy-making institutions. The long list of the country’s challenges includes dynastic politics, costly elections, clientelism, weak political parties, and the absence of meaningful public participation.
While many of the progressive provisions of the 1987 Constitution provide for citizen participation and representation, they do so only on paper. This includes, for example, bills related to the prohibition of political dynasties, freedom of information and campaign finance.
Of all the candidates in this year’s presidential election, only Rodrigo Duterte promised to amend the Constitution to introduce two fundamental institutional changes: federalism and parliamentarism. In the past, elite interests have dominated the debates about constitutional change, at the expense of popular empowerment and institution-building. Unsurprisingly, these initiatives by the elites were met with opposition from civil society and the public at large.
President Duterte wants to “federalise” the Philippines. The vision is to further empower the regions in order to address economic inequality and curb corruption. As the first president to hail from Mindanao, the southern part of the Philippines where massive poverty and instability have damaged the lives of millions, the former Davao City mayor experienced first-hand how a centralised government funnels crucial resources away from the periphery towards Manila.
Duterte’s “parliamentarism” agenda is geared to the French model and is aimed at facilitating a culture of party politics which, according to the president’s supporters, would lead to less corruption and more governability given the fusion of executive and legislative powers. This claim is unsubstantiated, but it enjoys widespread popularity among Duterte’s political allies.
The president’s goals of addressing inequality and corruption are laudable and should inform proposals for constitutional change. However, these goals must be supplemented with a vision for improving democratic representation toward more inclusive participation and political empowerment. Changing the charter should also not undermine the provisions that guarantee civil liberties and the national patrimony.
How could the Constitution be changed?
The Duterte administration has already started preparations for commencing the process of constitutional amendment in Congress. The president has made it clear that if the transition to the new constitutional landscape requires it, he will not hesitate to step down and cut his six-year term short. Unlike previous presidents who tinkered with the constitution in order to stay in office, Duterte’s promise to give up power seems to be sincere.
An elected constitutional convention that ensures representation from different regions as well as under-represented sectors of society will allow ordinary Filipinos to own the process of constitutional change and therefore the outcome. While President Duterte originally expressed a preference for an elected convention, he has shifted towards allowing the existing members of the country’s legislature to take on this all-important task.
However, the key problem with Duterte’s plans is the lack of a comprehensive proposal that goes beyond fuzzy rhetoric and grand yet incomplete institutional suggestions. For instance, what is missing is a discussion about reform of the electoral system. The list of expert proposals for changes here is long: there could be a straight ticket election of the president and vice-president, a majoritarian electoral system for the presidency, a mixed-member electoral system for the legislature, or allowing senators to be elected per region instead of having a national constituency. Other political reforms related to campaign finance, electoral management, and party-building also need to be pursued.
The Philippine trauma of dictatorship
Duterte’s vision of instituting real change for the betterment of the lives of Filipinos catapulted him to the presidency. However, he must undertake this gargantuan task with caution since the Filipino public has always been skeptical about attempts to change the Constitution.
The 1987 Constitution was borne out of the trauma of dictatorship and the excesses of martial law. It provided effective safeguards against violations of human rights as well as abuses of executive power. An overhaul of the Constitution without a clear vision of strengthening democracy can stoke the fear that it is an attempt to reinstate authoritarianism and curtail civil rights and political freedoms.
The Duterte administration needs to make sure that its plan to change the charter is not construed as undermining democracy. This is a challenging task, especially given the president’s all-out war against drugs. While the government vowed to respect human rights, criticisms that range from complacency to complicity need to be addressed by Duterte with the same level of commitment he has demonstrated with his actions against crime, corruption, and illegal drugs. A new constitution is meaningless if the government cannot safeguard the rights and liberties of all of its citizens.
At the moment, Duterte is extremely popular and enjoying very high approval ratings due to his perceived sincerity and his political will to get things done. This gives him leverage to pursue his policies. However, he must avoid actions that are liable to undermine the trust given to him by the people.
A step in the right direction could be for the president to create a supportive constituency for constitutional reform by tapping into the collective wisdom of both experts and ordinary people. This means inviting and encouraging popular education and discussion of the key issues, so that Filipinos can truly be part of the process of change, rather than merely recipients of it. The Philippines has never had a Constitution that emanated from its grassroots. Perhaps only when that is achieved will Filipinos truly have a democracy they can call their own.
Aries A Arugay is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at University of the Philippines-Diliman and Executive Director at the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies. He is one of 246 country experts who worked on the latest edition of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index, BTI 2016. Twitter @ariesarugay.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author in his private capacity.