Duterte leverages popularity to push for constitutional change

Duterte leverages popularity to push for constitutional change

The Congress of the Philippines has begun formal proceedings on changing the government of the Philippines into a federal system. The move is extremely divisive and is interpreted as a power grab. Its success will depend on Duterte’s political capital.

Duterte does the Cha-Cha

Constitutional change, also known as charter change or “Cha-Cha” in the Philippines, would give President Rodrigo Duterte the opportunity to extend his term up to ten more years beyond his current term. Critics of Duterte have claimed that the move to revise the constitution and make the Philippine government a federal system is a blatant pursuit of power.

Duterte’s character and actions contribute to the concerns of his critics – he has repeatedly been willing to put aside the law to achieve his aims. Nonetheless, Duterte may be successful at making the shift to a federal system – he has both popular support and political capital for this ambitious change.

In search of peace or power

The shift toward a federal system was not wholly unexpected. During his presidential campaign, Duterte advocated for federalism as a way to achieve peace across the Philippines and create a more sustainable balance of power. The fractured nature of the Philippines, both geographically and in terms of religion, has been the source of repeated conflicts.

Greater diffusion of power has often been posed as a way to forge peace. Since the 1960’s, various Muslim organizations on the island of Mindanao have fought for greater autonomy. Part of the most recent peace agreement, signed with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), includes the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region which would be one of the five regions acknowledged within the federal system.

The peace agreement and the shift towards federalism, however, are legally distinct. Before Duterte took office he suggested that a shift towards federalism would negate the need for parts of the peace agreement but backed down quickly after MILF said such conditions were unacceptable.

The fact that the peace agreement and the shift towards federalism are independent of each other diminishes Duterte’s argument that a federal system would be aimed at creating peace, at least when it comes to that particular battle.

Once more with feeling

Three administrations have tried their hand at rewriting the constitution since Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown. Each time their efforts were rejected – at least partially because the efforts were seen as an attempt to extend the term limits of the Presidency.

Concern around constitutional amendments are couched in memories of the era during which Marcos used constitutional change to extend his term beyond its stated limits and solidify his grasp on power. The current constitution, written in 1987, specifies a single term presidency to prevent another decline into autocracy.

The same skepticism applies to Duterte’s attempt at shifting to a federal system through constitutional change. A new constitution would “reset” the system and allow Duterte to run for two five-year terms following his current term.

Duterte claims to have rejected the idea of a term extension even as his allies in Congress suggest he should lead the transition to a federalist system and beyond. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque stated that Duterte “wants to cut short his term rather than lengthen it.”

Fourth time’s a charm

What may separate Duterte’s attempt at a constitutional change from his predecessors’ is his popularity among the masses and the strength of his allies in Congress. Despite, or perhaps because of his indiscriminate war on drugs, Duterte enjoys strong popularity. A survey recently conducted by Social Weather Station, a pollster, found that 83 percent of adult Filipinos had “much trust” in him and 79 percent were “satisfied” with his performance.

Duterte hopes to leverage this support by pushing for the changes to be made through constitutional assembly which requires three-quarters the vote in Congress. Lawmakers remain divided, however, on whether the two chambers should vote separately or be merged for the vote.

Proponents of a constitutional change prefer that the chambers are merged for the vote, increasing the influence of the larger House where Duterte has the support and diminish the influence of the smaller Senate where Duterte has fewer allies.

Critics will point out that Marcos was popular early on in his tenure and used domestic unrest to expand his powers. Whether Duterte seeks the same kind of power in the long term remains to be seen.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Peter Hays

Peter is a London based analyst. He specializes in trade and regulation in the Asia Pacific region. He holds a MSc in Economy, Risk and Society from the London School of Economics and a BA in International Studies from American University.