Members of the Philippine House of Respresentatives
Members of the Philippine House of Respresentatives

A plot is afoot to stop the holding of the 2019 midterm elections. But that already base scheme doesn’t stop there. Once constitutional amendments are approved, or a new constitution is in place, during the transition period to a federal form of government the masterminds also want the terms of the elected government officials who are currently in office, particularly congressmen, senators, and the president, extended for as long as ten years.

If the plotters had their way, not only would there be no elections in 2019; there won’t be any in 2022 either, when the six-year term of office of President Rodrigo Duterte is supposed to end. Forget their made-to-order assurances that they won’t stay beyond 2022. Between this year and 2028, or even beyond, the country would very likely still have the same self-aggrandizing sycophants that infest the present Congress as ersatz, or pretend, lawmakers. Mr. Duterte won’t have to abolish that body. Legislative power would in reality be in his hands. These so-called lawmakers would continue to constitute his rubber-stamp legislature, since he would still have the numbers he has today.

That would hardly be any different from the present situation in which whatever Mr. Duterte wants, he gets from Congress, thanks to the PDP-Laban Party’s “supermajority” in both houses. However, Mr. Duterte and his fellow plotters, in addition to being in command over this country and its people for ten years or even longer, would also have no opposition and no checks to their power, because they would be exercising it during the transition to the shift from the present unitary form of government to a federal one.

During that period, Mr. Duterte would assume both executive and legislative powers, and, depending on the transitional provisions of the new Constitution his cronies are rushing to put together for rapid citizen approval through a plebiscite within this year, would also have the prerogative to abolish any government office and to fire any official he and his cohorts don’t like, to create new agencies including commissions, and appoint judges and other fired officials’ replacements. He can also suspend the writ of habeas corpus, arrest whomever he likes, and curtail free expression and press freedom. What would be in place in fact if not in name is the very same “revolutionary government” Mr. Duterte has been so obsessed with he can’t stop talking about its intoxicating promise of absolute power.

This isn’t just another conspiracy theory that’s unlikely to be in process and to have any chance of realization. Mr. Duterte’s flunkies in both houses of Congress have floated and defended the idea of cancelling elections in 2019 and assuring themselves term extensions of as long as ten years. Mr. Duterte himself has openly declared a number of times that he would abolish existing government agencies, particularly such Constitutional bodies as the Commission on Audit and the Commission on Human Rights, create new ones, and hire and fire whomever he wants should he have the power to do so.

His Congressional band of (power) brokers is more than willing to give him what he’s been wishing for by amending or even doing away with the 1987 People Power Constitution to effect the shift to a federal form of government.

Federalism is an option for which even the leaders of the Revolution of 1896 expressed their preference as a form of government. During his dictatorship, Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. put in place some of its more innocuous aspects by creating a ministry of this and a ministry of that, and naming a prime minister, while he continued to wield absolute power as president-for-life.

After the 1986 EDSA civilian-military mutiny, some academics and politicians tried to convince the public of the merits of federalism and of the need to amend the 1987 Constitution to effect the shift to it. Those efforts foundered on citizen resistance to Constitutional amendments, but were nevertheless kept alive in Congress through a number of resolutions.

Then Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte expressed support for federalism in 2014, and promised to hold a plebiscite on the shift to a federal form of government within two years as part of his campaign platform in 2016. As President, Mr. Duterte signed in December 2016 Executive Order Number 10, which created a consultative committee to review the 1987 People Power Constitution.

Effecting the shift is one of the Duterte campaign promises that seems to be following his timeline, unlike his pledge to end the illegal drug problem within six months. No one can blame the more skeptical for suspecting that that’s because everyone in the regime stands to benefit from what its own people would decide should go into the amendments or even into a new constitution, since the plan, as announced by Mr. Duterte’s henchmen in Congress, is to convene that body as a constituent assembly rather than to call a constitutional convention to which delegates would be elected at large. The expense of the latter has been invoked to justify the former. What’s closer to the truth is that the regime is not going to risk the election of non-regime friendly delegates to a convention.

The primary argument for a federal form of government is that it would free from central government interference the “states” that would be created by merging various provinces. It would also enable such regions as the Cordillera and Muslim Mindanao to craft their own paths to development.

While these considerations are formidable arguments for federalism, the downside would be the strengthening of locally-based dynasties and warlord families, the weakening of the capacity of the central government to check corruption and the abuse of power at the local level, and the dynasts’ use of it for their personal, familial and class enrichment, and to suppress dissent and protest.

It can of course be argued that all that is happening even now. But it only proves that it is neither the form of government nor the system that’s crucial in the making of effective and honest governance, but the extent to which those in power share the political culture and the interests of their constituents. That reality is an argument for the democratization of political power by enabling those sectors that have been denied the right to govern themselves to break the dynasties’ stranglehold on Philippine governance.

These are the more critical issues in the campaign for a federal form of government. But both the advantages and the downside of that option are being overshadowed by the quite obvious attempt to use the move to federalism as the primary means of savaging what little remains of democratic and citizen rights in this country, restore authoritarian rule, and assure the continuing dominance of the handful of families that for decades have monopolized political power in this country to the exclusion of the majority.

It’s turning into just another conspiracy by this country’s political overlords to prevent the democratization of political power and the realization of those social and economic reforms that have eluded the long-suffering people of these benighted isles.

Frustrating the plot to establish another tinhorn tyranny that would abuse the Filipino people’s hard-won rights is crucial to the lives and future of the 100 million souls in this archipelago, and therefore takes precedence over everything else. The shift to a federal form of government as a citizen option will have to wait for better, less critical and less dangerous times. The reign of Mr. Duterte and his henchmen in Congress is the exact opposite — and far from being one of those rare moments in this nation’s troubled history.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the House of Representatives.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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