The Philippines – The Road (Blocks) to Constitutional Changes

Among President Duterte’s campaign promises was his pledge to adopt constitutional reforms to change the country’s unitary system into a federalism, with some powers devolved to the local governments for a more responsive government. The path to the constitutional change has been highly favourable to the President: he enjoys a super-majority support in the House and remains highly popular among the voters. Indeed, until recently, the progress looked good for the President: the 25-member constitutional consultative commission that he created through Executive Order No 10 to review the Constitution and recommend amendments to Congress, comprising 19 appointed by the President himself, approved a draft for submission to the President on July 3, 2018. The draft has since been submitted to Congress, with the House and the Senate agreeing on separate votes over the draft. Here, I look at how the draft came to be and the obstacles that may stand in the way of the President’s delivery on this promise.

There are three ways to amend the Constitution: through a vote of three-fourths of the members of Congress; a constitutional convention, where the House and Senate will propose changes; and by direct petition of at least 12 percent of total registered voters, of which every legislative district has three percent signatories. All revisions must then be ratified by a majority of the votes cast between 60 and 90 days of the approval of the amendment.

The President was predisposed towards a constitutional assembly: in December 2016, he signed the Executive Order No 10 to create a constitutional commission, comprising 25 members, to review the Constitution and recommend amendments to Congress, where Congress would then act as a constitutional assembly to review and debate the amendments. The House and the Senate were split, with the 297-seat House – where the President enjoys a super-majority – favouring a constitutional assembly while the 24-seat Senate – where the President has faced his toughest critics, including two whom he has arrested – supports the constitutional convention. The House and the Senate agreed to set aside the mode of change on January 24, 2018; President Duterte announced the appointment of 19 members of the constitutional commission on January 25, 2018, headed by former chief justice Reynato Puno

The President has endorsed the draft for Congress. Significant changes contained in the draft include:

At the President’s insistence, the draft contains a provision that bars him and Vice President Leni Robredo from a second-term, to assure critics that he is not intent on extending his tenure in office. Critics charge that the draft, nevertheless, contains provisions that are considered highly controversial, particularly the creation of the Federal Transition Commission to oversee the political change to the federalist system.

Will the President be able to fill this promise? Polls show that a majority of the voters – 67 percent – are opposed to the constitutional revision; however, 74 percent also have little or no knowledge of the current constitution. This may explain the President’s optimism that the country will eventually pass the recommended changes. It may also explain why several hundred academics, including several university presidents, have signed a statement against the constitutional assembly, in favour of more participatory process such as through a constitutional convention.

Ironically, the greatest obstacle to constitutional change may be the House of Representatives. The previous house speaker, Representative Pantaleon Alvarez, had called for the postponement or even cancellation of elections in 2019 to make way for the constitutional change, in his zeal to advocate for the President’s constitutional plans. In a leadership challenge in the House, the speaker was ousted and replaced by former President and current Representative Gloria Arroyo, who was pardoned by President Duterte and seen as an strong advocate for shepherding the president’s agenda. Speaker Arroyo has led the House to develop a draft of constitutional changes that was submitted to the President on September 19, 2018. The draft, which contains provisions to extend terms limits for other elected offices, diluting the anti-dynasty provisions, and, perhaps most controversially, removes the Vice President from the line of presidential succession, is clearly different from the one submitted by the Constitutional Commission. Indeed, the Constitutional Commission has since formally written to the President to assail the House draft as “questionable” and be made public in the interest of transparency. It seems that the President’s strongest supporters, more so than other obstacles, may lead to the undoing of constitutional changes.


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