Tag Archives: President Duterte

Constitutional Reforms in East Asia, Part I: Progress and Possibility in the Philippines

Talks of constitutional reforms appear to be sweeping across the presidential and semi-presidential systems in East Asia: the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. Constitutions capture the principles – some say, the most sacred principles – around which institutions, legislation, rules, and processes of a country are built.[1] Constitutional reforms, then, are generally significant and painstaking undertakings, often requiring supermajorities in the legislature or the electorate or both to ratify. And, this may be rightfully so: if they are to amend or revise principles that underpin the political, economic, and social structures of a country, the process should not be based on changeable and changing attitudes. Given the significance, the concomitant grip of constitutional reforms across several of the East Asian with a president as head or co-head of government is interesting, if not curious. What level of public support is there for these reforms? And, how likely are these reforms to pass?

President Duterte entered office in the Philippines with a 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. Constitutional revisions have been proposed under previous governments: for instance, under President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, talks of constitutional revisions to repeal the term-limited, single, six-year non-re-electable presidential term-of-office surfaced towards the end of the popular executive, while former President Arroyo pushed hard for a change to a unicameral parliamentary system following an impeachment effort against the President for possible electoral irregularities in the 2004 presidential elections.[2] A marked difference between this constitutional reform effort and its predecessors is: President Duterte is hugely popular; as a contrast, President Arroyo was pre-empting protests and demonstrations as she pushed for her reforms.

Does this mean that there is wide public support for the federalist revision? That is less clear: on the one hand, the President was elected into office with federalism as one of his platform promises; on the other hand, Duterte was elected into office with a plurality of 36.7 percent of the total votes cast.[3] Polls report economic progress remains a key concern among survey respondents, so that a key consideration for public support is likely whether federalism will address economic development as promised.

How likely is the constitutional reform to pass? The Constitution provides for revisions in one of three ways: through a vote of three-fourths of the members of Congress; a constitutional convention; or direct petition by the people of at least 12 percent of the total registered voters, and 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. In these processes, President Duterte seems largely unfettered: in particular, he enjoys the support of a super-majority in the legislature, and has high trust ratings that have only recently fallen. Even the Supreme Court has refused to limit the President’s martial law powers in Mindanao. Indeed, President Duterte has already moved to a constitutional assembly so that lawmakers will draft and approve the changes, rather than use a constitutional convention. The constitutional assembly is expected to convene after the national budget for 2017 is passed; the Speaker of the House anticipates that the amendments may be finalized by the end of 2017. If the amendments remain limited to the federalist structure, this is one constitutional revision effort that may fly.

_______________

[1] Strauss, David. 2010. The Living Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press

[2] Hedman, Eva-Lotta. 2006. “The Philippines in 2005: Old Dynamics, New Conjuncture.” Asian Survey vol 46 no 1: 187-193

[3] Election Guide, International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Washington, D.C.

The Philippines – President Duterte Takes Aim … (and Vigilantes Deliver …)

President Rodrigo Duterte’s candidacy when he was campaigning for office was, euphemistically speaking, colourful. Not one to shy from controversy – indeed, he seemed to thrive on generating them – Duterte as presidential candidate likely riled as many voters as he won over. The final election tally showed 16.6 million votes for Duterte, more than 6.5 million higher than the next candidate, Mar Roxas; however, that constitutes only 39 percent of the votes cast. Perhaps as an olive branch to the other 61 percent of the voters, Duterte promised that he would be “presidential” once he takes office, and temper his language, delivery, and modus operandi. That change remains pending, as the recent kerfuffle from President Duterte’s impudent reference to President Obama reveals. Meanwhile, however, the Duterte presidency is on track to deliver on some of the more controversial, and concerning, promises.

Top on that list of the President’s promises are the war on drugs and law-and-order, particularly organized crime. The President pledged in his first State-of-the-Nation address that “we will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier and the last pusher have surrendered or been put behind bars or are below the ground if they so wish.” As if to make good on that pledge, on August 8, 2016, the President named 159 “narco-officials” – mayors, judges, congress representatives, and police involved in the drug trade – and gave them 24 hours to surrender or be tracked down by security forces; on that cue, police and the military disarmed and relieved those in armed services on that list, and pulled out security escorts for those in government.

Indeed, backed by rewards and the President’s assurance of protection, almost 3000 killings have occurred since the President took office, with about half attributable to vigilantes, the Philippine National Police reported on September 10, 2016. The peril of being gunned down has led an estimated 700,000 to surrender, far exceeding the government’s capacity to rehabilitate or support. Notwithstanding, the President has refused to back away from sanctioning extrajudicial killings; instead, while expressing “cause for concern” regarding the vigilante murders, the Presidential Office has declared the war on drugs a success. And, President Duterte has hit back at the senate inquiry into extrajudicial killings with accusations that the chair, Senator Leila de Lima, is linked to drug syndicates.

On other fronts, President Duterte has also made good on his promise to address corruption in the country, by declaring all appointive offices vacant on August 22, 2016, so that the positions may be staffed with appointments made by the Presidential Management Staff. The move affected thousands, and left in office only those appointed after June 30. The President also followed up on his pledge to work for former President Arroyo’s release from prison: on July 30, the Supreme Court ordered her release on the grounds of insufficient evidence against her. And, President Duterte has approved former President Marcos’ burial at Libingan ng mga Bayani, or “heroes cemetery,” despite protests against that decision. That decision has been put on hold by the Supreme Court, which is hearing arguments on that decision.

The President is largely unfettered: he enjoys the support of a super-majority in the legislature, and has a 91 percent trust rating (by way of contrast, Vice President Leni Robredo has 62 percent). His proposed constitutional change into federalism for the Philippines is unlikely to hit obstacles: to that end, the President has moved towards a constitutional assembly, rather than a constitutional convention, so that lawmakers will draft and approve the changes. The use of a constitutional assembly has ignited concerns that legislators may carve a constitution that will save their jobs rather than the country, but the President has assured the public that there is nothing to worry: he will treat self-serving lawmakers “like drug addicts.” A threat that few have difficulty envisioning, it seems.