Can Duterte ‘surrender’ all anti-drug powers to Robredo?

Rambo Talabong

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Can Duterte ‘surrender’ all anti-drug powers to Robredo?
President Rodrigo Duterte decides to drop his landmark anti-drug campaign on the lap of Vice President Leni Robredo. Is he allowed to do so?

MANILA, Philippines – After being fed up with criticism, President Rodrigo Duterte decided to “surrender” his powers to enforce his landmark anti-drug campaign to opposition leader and Vice President Leni Robredo.

“I will surrender my powers to enforce the law, ibigay ko sa Vice President, ibigay ko sa kanya nang 6 months (I will give it to the Vice President, I’ll give it to her for 6 months),” Duterte said on Monday, October 28.

The pronouncement shocked listeners, catching law enforcers themselves by surprise as the unrelenting anti-drug campaign has been a centerpiece of the Duterte administration. Duterte even ran his 2016 campaign on a promise to end drug and crime.

Asked by reporters to clarify, he later said he would surrender powers over the anti-drug campaign if ever Robredo was up to the challenge. The President is known to make grand statements he would later brush off as a joke.

Even after his clarification, however, Duterte’s pronouncements could be interpreted as advocating an unconstitutional policy. The statement adds to a litany of incidents where he issues an order in a fit without consulting his top lawyers and Cabinet secretaries, leaving lawyers confused.

Speaking to Rappler in a phone interview on Tuesday, October 29, National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) president Edre Olalia said that if it does push through, Duterte’s sudden bequeathal of his powers to Robredo is “legally, politically, and constitutionally anomalous.”

Former Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te also told Rappler Duterte may delegate duties to the Vice President, but the Chief Executive should not leave any room for doubt when the pronouncement is turned into a written order – when it becomes official and open to legal challenges.

Why is Duterte allowed?

The President, as chief executive, Te and Olalia explained, has the power to delegate duties to the Vice President.

“He’s the chief executive, so he can create an office, he can create a working group and designate anyone to work,” Te said.

He cited an example: in 1998, then-president Joseph Estrada decided to create a team to target crime syndicates in the country by issuing Executive Order No. 8, which created the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force.

The members of the team consisted of members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and were empowered to mount operations separate from the agencies the members came from.

According to Olalia and Te, this same delegated power applies to the Vice President.

“The President can always delegate certain powers, especially to his alter egos, the Cabinet secretaries,” Olalia said.

With this, Duterte can also appoint Robredo to oversee agencies enforcing the anti-drug campaign. So far, the PNP has been the biggest agency implementing his anti-drug policy. The PNP is under the administrative supervision of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

But even the DILG’s head has not been given clear and written instructions on how to go about the President’s order. In a text message to Rappler, DILG Secretary Eduardo Año said he has not received any order from the President. Año was in an official overseas trip when Duterte issued the statement.

“I am ready on whatever arrangement the President wanted to implement. After all, the objective remains the same, to eliminate the illegal drug problem of the country,” he said.

What can’t Duterte do?

Delegating is one thing, abdicating is another.

According to Olalia, the President cannot simply hand over “all” his powers to Robredo because it means he is also passing on the accountability that comes with it. And he was elected on the promise that he would take over all these duties and responsibilities as chief executive, and be held accountable if ever he fails.

Olalia pointed out that part of the oath Duterte recited before assuming office was to “faithfully and conscientiously” execute all laws. The full oath reads:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully and conscientiously fulfill my duties as President (or Vice-President or Acting President) of the Philippines, preserve and defend its Constitution, execute its laws, do justice to every man, and consecrate myself to the service of the Nation. So help me God.”

Olalia said, “With abdicating, you no longer move, because you are abdicating a duty, which is tantamount, but not equivalent to, temporary incapacity. Because he is saying that another person should do it.”

Aside from possibly violating the Constitution, Olalia said it was “unrealistic” for the President to use the anti-illegal drugs campaign for a political game.

“Governance is not a game. Governance is a constitutional duty, especially of elected people in the highest position. It’s like a game to him, making someone else ‘it’ in a game of tag,” Olalia added in a mix of English and Filipino.

For Te, Duterte’s statement was, just like his previous ones, sarcastic.

The President’s statement has taken many by surprise that even senators allied with him are challenging his proposition. For example, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III on Tuesday, October 29, said the task of running the ongoing drug war “cannot be delegated except to his alter egos.”

Te said, “Officially, is he saying she will be commander-in-chief? I don’t think so. This is for additional assignment. The VP can get any portfolio of the President. If the Vice President accepts it then that’s it. The question only there is, what is the context?” Te said.

He added: “If he is serious with this, he should put it down in writing.” –

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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.