[OPINION] Charlatan changes

In a manner that stinks of desperation, President Rodrigo Duterte is aggressively reviving attempts to revise the 1987 Constitution.

Despite facing initial setbacks in past months at rehauling the Constitution even with the “supermajority” in Congress under his control, Duterte has apparently redrawn his charter change plans and deadlines. The revised plan has now been jumpstarted recently by the formal submission of the consultative committee headed by former Chief Justice Reynato Puno of a draft Federal Constitution.

There has been much hype about this nascent charter’s supposed “radical changes” that will distribute power from “imperial Manila” to the regions, and strengthen the bureaucracy in various possible ways only federalism can supposedly provide.

However, a close reading of the proposed charter reveals how ornamental these supposed changes are, and how this revived move for charter change is nothing but another piece in Mr. Duterte’s apparent scheme to consolidate power and rise as the emperor he sees himself as.

Expanding bureaucracy 

First, the introduction of articles on “federated regions” may seem like a revolutionary move, with the introduction of 16 federated regions, not including the Bangsamoro and the Cordilleras, along with the creation of a regional assembly that can craft regional legislation, regional courts, and the creation of the regional governorship post. This will supposedly empower the regions in ways that cannot be possibly done under the current charter. (READ: Draft constitution: After submission to Duterte, then what?

Yet, when one looks at the article on the distribution of powers between the federal government and the federated regions, one will see how this local “empowerment” is largely a work of imagination.

Apart from granting exclusive powers to federated regions to levy taxes such as real property tax and estate tax, a power that the national government currently holds, the power of local governments have not generally changed. Most of the powers they will be assigned – including granting business permits and license – are actually existing powers of local governments right now. The Federal Government under the proposed charter remains largely powerful, pretty much the same monster in another costume.

The changes are highly cosmetic, to a fault.

The bureaucracy has been expanded – imagine having 400 legislators in the House of Representatives, at least 36 senators, and four chief justices. Yet, apart from redoing the term limits and redistributing authority in the judiciary, bulk of the provisions under the current charter are essentially the same – the same government repackaged only to become more complicated and designed to accommodate the most number of people seeking positions of power.

It would be an injustice to disregard some token reforms made by the consultative committee, including the enshrinement of establishing a system of free public education up to the tertiary level, and stricter provisions on data privacy that will safeguard citizens from surveillance even by government operatives.

But these improved provisions have been largely overpowered by the charlatan federal decorations inserted to conjure an illusion of radical reforms.

What is most sinister in the proposal lies in the transitory provisions, which essentially empower a select few to rearrange the whole of government. This transition commission is set to be all powerful – with a provision empowering it to “promulgate the necessary rules, regulations, orders, proclamations, and other issuances” to enforce the transition. (READ: What you need to know about Charter Change)

Duterte's term extension 

In the first draft submitted to the Palace, Mr. Duterte was supposed to head this transition commission.

Yet in a move that reeks of affected modesty, he sought for changes in these provisions and asked the consultative committee to put a section that explicitly prohibits him to run in the first presidential elections after the passage of the charter in 2022. The committee obliged, submitting on July 17 a final version that not only included Mr. Duterte’s wishes but also inserted provisions for the election of a transition president and vice president.

The revised provisions under Section 3 Article 22 of the proposed charter, in fact, does not expressly prohibit Mr. Duterte from running as transition president and head the Federal Transition Commission.

Even if Mr. Duterte says he wants to retire from the limelight after the passage of this new charter, these subtle leeways hidden in plain sight betray his express wish of using the proposed Federal Charter as platform to catapult him to becoming an all-powerful despot and allow for his unprecedented control of the bureaucracy.

These ominous provisions are complemented by other patently fascist lines in the draft Constitution, such as dangerously putting a qualifier establishing “appropriate freedom parks” in the provision that guarantees the freedom of speech and the right to peaceable assembly, which can be interpreted as limiting protests and rallies to these so-called designated areas. The insertion of the phrase “lawless violence” in provisions discussing the basis for the declaration of martial law is also prone to abuse, especially for any power-hungry chief executive.

Commencing the charter change proceedings in Congress essentially opens the proverbial can of worms. A lot of troubleshooting is currently being employed by the government to repair the bad optics on this move, yet we have no assurance whatsoever that the current administration will not maximize this ploy to expand and maintain power.

One curious change in the proposed charter is the removal of the provision that prohibits the enactment of a law that grants titles of royalty or nobility. Perhaps, this proposed charter is Mr. Duterte’s trump card that will serve as his springboard not only to become a full-fledged dictator but a real-life modern emperor. – Rappler.com

Marjohara Tucay is the national president of Kabataan Partylist.