[OPINION] The imperial reach of Malacañang lands in Boracay

Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M
[OPINION] The imperial reach of Malacañang lands in Boracay
The imperial nature of the Philippine presidency is undeniable. The reach of whoever wields this power extends far and deep as evidenced by how President Duterte addressed the Boracay 'cesspool' tragedy.

“Federalism is the mighty weapon that will destroy Imperial Manila!”

Ardent advocates of shifting to federalism treat this rallying call as self-evident. It is certainly a catchy soundbite that many Filipinos have taken as gospel truth.

The administration is in the midst of a constitution-writing undertaking that could, if successful, lead to the submission of a draft federal constitution by June, to coincide with President Rodrigo Duterte’s State of the Nation address in July. Ostensibly, their federalism proposition’s avowed goal is to weaken the central government’s overbearing authority over the rest of the country.  

The very text of the 1987 Constitution conveys the dominance of a central government underpinned by an extremely powerful President. Moreover, the Supreme Court has ruled in several cases that the powers of the President are not limited to what are expressly enumerated in Article VII on the Executive Department and in scattered provisions of the Constitution. Nor should the constitutional limitations be treated as a diminution of the general grant of executive authority. 

Therefore, in the Philippine constitutional order, the President himself is the sole wielder of executive power. He appoints for practically all positions in the central bureaucracy, including the armed forces and the police. He has sole control over the entire executive branch, from department secretaries down to the rank-and-file.

Correspondingly, the President has a direct hand in all matters of government – from public housing to agriculture to solid waste management to foreign investment to tax collection to sports to water management to foreign trade and affairs, and so forth. In all these public functions, the President plays a very prominent role. Crucially, control over and dispersal of public funds is also heavily concentrated in his office.

The imperial nature of the Philippine presidency is undeniable. The reach of whoever wields this power extends far and deep as evidenced by how President Duterte addressed the Boracay “cesspool” tragedy.

The degradation and decline of Boracay is not a unique phenomenon. In fact, Baguio is now next in line to meet this fate. Bohol, Cebu, and Palawan are about to proceed along this direction, too. 

Obviously, neither is the degradation and decline unexpected. The lack of consideration for sustainable development has put these natural wonders in imperil from the moment they were opened for tourism. 

Without disregarding the urgency of this problem, it would still be reasonable to expect government to be circumspect and deliberate in its approach. Indeed, some sectors are even prepared to undertake long term solutions instead of the usual stop-gap options.

Nonetheless, the response of President Duterte to such foreseeable disaster was not exactly out of character in regards him and the office. An intrepid Malacañang reporter described the President’s decision-making process as “instinctive, abrupt, and with a penchant for the dramatic.”

Draconian resolution

We know now that the total shutdown of Boracay was the President’s idea and initially did not have unanimous backing from his Cabinet, although this draconian resolution is now fully supported by the entire administration. 

In fact, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, acting as an alter ego of the President, recently released an 8-item list to serve as a precursor to the department’s official guideline to govern the total closure order.

However, some items in the list are arguably unconstitutional as they infringe on people’s freedoms without due process, particularly items 2, 4, and 8 with regard to freedom of movement, and item 5 relating to press freedom. To wit:

“2. No ID, no entry. Residents/workers/resort owners will be allowed entry into the island subject to the presentation of identification cards specifying a residence in Boracay. All government-issued IDs will be recognized. Non-government IDs are acceptable as long as they are accompanied by a barangay certification of residency.

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4. One condition for entry. No visitors of Boracay residents shall be allowed entry, except under emergency situations, and with the clearance of the security committee composed of DILG representative, police, and local government officials.

5. Journalists need permission to cover. Media will be allowed entry subject to prior approval from the Department of Tourism, with a definite duration and limited movement.

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8. One entry, one exit point. There will only be one transportation point to Boracay Island.”

These directives when taken together appears eerily like the old Martial Law counter-insurgency strategy of hamletting. If these prescriptions are retained in the official guidelines without any clear legal justification, it would not be a surprise if affected stakeholders bring the matter to the Supreme Court. 

The rationale for such a highly punitive response is unconvincing, to say the least. But the fact that the decision-making process was highly centralized is another objectionable aspect. Notably, even the stakeholders meeting was held in Manila. 

Obviously, the decision-makers tasked to find a solution to this big problem are central agency bureaucrats, but being a former mayor from Mindanao, it was still disappointing that the President was not particularly more sympathetic to the wishes of the affected local governments. 

Whether the full shutdown of Boracay will be a boon or a bane remains to be seen. But the vital lesson Filipinos must learn from this tragic episode is that the imperial nature of the presidency breeds imperial tendencies. Consequently, the preference of the central government is always the winning option. Leaving the regions to simply adjust accordingly. 

Unfortunately, the omnipresent characteristic of the office also engenders an inherent desire to test the limits of legal and constitutional boundaries. Sometimes this propensity can evolve into a governance mindset of being overly sensitive to criticism and being rancorous to critics. The worst-case scenario sometimes is a government impervious to demands of transparency and accountability from the citizens.   

Given this very important caveat on the perils of our highly centralized government, a query by the sublime constitutionalist, Father Joaquin G. Bernas, SJ, in the 1986 Constitutional Commission is worth noting:

“Should we continue a system where practically all governmental power must come from the central government, from Manila? Must we continue the overdominance of Manila over the rest of the country?” (Record of the Constitutional Commission, Volume 1, June 3, 1986, p25.)

As the constitutional change discourse intensifies, we must not forget that the primary objective is to decentralize governance over the country. The goal is to dismantle Imperial Manila. – Rappler.com

Photo of Boracay by Angie de Silva/Rappler

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