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[OPINION] Duterte’s Cha-Cha reverses gains of EDSA

If Duterte’s Cha-Cha succeeds, it will lead to the greater disempowerment of ordinary Filipinos, especially the poor and marginalized sectors of society. 

An EDSA legacy

Post-upheaval constitutions usually reflect the aspirations of the victors. In the case of the 1987 Constitution, these included the aspirations of the pro-democracy and nationalist movements that fought the Marcos dictatorship.

Thus, the Constitution pays homage to People Power by declaring that sovereignty resides in the people, from which all government authority emanates. 

To prevent the rise of another dictatorship, the Constitution limits the president’s martial law powers and provides for the decentralization of power to the local governments. To democratize political power, it prohibits political dynasties as may be provided by law, and provides for a party list system for under-represented and marginalized constituencies. It allows for autonomous rule in the Cordillera and Muslim Mindanao regions. 

The Charter envisions a strong system of checks and balances. Not only are there 3 independent and co-equal branches of government but also independent commissions – the Commission on Elections, Commission on Audit, Civil Service Commission, plus the Commission on Human Rights. There is a separate constitutional body to prosecute erring government officials (the Tanodbayan), an independent anti-graft court (the Sandiganbayan), and a Presidential Commission on Good Government as mechanisms to dismantle and avoid the systemic corruption that developed under the Marcos regime. 

The Constitution has an extensive and detailed bill of rights covering civil and political rights. Aside from that, it has an entire article on social justice and human rights, with explicit provisions guaranteeing labor rights, agrarian reform, urban land reform and housing, the rights of women, the youth, indigenous peoples, the role of non-governmental organizations, and even the family as the basic social institution.

Lastly, the Constitution mandates the State to develop an independent, self-reliant economy effectively controlled by Filipinos. It sets industrialization and comprehensive rural development based on agrarian reform as the aim of the national economy. Toward these ends, it limits foreign ownership and gives preference to Filipino citizens and corporations in the use of land and natural resources, public utilities, strategic industries, schools, media and advertising, as well as the practice of professions. 

The 1987 Constitution’s bias for democratic governance, national sovereignty, people empowerment, social justice, and human rights gives it its unique character. But it is not a perfect document. I believe amendments or revisions can and should be done to further strengthen these core values. 

Sadly, such is not the case with Duterte’s Cha-Cha.

There are 4 subcommittee reports now pending approval by the House committee on constitutional amendments. The reports are a consolidation of all pending bills in the House plus proposed amendments contained in the PDP-Laban’s proposal for Charter Change. These subcommittee reports provide the clearest picture yet of what Duterte’s federalist Cha-Cha wants to achieve. And it doesn’t look good.

A smorgasbord for political dynasties

On the shift to federalism, the proposal is to create anywhere from 5 to 18 regional states, with provincial governors proposing 81. Each state will be headed by an elected Premier as the chief executive, and Regional Assembly as the legislative body. Each regional government will have its own bureaucracy in exercising a combination of exclusive and shared powers with the national government. 

With Congress refusing to pass any anti-dynasty measure in the last 30 years, it is a foregone conclusion that if and when Congress – as a constituent assembly – revises the Charter, it will allow the proposed regional states to be controlled by the very same political dynasties entrenched in Congress and now dominating 94% of the provincial governments. 

Knowing how local politics works, the regional premiership will most likely be a contest among provincial dynasts, with regional assembly candidates requiring the support of these same dynasts and warlords to win. 

Instead of bringing government closer to the people, Duterte’s federalist project will heap another layer of bureaucracy, and with it, another layer of red tape and an entirely new power structure controlled by the same old political dynasties and warlords. Maybe we would be better off improving and expanding the barangays. 

Given this, it is unlikely that the new regional governments will translate to more or better grassroots services, as they reinforce the current top-heavy governance structure. It will mean, however, more spoils to be divided among the political elite, more opportunities for graft and corruption, and more ways of cornering government resources for their friends, relatives, and supporters. 

Furthermore, running these new government structures will require additional funding to be shouldered by the country’s mostly poor population. The regional governments will, in fact, be authorized to impose its own taxes, on top of those already collected by the provincial, city, and municipal governments plus the barangay units. Whatever additional funds to be retained by regions due to federalism will most likely go to funding the new bureaucracy. 

By granting already dominant political elites more power, further bloating the bureaucracy and imposing additional taxes on the people, such a federal system reduces the capacity of poor and marginalized sectors to change existing power structures or influence public policy, leading to even greater alienation, oppression, and less democracy.  

A step towards dictatorship

During the 3-year transition period to the proposed parliamentary-federal system (2019-2022), Congress will be dissolved and a bicameral interim Parliament formed, to be composed (surprise!) of these very same characters from Congress. There will be a new Senate and a Federal Assembly from which will be elected the interim prime minister and the Cabinet.

During this time, President Duterte will be given the following additional powers: unprecedented oversight powers over all branches of government; the power to appoint his Cabinet members into the Federal Assembly; and the power of supervision and direction over the interim prime minister and the Cabinet.

It bears noting that there is even a proposal, contained in Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 8, not only to dissolve Congress but to give Duterte himself legislative powers during the transition period, akin to Marcos’ act of closing down Congress in 1972 and abrogating upon himself legislative powers. (READ: Changing the Constitution: What is being proposed so far)

With respect to the judiciary, federalism would lead to a reorganization of the courts up to the regional Court of Appeals, with justices and judges in their new salas to be appointed by Duterte. But it’s not as if Duterte needs to do anything more to control the judiciary.

As to the independent constitutional commissions – the Commission on Elections, Commission on Audit and Civil Service Commission – plus the Commission on Human Rights, the subcommittee reports are silent but RBH No. 8 proposes ending the terms of the commissioners within a year after the approval of the new Charter. It also proposes  increasing the number of commissioners from 5 to 19 per commission and giving Duterte the power to appoint all of them.

At the very least, these proposed amendments grant immense powers to Duterte and effectively dismantle whatever system of checks and balances there is among the 3 branches of government and the constitutional commissions. At worst, it creates a constitutional dictatorship, much like that of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. – Rappler.com

(To be concluded | READ: Duterte’s Cha-Cha disempowers Filipinos, especially poor, marginalized)