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[OPINION] Last chance

The 2019 mid-term election might as well be the last chance for Philippine democracy and sovereignty. If the elections result in a Senate dominated by Duterte, we can kiss both goodbye. What will follow is a constitutional change that would entrench a Duterte legacy of authoritarian politics and policies that will surrender our national patrimony and sovereignty to China.  

With a clear victory on the war on drugs being more out of reach as he goes deeper into his presidency, President Rodrigo Duterte is now training his sights on two things that would define his legacy: charter change and the "Build, Build, Build" program premised on China’s dominant role in the Philippine economy

In both cases, Congress, and the Senate in particular, would play a crucial role in making sure that President Duterte’s actions would not endanger the future of our democracy and the independence of our nation. A Senate controlled by Duterte would mean a future mortgaged to a foreign power, and a ghost of the democracy that we know of.

Changing the Constitution

The Duterte administration is pushing for a federal constitution. It desires to erase the EDSA legacy of a pro-people, pro-democracy, and pro-human rights 1987 Constitution by replacing it with one crafted to benefit dynasties and dedicated to fragmenting the nation.  

The first key feature of Duterte’s constitution is the shift to a federal form of government. The administration is selling this supposedly as a means to attain peace and order. This proposal does not enjoy popular support. Surveys show that less than 20% of Filipinos support the shift to federalism while 62% want to retain the current structure of government.

A shift in the form of government will weaken our country in the foreseeable future. It will create confusion as to who dictates the policies and as to which institutions will be held accountable for any problem that may arise. This shift will also need billions, if not trillions, of pesos and years to implement. This confusion will render our country vulnerable to both internal and external threats to our sovereignty.

The second key feature of Duterte’s constitution is the removal of protectionist provisions. The 1987 Constitution placed ownership and control of patrimonial assets and key industries in the hands of the Filipinos. Duterte’s proposed change comes at a juncture in which China, a country against which we have a territorial dispute, is aggressively expanding their political and economic influence through massive investment, infrastructure and development programs. It is no secret that these programs are designed to favor China and places the countries, with whom they enter these agreements, at a disadvantage.

If we remove the present Constitution’s protectionist provisions, it would be easy for a country like China to take over local industries and properties just by sheer volume of their investments. This is a curse for a country that has territories and resources which China has aggressively and unlawfully worked to occupy or acquire. And if China gains control of facets of our economy, they can place themselves in a position to hold our country hostage when we start to claim what is legally ours. 

The only legal protection we currently have against this are the patrimonial provisions in our present Constitution. 

In spite of the risks involved, Duterte is hell-bent on ramming his new constitution down our throats. Duterte pitches the idea of constitutional change as a much-needed shift to a federal system of government. What it actually is, is a veiled attempt at removing term limits for elected officials, granting additional and practically unchecked powers to the office of the President, and removing the protectionist provisions to allow Chinese ownership and control of our key industries and resources.

The challenge for the next Congress is to see Duterte’s proposal for a new constitution for what it is, a betrayal of our democracy and a surrender of our independence and sovereignty. The key numbers here are 16 and 18. It takes 16 senators to call for a constitutional convention, while it takes 18 senators to convene a constituent assembly. If Duterte manages to secure 18 votes for his proposal, a new constitution will just be a plebiscite away. 

‘Build, Build, Build’ program 

In order to pump prime the economy, President Duterte seeks to implement an unprecedented level of spending through his "Build, Build, Build" Program. To fund this program, this administration has sought to increase borrowings as well as taxes.  

In the past few months, it has become apparent that this administration is set on borrowing from China, in spite of their history of onerous deals and oppositions to the projects themselves. The Chico River project and the Kaliwa Dam project has met stiff opposition from the residents who argue that the projects pose more harm to the environment and the communities than they benefit them. Some observers also argue that some of the projects under the "Build, Build, Build" Program do not really translate to any economic gains.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio warns that should our country proceed with its plan to borrow heavily from China, our patrimonial assets could be in danger of being taken.

Infrastructure and loan agreements with China feature extremely onerous provisions such as waiver of immunity provisions, placing patrimonial assets as collateral, hiring Chinese companies as contractors, and settling the disputes under Chinese laws. Many countries, such as Venezuela, Sri Lanka, and Ecuador, have fallen into the Chinese debt trap and were forced into parting with their strategic assets in order to make their payments. With Duterte being manifestly friendly to the Chinese government in spite of these unfortunate precedents, we are in a constant danger of falling into the same trap that could cripple our country for generations to come. 

It is here that the Senate plays a crucial role. Unlike the courts, Senate can investigate these deals motu proprio and enact laws that would limit the terms of the agreement which the President can agree to. Senate, likewise, has the power to withhold consent to treaties that would be inimical to the national interests. Finally, being an elected body with a national constituency, the Senate holds sufficient influence to affect the policies proposed and implemented by the President.

Other key issues 

Another issue expected to be discussed in the next Congress would be the legislation seeking to limit individual rights and liberties under the guise of the fight against terrorism and criminality. It is expected that the administration will increase pressure on the proposal to increase government surveillance capabilities and the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility. The possible revival of the death penalty also remains an issue. 

While these measures on criminality appear great on paper, they are dangerous in context. We have seen how the administration is heavy-handed against the opposition and dissenters while being soft on their allies. We have pillars of the criminal justice system that are quick to kill poor drug suspects while exonerating key ranking officials from the administration accused of large-scale illegal drug operations. The Duterte administration is also eager to indict critics while it keeps on setting free its plundering allies.

It is thus a reasonable conjecture that the legislation proposing heavier approach against criminality will be applied only to political dissenters and the marginalized.

Challenge for voters 

Duterte is now using every possible resource and influence at his disposal to make sure that he gets his loyal supporters elected to ensure the necessary votes in Congress to support his agenda. Right now, the Senate is the only institution left standing in the way of this reality. 

If the President manages to stack the Senate with his loyal followers, the Senate’s power to check the President would be decimated. As a collegial body, the Senate is only as strong and as independent as its members. A weakened opposition would make the Senate a rubberstamp with little value to our country. 

It is therefore the greatest challenge to our electorate to elect candidates who are patriotic, capable, and independent-minded. 

In order to protect our Constitution and sovereignty, we need to keep the strength and independence of our Senate; and the Senate is only as strong and independent as its opposition bloc. If the opposition falls, so does our democracy. –

Senator Leila de Lima, a fierce Duterte critic, has been detained in a facility at the Philippine National Police headquarters for more than two years over what she calls trumped-up drug charges.