Duterte Forever? Critics Wary of Constitutional Changes in the Philippines

Duterte Forever? Critics Wary of Constitutional Changes in the Philippines
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

1,489 mayors in the Philippines proposed constitutional amendments calling for an extension of office terms as the country is sinking deeper into its pandemic woes. Critics called the proposal a power grab.

MANILA, Philippines — Ahead of the reopening of the congressional sessions on July 27, over 1,400 mayors petitioned for an extension of their office terms, according to the Department of Local and Interior Government (DILG). 

The proposal prompted concerns over whether the department will also seek to extend President Rodrigo Duterte’s term, which ends in 2022. Currently, Philippine presidents can only serve a single six-year term. 

Since Duterte took office in 2016, his allies have pushed for several Charter Changes, also known as Cha-Cha. The latest proposal, led by the League of Municipalities of the Philippines, called for a list of constitutional amendments in the midst of a pandemic. These include extending mayoral office terms from three to five years and easing restrictions on foreign investments among others.

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano argued that the three-year mayoral term limits create the problem of political dynasties in the Philippines. Replacing elected officials every three years gives impetus for their family members to run for the same position, Cayetano said. 

The DILG cited the term amendments as necessary for eliminating red tape during the pandemic and accelerating service delivery in the long run. 

National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), a group that has consistently lobbied to halt each iteration of Cha-Cha, labeled the move an “inebriated concoction” by power hungry elites. 

“They are at it again. Absolute power, privilege, and entitlement are just too irresistible a temptation, especially for those who think they are God’s gifts to humanity. Such resurrected plans under pretentious guises should be exposed and opposed,” Edre Olalia, NUPL President, told The News Lens

Photo Credit: Simeon Celi Jr./Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division via AP / TPG Images
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, center, delivers his State of the Nation Address (SONA) while Senate President Vicente Sotto III, left, and House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano applauds at the House of Representative in Metro Manila, Philippines, Monday, July 27, 2020. 

Ill-timed and self-serving charter change

Experts from the Center for People’s Empowerment in Governance, or CenPeg, an influential non-profit, criticized the DILG proposal as untimely while the country is sinking deeper into its pandemic woes. 

With over 85,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases, the Philippines sees its number of patients rising by the thousands each day. The economy is officially in recession, with jobs and livelihood endangered. 

CenPeg Chairman Temario Rivera emphasized that solving public health issues can lead to a better working democracy. “Flattening the curve is so important, because [if] there isn’t any significant progress, the argument to keep things in a state of emergency with the current leaders remain strong,” he said. 

Since the mid-90s, each Philippine president has put forth a Cha-Cha proposal. 

Neri Colmenares, a human rights lawyer and former legislator, has been one of the most vocal opponents of Cha-Cha under the Duterte administration. He told The News Lens that each iteration of the controversial amendments bears a term extension provision that would effectively cancel the upcoming elections.

The Duterte administration has cause to be concerned. Criticism hurled against President Duterte is gaining ground during the pandemic. On Twitter, #OustDuterte is an everyday sighting. Offline, protesters continue to defy police warnings, operations, and mass arrests, not to mention the virus itself.

Because of the imploding anti-government sentiment, Colmenares said the current administration is likely “wary of the 2022 elections, as they have no sure-fire successor.”

Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
Protesters march as they hold a rally at the University of the Philippines against the 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA) by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday, July 27, 2020 in Metro Manila, Philippines.

Cha-Cha with China

Besides the political and electoral modifications intended with Cha-Cha, there are a host of proposals aimed at further opening up the Philippine economy.

Previously, Duterte-aligned legislators have supported dismantling safeguards on foreign ownership of Philippine corporations and other assets. In the petition submitted by the DILG, city officials also cited Cha-Cha as a means to engender more equitable financial development.

Long-time opposition Senator Leila de Lima said this particular intention leads to greater connivance with China. “We should not let this regime succeed in its dictatorial designs by tinkering with our Constitution for two important reasons: Duterte is a China puppet and his regime is extraordinarily corrupt, inept and murderous,” she said. 

At the State of the Nation Address on July 27, President Duterte professed that asserting warranted and longstanding territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea against Beijing is futile. He also implied that the solution to Covid-19 lies in supporting the neighboring superpower in its quest for a vaccine.

“Opening up the economy can result in 100 percent ownership for China in strategic industries,” Colmenares said. “When that happens, going through the front door with a red carpet unfurled, it will further deprive the Filipino people of badly needed resources at this time and make them more vulnerable to the exploitation of big countries."

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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