Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, wearing a military uniform, gestures as he delivers a speech on November 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte enters the new year with strong political momentum on his side. But a move afoot to amend the constitution in a manner that would potentially allow him to serve beyond a one-term, six-year legal limit could be a flash point in the months ahead.

The Duterte administration is on the verge of amending the Philippine charter to create a new federal-parliamentary form of government. For critics, the move is nothing short of an attempt to upend the country’s democratic regime to establish a self-serving autocracy.

Currently there are various proposals on how to revamp the 1987 constitution, a document deliberately designed to prevent a repeat of ex-president Ferdinand Marcos’ abusive dictatorship. Provisions include a single term limit for any elected president that ensures the peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another.

It also places stringent preconditions for the declaration of nationwide martial law and other draconian emergency measures by the executive branch. Last year, the Duterte-dominated Congress allowed the president to place the conflict-ridden southern island of Mindanao under martial law for all of 2018.

Critics of the regime fear martial law could easily be extended across the archipelagic nation in response to a terror attack or security crisis. For Duterte’s supporters, however, the current constitution creates an unnecessarily weak presidency, giving the national leader limited time and power to bring about transformational change.

President Rodrigo Duterte speaks after delivering his State of the Nation address to Congress in Quezon city, Manila, July 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

His advocates argue that the current unitary-presidential system unfairly concentrates power in “imperial Manila” at the expense of peripheral regions, particularly Visayas and Mindandao, the bailiwicks of the president.

The introduction of a new parliamentary system of government, they argue, will pave the way for the rise of the kinds of visionary leaders and dominant parties which turned former backwaters such as Singapore and Malaysia into major economic hubs under strong national leaders Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad respectively.

If so, now may be a strategic time to make the move. According to the country’s leading independent surveys, Duterte won the approval of as many as four out of five Filipinos in the final quarter of 2017. His ratings had slipped dramatically in the third quarter due to negative perceptions of his bloody drug war.

The Filipino president also ably leveraged his hosting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Manila – where global leaders cordially hobnobbed with Duterte – to burnish his credentials in the public eye.

This effectively makes the tough-talking populist among the most popular democratically elected leaders in the world. Buoyed by strong public support, Duterte and his allies seem keen to consolidate a long-term grip on state institutions via transformation of the political system.

They also seem keen to shut down any criticism of his rule, seen in Monday’s Securities and Exchange Commission order to revoke the operating license of plucky online media outlet Rappler.

Journalists work at the office of Rappler in Pasig, Metro Manila, Philippines January 15, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

The government has denied any involvement in the closure order, even as Duterte had previously threatened the site over its drug war coverage. Silencing the media, some suggest, could be part of a wider conspiracy to blunt criticism of the drive to overhaul the charter.

Duterte’s Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) party’s draft constitution openly calls for the removal of current term limits, potentially extending the president’s reign beyond mid-2022, when his single six-year term in office legally expires.

It would also abolish the offices of the vice-president, historically and currently the stronghold of opposition leaders. The draft instead envisions a bi-cameral legislature, composed of a Federal Assembly, where representatives are selected on a nation-wide level, and a Senate, composed of regional representatives.

A dominant president system, where the elected executive can stay in power for up to a decade and select the prime minister from among the members of the Federal Assembly, is akin to those in France and Turkey. The president remains as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chief architect of foreign policy.

To Duterte’s critics, the proposed constitution could potentially create a Putin-like “tandemocracy” regime, whereby a dominant figure could rotate between the offices of president and prime minster to serve as de facto national leader perpetually.

An activist shouts slogans during a protest against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte near the Malacanang palace in Manila on September 21, 2017. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr, son of the former dictator, and ex-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo are among the president’s strongest supporters and already widely seen as leading contenders to serve as Duterte’s chosen prime minster in the event of charter change.

At the very least, a shift to a new form of government would put Duterte in a position to extend his tenure and give him an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the Philippine political system in his own image.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, however, has denied any plans for extending Duterte’s term in office, stating, “if the constitution is amended… [Duterte] is willing to let go, because he is not keen really on staying as president. That’s the truth.”

For critics, the move is nothing short of an attempt to upend the country’s democratic regime to establish a self-serving autocracy

Opposition leaders such as Senator Antonio Trillanes, however, retort that one must be “naïve” to “swallow what this president says,” claiming that a new constitution will give Duterte and his supporters the pretext for regime change.

House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, a staunch Duterte supporter, has proposed the cancellation of Barangay (village-level) elections in mid-2018 to pave the way for a plebiscite, which, in turn, will act as a precursor for the establishment of new form of government.

The Congress, where Duterte enjoys a “super-majority” support, is also proposing the creation of a Constituent Assembly, where the members of the lower house jointly votes along with those in the Senate on proposed constitutional amendments, the passage of which requires a three-fourths vote of the combined legislature.

Opposition leaders see this as a thinly disguised plot to diminish the power of the Senate, which has far fewer members and has historically served as an institutional check on the power of overreaching presidents. But the popular Duterte and his legislative backers seem poised to shift Philippine democracy in a less democratic direction.

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