Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at a press conference on his drug war at Malacanang palace in Manila, January 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Ezra Acayan
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at a press conference on his drug war at Malacanang palace in Manila, January 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Ezra Acayan

The similarity between the political histories of South Korea and the Philippines is uncanny. First, both have been colonized nations. Korea was under Japanese rule from 1910-1945 while the Philippines was a US colony from 1899-1946 and before this, a Spanish colony for more than three centuries.

Second, both nations after World War II embraced the democratic form of government as the linchpin of their independent nation-building projects. Notably, this introductory period to democracy was interrupted by a military takeover of government in both countries as well.

On May 16, 1961, General Park Chung-hee staged a successful military coup and ruled South Korea with an iron fist from 1961-1979. He declared martial law in October 1972 and dissolved the National Assembly. In November of the same year, the Yusin Constitution was promulgated, which gave the president of South Korea, General Park himself, complete control of the parliament and allowed him to promulgate emergency decrees.

On March 16, 1967, the Philippine Congress passed a resolution calling for a convention to amend the 1935 constitution. In the midst of the drafting process, however, then-president Ferdinand Marcos issued Proclamation No 1081 on September 21, 1972, declaring martial law. While wielding this powerful martial authority, Marcos was able to railroad the promulgation of the 1973 constitution, which in effect allowed him to stay in office indefinitely as well as to issue decrees with absolute impunity.

Indeed, until about the mid-1980s, both countries were under the grip of autocratic rulers. South Korea was under a military dictatorship while the Philippines was under a dictator supported by the military.

Finally, the restoration of democratic rule in both countries was also alike – in both, it was accomplished via popular revolt, or “people power.” More important, these two watershed moments were actually closely connected. Their historical link was expressed by Uk Heo and Terrence Roehrig in their 2010 book South Korea Since 1980, as such: “South Korea’s opposition became further energized in spring 1986 with the fall of Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos. Perhaps it would be South Korea’s time to remove an authoritarian leader.”

After going through those terrible years of political repression, the state-building projects by both countries have been anchored on consolidating democratic rule. In particular, both nations have endeavored to establish a political framework founded on a written constitution replete with provisions on rule of law, respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, and significant restraints on government.

In fact, the launching pad for this undertaking for both nations was the revision of their respective martial-law constitutions in 1987 – the Philippines in February and South Korea in October.

Latest constitutional reforms

Amazingly, as if on cue, both nations are currently undertaking constitutional reform.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in July 2016, winning the election under the slogan of his political party, PDP-Laban: “No to Drugs, Yes to Federalism.” He is thus committed to shepherding the transition of the Philippines into a federal form of government, which is an undertaking that requires a complete overhaul of the country’s constitution.

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea also won the top post in May 2017 on the promise of rewriting his country’s own 1987 constitution, specifically to reform the presidential term of office. Notably, during the presidential election, the South Korean electorate made it clear to all the contenders that they wanted this change to happen.

Consequently, President Moon upon assumption of office immediately called for a special parliamentary committee consisting of lawmakers from different political parties to produce a set of recommendations for the National Assembly to consider. This committee has done its work and the list of recommendations has been formally submitted to the assembly. The constitutional reform process seems to be well under way.

In the Philippines though, it may not be as clear-cut as in South Korea. President Duterte issued in December 2016 Executive Order No 10 to organize a consultative committee on constitutional reform with the mandate to “study, conduct consultations, and review the provisions of the 1987 constitution.”

But this body has only recently commenced its work because members of the committee were only named in January. It is headed by former chief justice Reynato Puno, and members include the prime mover of federalism advocacy in the Philippines, former Senate president Nene Pimentel, former Supreme Court justices, distinguished law practitioners, and well-regarded academics.

This delay is understandable given that Duterte had a lot on his plate in 2017. But he is now making up for lost time and has directed the consultative committee to produce a draft federal constitution by this June.  The plan is to announce this draft in his State of the Nation address in July.

But there are potential obstructions to Duterte’s timetable fo constitutional change that may come into play in the coming months. As the draft federal constitution is being written for the president, groups that are against charter change are organizing themselves to mobilize public support for their cause.

Some organizations are diligently preparing an alternative path for the same reforms sought by constitutional revision with the end view of enticing people to resist Duterte’s call to federalize the country, while some organizations intend to rally people to protests in the streets. If these social movements reach critical mass before the June deadline, it could stop the constitutional change proposition dead on its tracks.

The similarities in the political evolution of South Korea and the Philippines are indeed fascinating. But the differences, even the not so obvious ones, are utterly enlightening.

Michael Henry Yusingco

Michael Henry Yusingco is a legislative and policy consultant, author of Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective, lecturer at the School of Law and Governance of the University of Asia and the Pacific and a non-resident research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government in Manila. He is also a regular contributor in various public affairs and media outlets in the Philippines and Australia.

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