Philippine President Rodrigo says he will try the new Russian vaccine. Image: Facebook

MANILA – Emboldened by authoritarian gains seized under health emergency rule, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is now gunning for the ultimate prize: constitutional change that could extend his legally bound single six-year term limit.

With the 2022 presidential campaign emerging on the political horizon, the Filipino strongman and his political allies are once again pushing for charter change.

The move comes as pressure rises on the leader’s various rights abuses, including in his bloody drug war.  It also comes as he squeezes media critics who might challenge the move, witnessed in his government’s knocking the largest news broadcaster, ABS-CBN, off the air and intensified legal harassment of press freedom icon Maria Ressa, founder of the Rappler news site.

Duterte has repeatedly argued that changing the Philippines’ form of government into a federal system would break Manila’s hold on power and resources, and bring prosperity to the country’s neglected peripheries including his home island of Mindanao.

He and his supporters claim that the 1987 constitution, crafted after the fall of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, was overly focused on preventing the rise of another authoritarian leader and did not do enough to address structural issues of economic inequality.

Opposition and civil society groups, however, fear that the real intention behind the move is to either delay the 2022 elections or scrap presidential term limits altogether, allowing for the 75-year-old Duterte to seek re-election.

That would borrow a page from other authoritarian leaders, namely Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China, who have bent rules to attenuate their strongman tenures.

Then presidential aspirant Rodrigo Duterte stands in front of a campaign poster on November 30, 2015. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis
Then presidential aspirant Rodrigo Duterte stands in front of a campaign poster on November 30, 2015. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

“The intention is to postpone the 2022 elections and failing that, remove term limits,” warned Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon, a constitutional stalwart who has strenuously challenged the need for charter change.

A coterie of pro-Duterte mayors, in tandem with the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), is leading the charter change push under various guises that don’t explicitly call for extending Duterte’s rule.

Last week, 1,488 municipal mayors belonging to the pro-government League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP) teamed up with staunch federalism advocate and Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya to call openly for charter change amid a Covid-19 health emergency and fast-deteriorating economy.

According to the DILG, the mayors are seeking two major changes, namely a greater share of the national tax revenue pie based on a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, as well as relaxation of restrictions on foreign investments.

According to Ilocos Sur Mayor Luis “Chavit” Singson, a notorious regional overlord who heads the LMP, the mayors want “to institutionalize a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that said the national government should give “just share” to local governments in the constitution.

“Every municipality, especially the poor ones, are short of funds and they will definitely welcome all additional budget especially since this will help their development,” added the longtime overlord of the northern province.

Critics say the demand is suspect as constitutional change is not needed to accommodate their demand for greater access to national revenues. Benjamin Diokno, the central bank’s governor, has warned that the national budget deficit is already “unmanageable” at 6% of gross domestic product (GDP).

A woman waiting for relief goods to be placed on chairs designated for households in a low income community in Metro-Manila. Photo: EPA via AFP Forum

Duterte’s top technocrat said if the Supreme Court ruling was implemented now, “it will restrain the budget. Our credit rating will fall. International confidence will go down. And we [will] need to cut down significantly on our Build, Build, Build [infrastructure] program.”

The renewed push for constitutional change is likely also being driven by the self-interest of entrenched political families that dominate elected offices. Studies suggest that so-called political dynasties, namely families whose relatives simultaneously hold offices in specific districts, hold at least 70% of legislative seats.

Speaker of Congress Alan Peter Cayetano, Duterte’s erstwhile ally and scion of one of the Philippines’ leading political families, has recently suggested removing term limits for all elected officials, not just the president.

“They say, our mayor, they always want to play politics. But their term of office is (only) three years. In the middle of the [year] they get elected…Worldwide, they have four to five years in office to do planning and their job,” the congressional leader said in a mixture of Filipino and Tagalog.

Cayetano argues that removing term limits removes the incentive to create political dynasties, because it would give elected officials enough time to plan and finish long-term projects.

Experts and academics, however, argue that the prevalence of political dynasties is strongly correlated with endemic corruption and poverty.

The Philippine constitution (Article II, Section 26) mandates a ban on political dynasties, namely the simultaneous or successive occupation of elected offices by closely related individuals. But the dynasty-dominated Congress has repeatedly refused to pass an enabling law to enforce the constitutional provision.

Alan Peter Cayetano wants charter change so he and his family dynasty can rule longer. Image: Facebook

Representing the 1st district of Taguig City, Cayetano’s wife, Maria Laarni, is representative of the 2nd district, while his brother, Lino, is the city’s current mayor. His sister, Pia, is currently back as a senator following a stint as a local official.

“There is no doubt that charter change is needed, but the question is the timing,” Cayetano said, admitting the difficulties of conducting a national referendum on any prospective new constitution.

Previous attempts at constitutional reform failed due to lack of public support and vehement resistance from the more independent Senate.

At the height of constitutional change deliberations in mid-2018, seven out of ten Filipinos rejected the government’s proposal for a shift to a federal system, according to a Pulse Asia survey. Only 23% of respondents expressed support for such a move.

The Pulse Asia survey showed that most Filipinos either doubted the need for charter change or Duterte’s intentions.

With Marcos dictatorship’s memory still relatively fresh, many Filipinos are worried that another opportunistic authoritarian leader would leverage constitutional change to perpetuate his or her power at the people’s expense.

Protestors hold mock hammers with words 'No Hero' in front of a portrait of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos as they denounce his burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes' cemetery) during a protest outside the presidential palace in metro Manila, Philippines November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco - RTSSQLS
Protestors hold mock hammers with words ‘No Hero’ in front of a portrait of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos as they denounce his burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) during a protest outside the presidential palace in Metro Manila, Philippines November 22, 2016. Photo: Agencies

Facing potential prosecution for his massive human rights violations, including thousands of extrajudicial killings in his scorched-earth drug war the International Criminal Court is probing, Duterte is right to be worried about his post-presidential future.

At least two of his predecessors, Joseph Estrada and Glorio Macapagal Arroyo, faced detention and house arrest on corruption charges after they stepped down from office.

Amid a steep economic decline and with one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in Southeast Asia, Duterte is scrambling to prevent a wider political backlash or worse, an opposition takeover in 2022 that could put his own freedom in jeopardy.