Expert warns: Charter change a classic strategy of autocrats

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By Tricia Aquino, InterAksyon

AS THE 20-member Consultative Committee (ConCom) appointed by President Rodrigo R. Duterte reviews the 1987 Constitution to pave the way for a federal form of government, an expert warns that Charter change has been used by leaders in the past to cling to power.

“Changing constitutions is a classic strategy of autocratic leaders elected in democracies, but who later undermined their own democracies,” said University of the Philippines political science professor Gene Lacza Pilapil on Tuesday, during a hearing by the Senate committee on constitutional amendments and revision of codes.

He found particularly troubling the no-election (No-el) scenario in May 2019 floated by House Speaker Pantaleon D. Alvarez, who argued that a shift from a unitary to a federal government will need a transition government.

Mr. Pilapil explained that voters will be deprived of their rights to vote for their representatives in the legislative branch; legislators will undermine their electoral mandate from the public, as they will occupy their office longer than the period they were voted for; and Congress will be weaker as compared to a powerful President who enjoys a robust electoral mandate that is still good for the next half of his term.

No-el will also expose the campaign for Charter change as a “power grab of self-interested, shameless, and power-hungry legislators” who wish to extend their stay in office. Mr. Pilapil labeled this a “garapal (in your face) power grab,” as opposed to a “swabe (subtle) power grab” where incumbent officials who have reached their term limit under the 1987 Constitution will possibly be allowed to run as though for the first time during the elections after a new Constitution with different rules is in place.

This “swabe power grab” is even more dangerous than its “garapal” counterpart because come 2022, President Rodrigo Duterte himself will be involved, Mr. Pilapil said. He said that the proposed federal Constitution of the PDP-Laban, and of Representatives Aurelio Gonzales and Eugene De Vera, have no provisions banning the incumbent President from running for re-election, which the 1987 bans.

Mr. Pilapil challenged these proponents to “bind” Duterte and allay fears that the shift to federalism is part of a script he and his allies wrote to remain in power beyond the constitutionally mandated term limit.

“The statement of President Duterte that he will step down in 2022 even if a federal Constitution is passed is as good as his campaign promise to ride a jet ski to the Spratlys, a promise which he now teases his own supporters for believing,” Mr. Pilapil said.

To ensure that Mr. Duterte does not “tease” Filipinos for believing him when he said that he will cede power as early as 2020, and will not run again, Mr. Pilapil urged federalism advocates: “Institutionalize his promise to step down by constitutionally barring him to run in your proposed federal Constitutions. Ban Duterte, defend democracy.”

Mr. Pilapil explained that any time a new Constitution is introduced in a democracy, the question of term extension of an incumbent president becomes a “central concern” because of “knowledge of previous constitutional episodes involving elected strongmen who tried to skirt term limits of their democracies by coming up with a new Constitution.”

He cited former Presidents Alberto Fujimori of Peru, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and even Ferdinand Marcos of employing this tactic. The latter failed his attempt, forcing him to fall back on Plan B, which was to declare Martial Law and “terminate Philippine democracy altogether” in 1972.

Mr. Pilapil added that transitory provisions in House Concurrent Resolution No. 9 and Resolution of both Houses No. 8 will give the incumbent President “mind-boggling powers” such that he becomes a “one-man hyper executive legislative package” with “almost revolutionary” powers.

Also at the hearing was League of Provinces of the Philippines executive director Sandra Tablan-Paredes, who read their resolution declaring their full support for the shift to federalism as a way to accelerate local development and spread economic gains throughout the Philippines.

In the meantime, she stressed the need to increase the Internal Revenue Allotment, which currently amounts to 16% of public spending.

“Itama na po ang pag-compute ng IRA ng mga LGUs (Let us correct the computation of the IRA for the LGUs),” she said.

The Local Government Code of 1991, which states that “regional offices of national agencies or offices whose functions are devolved to local government units as provided herein shall be phased out within one year from the approval of this Code,” must be strictly implemented in that the funds for the Department of Health, Department of Social Welfare and Development, and Department of Agriculture must be downloaded to the local governments.

Despite this provision, said Ms. Tablan-Paredes, 86% of the funds of the three agencies are being spent by the national government, with the rest of the funds trickling down to local governments.

“Kaya po hindi maramdaman ni Juan dela Cruz ang development (This is why Juan dela Cruz cannot feel the development),” she said.

She also sought the correct computation of the 40% IRA share of local government from national internal revenue collections, of which she said they were owed P1.234 trillion from 1995 to 2017.

“This is our constitutionally mandated fiscal space,” Ms. Tablan-Paredes insisted.

She also articulated the League of Provinces of the Philippines’ desire to be represented in the ConCom, which has room for five more members.

Dr. Francisco Magno, director of the Jesse M. Robredo Institute of Governance at the De La Salle University, echoed her sentiments, saying the IRA must be increased to enable LGUs to provide public goods and services to their constituents. He also suggested additional fiscal transfers through performance grants for high performing LGUs, and equalization funds for low-income LGUs.