On the cusp of illiberal success
It is impossible for those pursuing an illiberal agenda to simply accommodate themselves to an existing constitutional structure once power has been achieved. There is the future to consider. The President is limited to a single, six-year term; he has no guarantee, whatever his current popularity, of being able to engineer the election of an anointed successor who will either protect him, his people, or perpetuate his policies, such as they are. By next year, Congress and local government officials are up for election, with the Senate race being a bellwether of two things: traditionally, it serves as a referendum on the sitting administration, and a kind of primary race for the 2022 presidential contest.
The very nature of the illiberal agenda — authoritarian, revisionist, undemocratic — requires the systematic dismantling of the very democratic consensus that allowed it to gain power by frankly expressing contempt for the institutions it’s now in a position to demolish. The President himself has never been coy about his contempt for the 1987 Constitution with its post-Marcos provisions limiting executive authority, enshrining human rights and term limits.
His thinking, in bold strokes (which is the sum total of his constitutional thinking), involves an inclination toward a strong, directly elected presidency, and a unicameral parliament with a prime minister: in a word, a return to the hybrid “French model” experimented with by Ferdinand Marcos from 1973-1986. The newish part of the President’s proposal is a vaguely defined federal system best summed up as follows by a governor in the Visayas to me two years ago: “In the past, we had to beg Manila for money. Under federalism, Manila will have to beg for money from us.”
All efforts to amend the Constitution, so far, have failed, for three reasons. The first has to do with the Constitution itself, whose provisions on amendments are vague, if not contradictory. They were written with a unicameral legislature in mind, only for the commission that approved it deciding on a bicameral legislature late in the day, leaving no time for the text to be revised accordingly. This means any proposal for constitutional change originating in Congress will almost surely result in a battle between the House of Representatives and the Senate, with the Supreme Court deciding the matter — and until recently, neither the Senate nor the Supreme Court was expected to roll over in the face of the House asserting that the Constitution’s unicameral procedure should apply to a bicameral legislature.
The second has to do with public skepticism over proposals to open up the economy, particularly any proposal to allow foreigners to own land. The third has to do with politicians proposing the changes: In general, proposals tend to include some sort of term extension for the presidents or legislators that propose them, while depriving the public of the opportunity to directly elect the head of state, irredeemably bogging down the debate.
This time around, prospects of a bonanza in Chinese investments, a Supreme Court that has proven itself cooperative in all the major cases the administration has faced (it obligingly approved President Duterte’s proclamation of martial law), the personal popularity of the President, and a Speaker who has proven far more ruthless than his predecessors, have resulted in this administration boldly attempting what its predecessors tried but lacked the nerve to fully do: sweep aside senatorial objections by forcing a vote regardless of whether the Senate, as an institution, participates or not (Sen. Panfilo Lacson is using peer pressure to prevent a patsy being found among administration senators to simply sit with the House to lend the appearance of legitimacy to the proceedings). It has also managed to achieve a victory in any challenge in the Supreme Court and take the battle all the way to the ballot box in a constitutional plebiscite the Speaker suggested should take place as early as May this year not necessarily because he wants it then, but because the mañana habit and ningas cogon demand early deadlines to achieve realistic timetables.
As Ferdinand Marcos once said, “the public will accept anything so long as it appears constitutional and legal.” The illiberal agenda always demands assisted suicide on the part of the democracy it seeks to abolish.
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