Up in the air until October
With mere days to go before Congress goes on its Holy Week break (March 24-May 13), the House of Representatives committee on suffrage approved a proposal to postpone barangay elections to Oct. 8. Since Congress resumes its session on May 14, the day of the barangay elections, the House has very little time to approve the postponement in plenary, and the Senate even less time to tackle the proposal before everyone goes on holiday after the 23rd of this month.
Still, no one will be able to say the effort failed for lack of trying. The confrontation between the Speaker and the Mayor of Davao has died down, and the movements in the House suggest the Speaker and PDP-Laban haven’t given up on their hopes of ultimately postponing the 2019 midterm elections. But this can only happen if the barangay polls are postponed before the Holy Week break. Moving the barangay elections to October would allow a plebiscite on a new constitution to piggyback on the barangay polls, otherwise a plebiscite couldn’t be held, because there is no item in the national budget for one.
Theoretically, if Congress fails to postpone the barangay elections from May to October, it can still propose and pass a special budget for a plebiscite during its short return to work from May 14-June 1, when it is scheduled to adjourn its second regular session, sine die. But that would be the last chance for the last-termers in Congress to try to combine the approval of a new constitution with an extension of some sort, for their terms, while depriving rivals of a chance to start jockeying for the 2022 presidential derby, which would normally be the result of the 2019 midterm elections.
When Congress convenes for its third regular session on July 23, its first order of business will be the 2019 budget. The State of the Nation Address, in reviewing the past year and laying out plans for the coming official fiscal year, lays out the budgetary and legislative agenda for the administration. The President will be widely expected to endorse the product of his commission on constitutional change as well. He could go as far as calling on Congress to figure out how to formally propose a new constitution by May 2019, which could blunt some of the excitement over the midterm elections. Instead of being the start of the 2022 presidential contest, it could signal a realignment toward a Malaysian-style one-party state. This would be small consolation for people like the Speaker, who would have to either move districts (Surigao del Norte might want to
offer him a friendly new district to take over, as could a helpful party-list), or find a job in the executive branch. This would be easier to sell to the public than the current scheme of the Speaker.
But it would still be tough to schedule all of this in time for May 2019. Yesterday, in a hearing on constitutional amendments, Sen. Francis Pangilinan said he preferred to wait for the consultative committee’s product, which would have to be read, debated, and discussed in hearings before the Senate even decides whether it wants to participate in an amendment effort with a plebiscite during the midterms. A case could be made that our institutions are already so badly damaged by the current regime that the country might not survive a major upheaval, which a change in the form or style of government would involve. Another case could be made that the current dispensation has proven to be so totally wrapped up in the personality of the President, that any successor would have a rare opportunity to exercise presidential powers with hardly any opposition, except perhaps from what would be the irresistible pressure to hand over former officials to the International Criminal Court—in which case, anyone who wants to be president would have little incentive to help change the current system.
Which suggests the tipping point, either way, will be reached by October or even earlier. If candidacies end up being filed in October without a plebiscite having taken place in that month or scheduled for May, then all the country has to do is sit tight, and plan for the restoration of the rule of law and normal government by June 30, 2022.
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