‘RevGov’ is Duterte’s bid for total power
Back in 2015, when Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was genuinely conflicted about running for president, he located part of that conflict in what he said was the lack of power of the Philippine presidency. The office, bound by rule and tradition, was simply not up to the task of running a sprawling, dysfunctional nation, he argued. If he were elected, he said in a June interview, “I will give myself six months to one year to do the reforms I want to do. If the system becomes obstructionist and I become inutile, I will declare a revolutionary government.”
He carried the same message to the Inquirer, which he visited in August of that year. “I have to stop criminality and corruption. I have to fix this government. I won’t do it if you want to place me there with the solemn pledge to stick to the rules,” he said. Then he added something truly startling: “The wellspring of corruption is the Constitution itself,” meaning the limits that the post-dictatorship charter placed on the powers of the executive branch lent themselves to graft and dysfunction.
“All money matters and budget appropriation [are limited by the Constitution],” he said.
In contrast, drawing the wrong lesson from his quarter-century as feared and fearless mayor, he said that in Davao City he could easily revamp an agency “from the head down to the janitor.”
At different points in his Inquirer visit, Mr. Duterte referred to either a “revolutionary government” or a “constitutional dictatorship,” and even trotted out lawyer Salvador Panelo, not exactly a legal thoroughbred, as his lead horse on the change of government. But he also spent his time at the Inquirer insisting that no one in his entourage would be appointed to high office if he became president, with the exception of former general Hermogenes Esperon, whom he said he would appoint as national security adviser. (He did.) His entourage included Panelo, now chief presidential legal counsel; Pompee La Viña, now commissioner of the Social Security Commission; and Pantaleon Alvarez, now speaker of the House.
Fast-forward two years, and talk of revolutionary government is back on Mr. Duterte’s lips. A year and a half after his election, he has circled back to his dangerous, antidemocratic idea. On Oct. 13, he said that if the destabilization plots against him look likely to succeed, “I will not hesitate to declare a revolutionary government until the end of my term.” In the same month, government officials like Interior Assistant Secretary Epimaco Densing III issued explainers making the case for the imposition of a revolutionary government.
What explains the turnaround? Are there in fact attempts to destabilize the government? Citing its own intelligence work, the military has repeatedly given the lie to such claims. Has the system become obstructionist and the President inutile? On the contrary: A subservient supermajority in Congress and a pliable majority in the Supreme Court, an intimidated business community and a compromised police force have given Mr. Duterte almost everything he wants. Is the drive to federalism stalled? It has been delayed, but only because Congress has been consumed in either covering up the extrajudicial killings or attacking functioning symbols of the rule of law, such as the Chief Justice and the Ombudsman.
The reason for the return of “RevGov” is much more basic. President Duterte is now aware that he faces an existential threat, not of ouster but of being held to the strictest accounting even after his term. His bank accounts pose the most risk to him, but he is vulnerable on other counts, too: The continuing EJKs make an International Criminal Court investigation all but inevitable; the billion-peso shabu smuggling leads all the way back to Davao; the fractures in his coalition are widening, now with the Arroyo group in the ascendant. Secrets are being spilled. For a man who felt humiliated appearing before a human rights panel and who still bristles at the memory, the prospect of the law finally catching up with him is unnerving.
RevGov offers the easy way out; it is a self-coup that stops everything — the sometimes uncontrollable Senate inquiries, the powerful Supreme Court dissents, the cases at the Ombudsman. In other words, he will escape any form of sanction only if he assumes absolute power.
“You have to close everything. It is antidemocratic, but how do you change society?” he asked in June 2015. Today we can see that RevGov as the path to total power is not about social change, but only about the self-preservation of a mere and temporary president.
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.