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Commentary

Ornamental constitutional changes

/ 05:14 AM August 02, 2018

After facing initial setbacks at overhauling the 1987 Constitution even with a supermajority Congress under his control, President Duterte has apparently redrawn his Charter change plans and deadlines. The new game plan has been jumpstarted with the formal submission of a draft “Federal Constitution” by the consultative committee created by Mr. Duterte and headed by former chief justice Reynato Puno.

There has been much hype about the proposed charter’s supposed “radical changes” that will distribute power from “Imperial Manila” to the regions, and strengthen the bureaucracy in various ways that only federalism can supposedly provide. However, a close reading of the document reveals how ornamental these changes are, and how the overall Charter change campaign appears to be merely another plank in Mr. Duterte’s drive to consolidate power.

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First, the introduction of articles on “federated regions” may seem like a revolutionary move with the introduction of
16 federated regions, not including the Bangsamoro and the Cordilleras. Also to be created are regional assemblies that can craft regional legislation, plus regional Supreme Courts and regional governorship posts. This will supposedly empower the regions in ways that cannot be possibly done under the current Charter.

Yet, when one looks at the article on the distribution of powers between the federal government and the federated regions, this local “empowerment” proves to be largely a work of imagination. Apart from granting exclusive powers to federated regions to levy taxes such as real property tax and estate tax, a function the national government currently holds, most of the powers local governments will be given are powers they have now, such as granting business permits and licenses. The federal government, on the other hand, will continue to be all-powerful, essentially the same creature in another costume.

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The changes are basically cosmetic. The bureaucracy will be overly expanded—400 legislators in the House of Representatives, at least 36 senators, and four chief justices. Yet, apart from redoing term limits and redistributing authority in the judiciary, the bulk of the provisions appear to be no different from the current Charter—the same government system repackaged only to become more complicated and designed to
accommodate as many more people as possible into positions of power.

There are notable reforms in the proposed charter. It enshrines a system of free public education up to the tertiary level. It provides stricter provisions on data privacy that should help safeguard citizens from surveillance by state and other operatives. However, these good provisions are few and far between.

Most sinister are the transitory provisions, which essentially empower a select few to rearrange the whole of government. The transition commission is set to be all-powerful, with a provision empowering it to “promulgate the necessary rules, regulations, orders, proclamations, and other issuances” to enforce the transition.

In the first draft submitted to the Palace, Mr. Duterte was supposed to head this transition commission. But, in a show of modesty, he sought changes in these provisions and asked the committee to include a section that explicitly prohibited him from running in the first presidential elections after the projected passage of the charter in 2022. The committee obliged, submitting on July 17 a final version that not only included Mr. Duterte’s wishes, but also inserted provisions for the election of a transition president and vice president. However, the revised provisions under Section III, Article 22 of the proposed charter do not, in fact, expressly prohibit Mr. Duterte from running as transition president and heading the Federal Transition Commission.

Commencing Charter change proceedings in Congress essentially opens the proverbial can of worms. A lot of troubleshooting is being employed by the administration to improve the campaign’s standing among a highly suspicious public, and with all the resources at its command, who knows to what lengths it will go to drive this ploy to extend and maintain itself in power?

Marjohara Tucay is the national president of Kabataan party-list.

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TAGS: charter change, Constitution, federalism
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