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Ranhilio and the limits of ‘federalism’

/ 05:07 AM August 14, 2018

I thought it was an instructive study in contrast. When Mocha Uson was invited to promote the draft federal constitution prepared by the consultative committee to review the 1987 Constitution, the committee’s member, Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, expressed his dismay; when Uson produced that vulgar video promoting federalism through the use of sexualized language, Aquino expressed his disgust. But he did not call on Uson to shut her “trap,” or ask her to resign.

When Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said they opposed the shift to a federal system of government, as embodied in the draft federal constitution, a furious Aquino took to Facebook to fulminate. If President Duterte “favors federalism,” the Catholic priest and legal scholar said, “let him sack Dominguez and Pernia, or command them to keep their traps shut.”

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I realize that there are substantial differences between Uson and the country’s economic managers. In the first place, Uson, however absurdly, was promoting the federalism project; Pernia and Dominguez (and, later, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana) were arguing against it. Secondly, the Cabinet secretaries are alter egos of the President; Uson, despite her unaccountable closeness to Mr. Duterte, is not — at least in legal and political theory.

“Freedom of expression does not apply to Cabinet officials in respect to policy,” Aquino wrote in his Facebook post. This is rather unfortunately phrased, reinforcing the popular notion that Aquino has fascistic tendencies, but the basic idea is easy enough to understand.

His column in the Standard allows him to be much more precise: “They are the political agents of the President of the Philippines. And basic to the law of agency is that when agency is established, the acts and declarations of the agent bind the principal. So, when both say that federalism will be the country’s ruin, I have every right to ask whether the statement can, as the law ordains, be attributed to their principal, or whether they are spoken beyond what they were authorized to assert—therefore, ultra vires” (that is, beyond the Cabinet secretaries’ legal authority).

But both the serial disavowals of the three Cabinet secretaries and Uson’s awful video heavily damaged the federalism project. I do not know which caused more havoc (to borrow Pernia’s term), but considering that the majority of voting-age Filipinos do not support any attempt to change the 1987 Constitution, and that Uson had much more potential, at least on social media, to reach the undecided, I would not be surprised if her instinctive sexualizing of the federalism initiative would be proven to have been more calamitous in the end.

And anyone paying close attention to the Duterte administration would know that Uson is, in actuality, a true alter ego of the President. She represents him much more faithfully in the eyes of the President’s supporters than any Cabinet secretary. She is seen as channeling the popular Duterte: tough-talking, loyal, sexually confident, antielitist, irreverent.

Also: Insufficiently versed in and committed to the federalism project — just like the President. The truth is, President Duterte is a Rodrigo-come-lately to federalism; the members of his inner circle have conflicting views on it, and he sees it as one option among many.

Aquino understands the matter legalistically: “We also assumed that an executive order had created us and entrusted us with a task because it was the government’s policy to effect the shift from the inefficiency of a unitary government as we have lived it and the promise of a federal configuration… It absolutely makes no sense reading volumes, writing prodigiously and debating furiously to produce a document that, in the end, is disowned by him at whose behest it was written.”

Self-praise aside, Aquino’s cry is a constricted view of the President’s own personal agency, to do with the draft constitution as he pleases. But it is also an unwitting confession of, well, a lack of understanding of this President: Mr. Duterte thrives in chaos. Just one example out of many: Dominguez famously testified against another presidential alter ego, Gina Lopez.

“Let’s stop fooling ourselves,” Aquino wrote. That necessary task begins with understanding that, for President Duterte, “federalism” is only a political project: a reason to travel the country to project himself as a presidential candidate in 2015, an excuse to stay in power in 2018. No amount of prodigious writing or furious debating will change that.

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On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand. E-mail: jnery@inquirer.com.ph

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TAGS: Carlos Dominguez III, charter change, Consultative Committee, Delfin Lorenzana, Ernesto Pernia, federalism, federalism video, john Nery, Mocha Uson, Newsstand, Ranhilio Aquiono
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