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Dangerous distractions

Two recent initiatives distracted from more urgent national concerns: the movement for a revolutionary government (RevGov) and Charter change, launched at Clark Freeport on Aug. 22; and a bill giving the President the power to appoint a Cabinet member who would assume the presidency until the next election, in the event of the incumbent’s death or disqualifying disability.

Filed by Rep. Precious Hipolito Castelo in 2019, this “Designated Successor” bill received attention when mainstream media reported on Aug. 30 that Castelo had called for its “withdrawal and permanent archiving.” Castelo explained that she dropped the bill, which had taken a beating on social media, because the committee on constitutional amendments had not acted on it. She also explained that her bill was just like Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s “Designated Survivor” bill; the president’s chosen replacement would take office only if the president and all constitutional successors had become unavailable.

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The distinction between “successor” and “survivor” made all the difference in interpreting the intent of the proposal: to eliminate those in the constitutional line of succession in favor of the president’s choice, or to add a fail-safe option when none of those in the constitutional list could serve. Castelo’s quick action in aborting her bill avoided further waste of time and energy on its discussion.

The Charter change initiative also appeared a pointless exercise. The goal of shifting the country to a federal system had undergone extensive discussion in the early years of the Duterte administration but gained little public support. It was RevGov itself that triggered the public backlash that its leaders probably had not expected. RevGov would chop down the legislative and judicial branches of government, perceived as impediments to the executive, leaving an unrestrained, all-powerful dictator.

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The imminent end of the presidential term, complicated by concerns about the state of the ruler’s health and his capacity to perform the duties of his office, tend to raise political tensions and may tempt to desperate measures. Those benefiting from their access to power look for ways to survive the end of a regime with undiminished influence. Hence, the perception that RevGov aimed at protecting vested interests and distracting from the need to address the protracted pandemic crisis, colossal corruption in PhilHealth, economic dislocation, massive job losses, and widespread hunger among the poor.

Statements condemning the threat to the Constitution have come from a broad range of public and private institutions, including bishops and priests, academics from the country’s most respected universities, and the business sector. The Chamber of Commerce of the Philippine Islands deplored the “perpetual chaos and poverty” RevGov would promote.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines denounced RevGov as lacking any “legal, factual, practical or moral basis.” The Philippine Bar Association, meanwhile, warned against sowing the “subtle seeds meant to erode the Rule of Law and the Constitution,” allowing them “to creep on the unwary,” and committing the greatest sin we can commit right now—“to dismiss or ignore [their] true dangers.”

Even the security forces that the RevGov had hoped to enlist into the movement rejected the overture. Gen. Gilbert Gapay, AFP chief of staff, reaffirmed the commitment of the armed forces to secure the state against any effort to establish a revolutionary government. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana categorically declared RevGov illegal and unconstitutional and called for the investigation of the group. Moving on the same track, Philippine National Police Chief Gen. Archie Gamboa ordered the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group to investigate the RevGov proponents.

Finally, even President Duterte, the principal beneficiary and proposed leader of the RevGov, distanced himself from the initiative and disavowed any connection with its leadership. Neither Charter change nor RevGov was his priority goal, declaring “Wala akong pakialam diyan (Not my concern).”

The dangerous distraction may thus have served a beneficial purpose. It showed the country committed to a democratic constitution and united in a unanimous rejection of RevGov. It revealed that the people’s chosen leaders, President Duterte and Vice President Robredo, shared the same priority objectives: the containment of the pandemic and the revival of the economy. Saving lives and saving jobs remain formidable goals, but with better chances of success under a united national leadership.

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Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).

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TAGS: charter change, Precious Hipolito, revolutionary government
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