Author: Michael Henry Yusingco, Melbourne
From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, both the Philippines and South Korea were ruled by brutal authoritarian regimes. Filipinos ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos through people power in February 1986, which coincidentally was the watershed event that inspired South Koreans to remove their own despotic leader, Chun Doo-hwan.
After those terrible years of political repression, both countries have since focused on strengthening the state by consolidating democratic rule. Both nations revised their respective martial law constitutions in 1987, establishing a political framework founded on the rule of law, respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, and significant restraints on government.
Thirty-one years on, both nations are once again undertaking Constitutional reform.
President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in the Philippines in July 2016, winning the election on the promise of shepherding the country’s transition to a federal form of government, which is an undertaking that requires a complete overhaul of the country’s constitution.
Duterte, the first president to hail from Mindanao, pledged to weaken the central government’s overbearing authority over the rest of the country and spur economic growth in areas beyond the capital through the establishment of a federal system during his term.
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea won the top post in May 2017 also on the promise of amending his country’s own 1987 Constitution, specifically to reform the presidential term of office. During the presidential election, the South Korean electorate made it clear to all the contenders that they want this change to happen.
President Moon upon assumption of office immediately called for a special parliamentary committee to produce a set of recommendations for the National Assembly to consider.
Similarly, President Duterte issued in December 2016 Executive Order No. 10 to organise a Consultative Committee on constitutional reform. But this body has only recently commenced its work because its members were only named last January.
President Duterte is nonetheless making up for lost time and has directed the Consultative Committee to produce a draft federal constitution by June of this year. The plan is to announce this draft to the people in his State of the Nation address in July.
One of the first reforms agreed upon by the Consultative Committee is to institute a self-executory provision regulating political dynasties. This was expectedly welcomed by the public. But the declaration by the head of the Committee that this particular provision is a condition for establishing a federal system in the Philippines caused a stir given that dynastic politicians dominate political leadership in the country. President Duterte himself is the patriarch of a political dynasty and naturally has expressed apprehension over this contemplated provision in the draft federal constitution.
Many Filipinos are seriously anxious about federalism and charter change because traditional political families control the Philippine political system. Simply looking at the composition of their House of Representatives, with its unprecedented 14 deputy speakers, validates the fear that feudal masters will rule over the constituent states of the new federal republic.
Philippine Vice-President Leni Robredo, who is a member of the opposition party, recently declared that an anti-dynasty law should be enacted first before the shift to a federal system is pursued. Many in Philippine civil society share this position, most notably the heads of the country’s largest schools of government and development management who are unanimous in their support for an anti-dynasty bill that will soon be tabled in the Senate when session resumes in May.
Other potential obstructions to Duterte’s constitutional change timetable may also come into play in the coming months.
Some organisations are proposing an alternative path for the same reforms sought by constitutional revision to try and discourage federalisation, while others intend to rally people to protest in the streets. If these social movements reach critical mass before the June deadline, it could stop the constitutional change proposition dead in its tracks.
Constitutional change in the Philippines is not as clear-cut as in South Korea. This is not to say that the South Koreans are close to amending their constitution, but there is a palpable difference with the Philippines — a lack of consensus among Filipinos for constitutional change. This can be attributed largely to Filipinos not knowing what this initiative specifically entails and how supporting it will affect their lives.
More than just producing a draft federal charter, President Duterte should seriously consider directing the Consultative Committee to help Filipinos understand the constitution itself, to assess its impact on democracy and development in the country and to communicate why changes are needed. More importantly, Duterte should rethink the timetable for this year given the need for more public education on constitutional change.
The reality is that only a thoughtful and participatory discourse will bring Filipinos to a level of consciousness where they can properly decide whether to proceed with this drastic change or not. Constitutional change should not go ahead without Filipinos fully on board.
Michael Henry Yusingco is a legislative and policy consultant, author of Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective, and a part-time lecturer at the School of Law and Governance of the University of Asia and the Pacific in the Philippines. He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralisation and constitutionalism.