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Is Duterte behind calls for ‘revolutionary government’ in the Philippines?

Activists hold a paper Chinese flag with the images of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a protest in front of the Chinese Consulate in Manila, Philippines, 12 July 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE FILE/Mark R. Cristino

Amid a serious health and economic crisis due to the Covid-19 crisis in the Philippines, a group supporting President Rodrigo Duterte has publicly called for establishing a “revolutionary government” led by him, causing unease among large sections of the society.

Over the weekend, the Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte-National Executive Coordinating Committee (MRRD-NECC) presented an initiative in an assembly attended by more than 300 people, calling for the creation of a revolutionary government led by Duterte to amend the Constitution and turn the Philippines into a federal state.

“The principal objective of pursuing a revolutionary government through peaceful and non-violent means is to bring about a genuine change that we, and then Mayor Duterte, promised during the 2016 presidential campaign to establish law and order, public safety, equal opportunity in public service, social justice and economic freedom,” explained the group’s spokesperson Bobby Brillante.

The announcement, which soon went viral, caused great concern as a revolutionary government involves repealing the current Constitution, which would imply the removal of a single six-year presidential term limit, allowing the Duterte administration to continue beyond June 2022.

The announcement caused considerable stir among the people, prompting presidential spokesperson Harry Roque to disassociate Duterte from the MRRD-NECC call.

Roque said the government was focused on responding to the Covid-19 crisis and that the claim for a revolutionary government came from a private group whose members were free to publicly express their views.

“Many reports are coming out now about a revolutionary government…. I don’t care for it. I don’t know the people there and that’s not my job,” Duterte said in a televised speech on Tuesday.

However, the Philippine press dug up images of the president addressing the MRRD-NECC’s national convention. Moreover, the group actively supported Duterte’s presidential campaign in 2016, when he was the mayor of Davao.

The question that many people are now asking in the Philippines is: Is Duterte behind the initiative?

“Perhaps, some government officials may be actually testing the waters with this idea,” Maria Ela Atienza, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, told EFE, considering it unlikely that the president was not aware of the announcement over the weekend.

In fact, the president has in the past spoken of the possibility of a revolutionary government if things get out of hand and repeatedly accused opposition parties and left-wing groups of conspiring to destabilize his government and remove him from power, although he never provided any clear evidence to support this claim.

“The present proposal for a revolutionary government also does not look like a revolution but more of a desperate attempt by allies of the president to make him stay in power beyond 2022,” stressed Atienza.

The idea of converting the Philippines into a federal state – a reasonable option for a country divided into thousands of islands with many different customs and languages – is not new to the country. The 1987 Constitution was hastily drafted, making way for democracy after a peaceful popular revolt overthrew dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Duterte himself, the first Philippine president who does not come from the traditional power center of Manila, promised a move towards federalism during his election campaign four years ago, with the aim of bringing development to rural provinces.

The persistent and growing ills afflicting our country are better addressed by honest, efficient, transparent, accountable, and democratic governance

However, in 2019 he abandoned the proposal in the face of much hurdles to the idea in the Congress and lack of strong popular support.

“The best possible time to change the Constitution was in the first half of the term of President Duterte. But there is very little time left for constitutional amendments in the middle of a pandemic and with the 2022 elections in the horizon,” said Atienza.

Voices among the police and army – whose support would be key for the idea to succeed – also immediately disassociated themselves from the initiative, after it was leaked that the Minister of Defense, Delfin Lorenzana, and the head of the National Police, Archie Gamboa, had been invited to the MRRD-NECC event. However, they did not attend the event.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) has underlined that there is no legal, factual, practical, or moral basis for a revolutionary government under the present circumstances.

“The persistent and growing ills afflicting our country are better addressed by honest, efficient, transparent, accountable, and democratic governance under the rule of law rather than by questionable shortcuts or adventurism that exacerbate rather than solve the problems,” said IBP president Domingo Egon Cayosa.


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