Filipinos are Still Wary of Constitutional Reform in the Face of Duterte’s Draft Federal Charter

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Michael Henry Yusingco

Ateneo Policy Centre, Quezon City

President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in July 2016 with the commitment to shepherd the transition of the Philippines to a federal form of government, an undertaking that requires a complete overhaul of the country’s 1987 Constitution.

Accordingly, President Duterte issued in December 2016 Executive Order No. 10 to organize a Consultative Committee on constitutional reform with the mandate to “study, conduct consultations, and review the provisions of the 1987 Constitution including but not limited to the provisions on the structure and powers of the government, local governance, and economic policies.” 

This body however, commenced work only in January of this year with a 6-months deadline. They submitted the product of their effort to President Duterte last July 9 which they have branded as the Bayanihan Federalism draft constitution.

The term “bayanihan” refers to the indigenous Filipino custom of civic unity and cooperation. The Consultative Committee incorporated the notion of bayanihan in their proposed constitution to highlight the spirit of cooperative competition in its federal design. 

However, this draft did get the welcome the administration was hoping for. In fact, it was not positively received by academic colleagues.  

My dean at the Ateneo School of Government, Dr. Ronald Mendoza, raised a howl on the apparent lack of transparency of the drafting process, specially at the tail end when copies of the draft were not made immediately available to the public. It was definitely disconcerting that the Consultative Committee at that point looked like they were hiding something.

My fellow lecturer at the Institute of Law of the University of Asia and the Pacific, Professor Jemy Gatdula, was more direct to the point in his opinion piece entitled: “A thought on the draft constitution: I don’t like it”. In his critique of the draft, he questions the very rationale of changing the country’s system of government from unitary to federal.

Notably, some of the country’s biggest business groups have come together to express serious anxiety over the proposed constitution. The group specifically raises concern about “the ambiguous provisions on the division of revenue and expenditure responsibilities between the proposed federal government and its federated regions.”

Nevertheless, some members of the Consultative Committee are currently doing regional consultations to educate the public about their draft.  Moreover, an inter-agency committee which includes representative from the Office of the President, Consultative Committee, Department of Interior and Local Government, and Department of Finance has been convened to take the lead in bringing the administration’s federalism initiative to the grassroots. 

This move was essentially made in response to two recent survey results. One was from Pulse Asia Research showing that 64% of respondents are not in favour of amending the 1987 Constitution. The other was from Social Weather Station showing only 37% of Filipinos support the shift to a federal system of government. 

According to one theory of constitutional change, “Even though constitutional bargains may have relative winners and relative losers, they will endure to the extent that parties believe they are better off within the current constitutional bargain than in taking a chance on, expending resources in, negotiating a new one.” 

Obviously, the Duterte administration is now more committed to increase public awareness and support for federalism and charter reform. But there is no guarantee that the people’s apprehension to enact a new constitution will be appeased. In fact, I believe there are still fundamental obstacles that could scuttle such a massive political transformation initiative altogether. 

The first one is the patent disunity in the administration about federalism. Last month the head of the National Economic Development Authority, the Secretary of Finance and the Secretary of Defense separately expressed reservation on the readiness of the country for federalism. Whilst the government’s economic managers are presently engaged in a “spirited discussion“ with members of the Consultative Committee on the projected cost of federalizing government.

More troubling is that even the Department of Interior and Local Government, the very office tasked to lead the federalism initiative of President Duterte, is plagued by internal discord. The official administration’s stance is to follow the amendment procedure prescribed by the 1987 Constitution in the drive to shift to a federal system. But a very popular senior official of the department has defied this policy by openly advocating for the president to establish a revolutionary government and abrogate the current charter in order to make the transformation from unitary to federal.

It must be emphasized that the leaders of the Duterte administration, most especially senior officials in the Department of Interior and Local Government, will play a vital role in a transition to a federal setup. The fact that they are clearly not on the same page on the federalism initiative’s implementing roadmap is very alarming because how can the public be assured that this is an optimal design? More importantly, if there is some doubt coming from the administration itself, how can the public be expected to rally behind federalism? 

The second fundamental obstacle is the zero-sum atmosphere in the federalism discourse. There is an ongoing vitriolic debate between the administration’s federalism promotion team and a loose amalgamation of groups that are against charter change, the most prominent of which are affiliated with the opposition party. 

Just recently, a group of lawmakers from the House of Representatives threatened to vigorously campaign in the mid-term elections in May next year against senators perceived to be blocking the proposed shift to federalism. Expectedly, the leader of the upper chamber of Congress mocked this threat as “without basis and common sense”.

Crucially, this intense “us versus them” scenario is being played out in mainstream and social media.  And from the looks of it, a civil and intelligent dialogue between the pros and the antis seems to be no longer possible.

In such a toxic environment, the federalism proposal is the loser because the public will likely remain unconvinced and will naturally resist any proposal for change. Indeed, such collective trepidation is reflected in the polling results cited here.

The third obstacle is the deep mistrust on members of Congress in the event they assume the task of revising the constitution. A few days before the president’s State of the Nation Address last July 23, academics and professionals released a statement expressing serious misgivings on the capability of lawmakers to overcome their political self-interests if indeed charter change is to push through, to wit:

“Almost 80% of Congress is comprised of political dynasties, and the empirical evidence suggests that a majority of them may face deep conflict of interest if a new constitution aims for reforms that level the political playing field. The risk of capture by vested interests affecting our present politics is too great.”

To make matters worse, the lower chamber of Congress elected former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, as Speaker on the very day President Duterte delivered his national address.   It must be noted that Macapagal-Arroyo was acquitted of plunder under this administration despite the state auditor’s finding of massive misuse of state funds and assets during the latter years of her term as president. 

More critically however, a widely criticized failed attempt at revising the constitution was made under her watch as chief executive. Some have noted that her return to a leadership role in the administration’s charter change project has sunk the legislators’ credibility even lower. So how can the people trust the revision process when the officials leading the charge are not trustworthy? 

In conclusion, it can certainly be argued that many Filipinos are for the moment risk-averse with regards to constitutional reform. Hence, it seems reasonable to doubt whether the administration can successfully push the federalism agenda of President Duterte within his term (2022). 

Given the fundamental challenges enumerated here, their strategy to convince the public that revising the existing constitution is a good move may require an adjustment as innovative as the shift to federalism itself.  

Michael Henry Yusingco is a legislative and policy consultant and a senior research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Centre in Quezon City and at the Institute for Autonomy and Governance in Cotabato City, Maguindanao, Philippines.

Suggested Citation: M Yusingo ‘Filipinos are still wary of constitutional reform in the face of Duterte’s draft federal charter’ IACL-AIDC Blog (28 September 2018) ‘’