LET’S ask what President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has impelled non-believers in his omnipotence to ask: Can he do whatever he likes once he is sworn into office?
On the eve of the May 9 elections, there was a sense of foreboding across the land that we, Filipinos, could wake up to a nightmare the day after—like (1) an election gone haywire because of massive electoral fraud, or (2) a victorious candidate, flushed with success, rushing to proclaim a revolutionary government and himself as dictator.
In the sober light of the morning after, it seems that we have had a fairly successful election, give or take a few glitches and irregularities. And we have a clear winner in the presidential election—Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte, of Davao City
The President-elect sometimes seems more thoughtful than candidate Duterte. Where he let cuss words and threats define his persona during the campaign, he now talks about undergoing a metamorphosis—to become maybe a statesman, and assembling the best Cabinet that he can cobble together.
Out of respect for his electoral triumph, it seems impolite to recall the uncomfortable and disturbing questions that Mr. Duterte provoked during the campaign.
But based on recent developments, we are wise not to gloss over the following questions:
1. As the 16th President of our Republic, can he really abolish Congress and any government institution or agency he does not like as he has threatened to do?
2. As President, can he really order the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), or organize a national death squad modeled after his Davao Death Squad (DDS), to execute criminals and criminal suspects, in order to clean up the entire archipelago of criminal elements? Can he freely turn our people into bounty hunters by offering large sums of money for the killing of drug lords, drug traffickers, and other criminal suspects?
3. As President, can he really rewrite the Constitution on his own volition and as freely as he likes?
4. As President, can he bring into his administration members of the CPP-NPA who have been trying to overthrow the republic for over 40 years, without negotiating first a firm agreement for an end to the communist insurgency?
To answer these questions affirmatively presumes vast powers in the presidency that only a close reading of the Constitution and the foundational principles of our democracy can confirm.
A system of limited powers
No such powers, I submit, are vested in the presidency. The same Consitution that allowed him to seek the office and will install him in office, limits the powers that he will wield as President.
As President, he will see from his very first day in office that he shares the powers of office with two other branches of government, the legislative and the judicial. This was the competition that BS Aquino misguidedly tried to erase at his inaugural, by refusing to have then chief Justice Renato Corona swear him into office. The arrogant gesture, replicated in various ways throughout his term, doomed his presidency to failure.
Duterte could be similarly misled because of his resounding electoral victory.
Some people fall into distorted notions of popular government because of misinterpretation of what majority rule truly means.
Walter Lippmann, one of the preeminent theorists of liberal democracy, warned of a “political heresy” that infects some democracies. He wrote:
“If all power is in the people, if there is no higher Law than their will, and if by counting their votes, their will may be ascertained—then the people may entrust their power to anyone, and the power of the pretender and the usurper is then legitimate. It is not to be challenged in that it came originally from the sovereign people.”
This belief led many countries in the 20th century to fall under the rule of fascism and communism.
On the other hand, liberal democracy, especially as represented by the American Constitutional system, resisted the totalitarian tide.
The lasting significance of the liberal-democratic idea lay in this clear and simple thesis: “the sovereignty of the people is never absolute, the people are under the law, and the people may make no law which does not conform to that higher law which has been gradually revealed to the awakening conscience of mankind.”
We, Filipinos, embraced fully this system of constitutional government and liberal democracy, when we recovered our independence and established full self-government in 1946.
President is one official, not the republic
Notwithstanding Mr. Duterte’s extravagant and sweeping statements, our system of constitutional government imposes very clear restraints on the powers of the President, and what he can or cannot do in office. The President is only one official of the Philippine republic; he is not the Republic.
This is the overarching purpose and meaning of the famous system of checks and balances and of constitutional supremacy.
To Lippmann, “the system of checks and balances is more truly democratic than one which allows majorities to do what they want when they want to do it.”
A nation of law and consent
Mr. Duterte may have overstated the problem of law and order, which is the cornerstone of his program of government.
Based on the sketchy outline that he has provided, we are more likely to wind up with a police state, than with a strong and vibrant democracy.
There’s a name for the kind of regime in which the police rule answers only to themselves. It’s called a police state.
This is not the vision embedded in our Constitution, which envisions a nation of law and consent—rule of law combined with representative democracy.
To return then to the question in my title, we should answer, no, President-elect Duterte cannot do whatever he pleases as our President.