(For some technical reasons, this column was completed on Saturday evening, resent with some edits on Sunday, but failed to land with the editorial desk for publication on Monday.)
The Duterte regime entered the first circle of international propaganda crisis before the fatal Friday night bombing of Davao, which killed at least 14 people, injured dozens of others and prompted the President to declare a national “state of lawless violence.” The adverse position of the world press, the United Nations and some foreign governments, individuals and institutions on the drug killings attests to this. One hopes that with the latest declaration in place, the President and his men will be able to arrest and reverse this crisis. The danger, though, is that it could be exacerbated by self-inflicted injuries.
In my view, the following could have been and should have been avoided:
1) The official announcement by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez that the proposed move to effect a constitutional change from the country’s unitary system to federal, and from the bicameral Congress to a unicameral assembly or Parliament, through the present Congress rather than through a constitutional convention composed of delegates chosen by the sovereign Filipino electorate, is strictly in obedience to the President’s wishes;
2) PDU30’s statement that when he meets with US President Barack Obama during the Asean Summit in Vientiane, Laos this week, he will ask him to listen to him first before any discussion on the human rights situation in the Philippines, and that he will also ask him about the killing of blacks in the US, some of whom are being shot while already lying prostrate on the pavement;
3) DU30’s statement that his schedule will not allow him to meet with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who has reportedly asked for a meeting on the sidelines of the summit;
4) The dramatic announcement from Philippine National Police Chief Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa that the PNP had just foiled a plot to assassinate DU30, upon the confiscation of high-powered firearms parts smuggled inside balikbayan boxes from the United States.
These are unfortunate missteps that could have been avoided.
Congressman Alvarez became Speaker because he is from Davao and apparently close to the President. The congressmen who migrated to the administration in support of the President supported him because they saw him as DU30’s choice. He should be the first one to protect DU30 from any unnecessary criticisms from all possible sources. He has done the opposite, instead.
If the good Speaker has read the Constitution he would like to see revised, he should have seen very clearly that only the Congress, through a constituent assembly, and the Filipino people, through a constitutional convention or direct initiative, can propose constitutional revisions or amendments. The President has no prescribed constitutional role in this process.
Now, since the President is the highest official of the land, nothing and no one can prevent him from getting politically involved. He may even want to manipulate the whole process. But he can only do so, if he must, very, very discreetly, never openly, precisely because he is not an organic part of the constitutional process.
The speaker of the House and the president of the Senate, as well as the members of both Houses are called upon to help the President keep his distance, as they protect and defend the exclusive rights and prerogatives of Congress under the doctrine of separation of powers.
Congress cannot involve the President. They have no right, much less duty, to surrender the exclusive rights and prerogatives of Congress to the President, as a demonstration of their personal or political loyalty to the man. Even between and among the closest of personal friends and political allies, there is a red line required by the Constitution or a much higher truth, which cannot be crossed.
Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave up his life rather than cross this line just to please Henry II in 1170; and Thomas Becket, Lord High Chancellor of England and now patron saint of statesmen and politicians, accepted death rather than cross this line just to please Henry VIII in 1535.
Yet, Alvarez crossed this line when, according to his own announcement, he sent to the President through Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea the draft of an Executive Order creating a 25-member constitutional commission to formulate the proposed constitutional amendments which would be sent to the proposed con-ass.
A potential lawsuit. There is no place for such a commission in Article XVII of the Constitution, which specifies how the Constitution is to be revised or amended. If the President makes the mistake of signing the Alvarez draft, then he exposes himself to a possible constitutional suit before the Supreme Court. This would be an unnecessary embarrassment, to say the least.
In his August 30 speech before the Philippine Constitution Association (Philconsa), Alvarez said the President has decided that the proposed revision of the Constitution should be done through Congress to cut down on expenses. This is an acceptable motive for lesser causes, but constitutional reform is a necessary expense and the government cannot afford to scrimp on it, while offering a P2 million bounty for every drug dealer killed, and paying a humungous overprice in various transactions.
Money for graft, but not for this. In the importation of rice alone, according to verified reports, the government has agreed to buy 250,000 metric tons of rice at $424.85 per metric ton. The international spot price of white Thai rice is now $388 per metric ton (5 percent broken); $385/MT (10 percent broken); and $384/MT (15 percent broken). Assuming the government is buying quality rice at $388/mt, there’s a difference of $42.85/MT. Multiply that by 250,000 MT, you have a whooping overprice of $10,712,500 — or P498,131,125 at P46.5 to the dollar.
And that’s just one importation. What happens if Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo agrees that a sizeable slice of the conditional cash transfer being given to poor families every month should now be commoditized, in the form of rice allotments? The figures could shoot past the roof. So we have to put up with a rubber-stamp con-ass, just to save on expenses, while such scandals go unchecked?
DU30 might just as well abolish Congress by formalizing his de facto revolutionary government and ask an heir of Felipe Calderon who drafted the Malolos Constitution or of the late Pascual Racuyal, the perennial presidential candidate who had wanted to write us a new Constitution for just a few hundred pesos, or a retired Chief Justice with unsinkable political ambitions to draft a new Constitution that prescribes a federal-parliamentary system of government, without debate!
Disparaging words against Obama
DU30 may have won the applause of many for saying that he would ask Obama to listen to him first before responding to any questions about human rights abuses in the Philippines. This was followed by his even more pungent statement about American blacks being killed without due process in the US. But was anything gained by advertising beforehand what he would say or do to Obama during their meeting?
Indeed, if gloves came off during their encounter, and he asked Obama about the US human rights record in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan or even at home, most of us would probably give him a standing ovation for standing up to Uncle Sam. This would reverse our all-time record of always standing with and for the Americans on the issue of freedom, democracy and human rights. But for DU30 to announce in advance what he would say or do, even before he does it, could create a situation, which he himself may have to undo before the meeting.
The bombing in Davao is likely to temper any discussion of human rights with expressions of sympathy for the scores of those killed and wounded. However, US concern over human rights could perhaps be moderated if DU30 picks up the China Sea dispute again, which used to dominate the headlines before the drug killings became the nation’s daily staple. Because the US wasn’t too happy about DU30’s decision to do bilaterals with China, Obama might feel reassured if DU30 “recalculated” his decision to engage in bilateral talks, and hew closer to the American line. Then perhaps, there would be no pressing need to talk of extrajudicial killings.
I hope this analysis is wrong. But The Manila Times banner story on Saturday quoting DU30 as saying that China’s “sea buildup” could be a potential flashpoint in the region seemed to incline in that direction.
No time for the UN Secretary-General?
Most unfortunate, however, is DU30’s statement that he will have no time to meet with Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of the Asean summit. Ban Ki-moon is the highest official of the UN, of which the Philippines is a founding member. He was among the first to criticize the extrajudicial killings in DU30’s narcotics war. But he is not an enemy of the Philippines, nor of the DU30 administration. Whether in fact DU30 has an “extraordinarily full” schedule in Vientiane, one’s unavoidable impression is that he does not want to give Ban the time of day, purely out of pique. A meeting on “the sidelines” is a very short meeting outside the plenary hall; DU30 might have benefited from it. In any case, there was no need to make a big announcement of his inability to meet with Ban.
Foiling the plot to kill Duterte
A plot to assassinate even a popular President comes with the territory, it is a given. But no responsible government talks about it. Not even when there is an actual assassination attempt, which is foiled, does the government talk about it, unless some details of it have already leaked out to the public or the press. Lee Kuan Yew’s old quote is helpful: “To name the enemy is to make him.”
Thus, on Nov. 27, 1970, the government issued a statement after a half-crazed Bolivian painter, disguised as a priest, attacked and wounded Blessed Pope Paul VI at the Manila International Airport. Similarly, on Dec. 7, 1972, the authorities issued a statement after one Carlito Dimahilig attacked and wounded the First Lady, Mrs. Imelda Marcos, on live TV, while giving out awards in a national beautification and cleanliness contest at Nayong Pilipino. But the government never talked about the threats to the life of any of our Presidents.
Apparently, PNP chief “Bato” de la Rosa just wanted to show us how well he was doing his job to protect the President. But in trumpeting his “success” in protecting the President, he may have merely succeeded in announcing to the world that with or without the “state of lawlessness,” which Malacanang declared after the bombing, there is an active plot to kill the President. This exposes the President to lethal threats from all possible sources. So the real crisis is not just a propaganda crisis now, and it has just begun.