THE YEAR 2018 is just on its fourth day, but there are already hints that it would be a tumultuous prelude to the 2019 elections (if any) that could dictate the drift of the second half of the term of President Rodrigo Duterte — and the nation’s fate beyond.
This is presuming that there would still be elections in 2019 for the dozen new or reelected senators, almost 300 members of the House of Representatives, and thousands of local officials in the countryside.
How the various timelines being floated will eventually merge into one master flowchart will depend largely on President Duterte, who has started to crank up the PDP-Laban, the political party on which he hitched on his way to Malacañang in 2016.
It appears that Duterte intends to use the same party machine — which politicians are scrambling to join for the hoped-for sweep of the 2019 elections — to carry out his plan to reinvent the Philippines according to the template in his mind.
The dominant idea in the discussion in public and in party caucuses is a rapid shift from the present unitary presidential system to a federal setup acceptable to self-serving sectors whose slice of the cake will be in proportion to their local footprint and firepower.
These sectors include political dynasties, warlords, business interests and secessionist Muslim groups that Duterte wants to accommodate as he presides over the cutting up of the country into regions or states.
Among the weather vanes to watch is Duterte’s key operator in the bigger chamber of the 17th Congress, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, who reiterated in TV interviews yesterday that the House will give priority to the revision of the Constitution and the shift to a federal setup.
He hopes to see as early as this month, he said, both chambers of the Congress convening jointly as a constituent assembly to revise the charter and submit its handiwork to a plebiscite during the barangay elections in May.
Duterte has expressed misgivings about holding the barangay elections, saying that most of the villages are still in the grip of drug lords. However, if he just appoints barangay leaders instead, he would run into a legal challenge.
• Seducing senators to join the plan
WITH the senators outnumbered 1-to-12 by congressmen in a joint session, it would be a cinch for Alvarez and his followers abolishing the smaller chamber and having it disappear into a unicameral legislature such as an Assembly or a Parliament.
No consensus has been announced on whether the new legislators in a federal setup would be elected regionally (almost like congressmen now) or nationally (like senators).
But the general idea is to have a President elected at large who will be chief of state, and possibly a Prime Minister to be chosen by the legislative Assembly or Parliament who will be head of government. The draft Constitution will be refined by a technical group assisting the constituent assembly.
Although Duterte allies already talk of the federated system like a done deal, they have no draft charter to share with party members and the public. The copy appears to be still work in progress, open to wheeling and dealing.
For transparency and in the spirit of full and open discussion, Duterte and his allies pushing charter change should publish the working draft, supplemented by explanatory notes.
Alvarez noted that federalism is an advocacy of PDP-Laban, insinuating that the party president who is Senate President Koko Pimentel – and whose father former Sen. Nene Pimentel is an original party stalwart and an advocate of federalism — should actively support the proposed change.
Part of the inducement for Pimentel and his colleagues in the Senate to agree to the merging of the two chambers is the extension to 2022 of the term of the dozen senators expiring in 2019.
This holdover idea jibes with the possibility that the 2019 elections would be cancelled in the event charter change were approved before 2019 — to expedite the shift to a federal system before the end of Duterte’s term in 2022.
Alvarez explained that with federalism adopted, the government would be in transition — making unnecessary the holding of elections in 2019. Allowing the 12 senators to stay would be a practical move, he said.
• Duterte keen on staying beyond 2022?
ANOTHER implication of the revising of the Constitution by the constituent assembly and the transitioning to a federal system is President Duterte’s continuing on as head of government, whatever form is adopted.
On many public occasions, Duterte has said he was not interested in staying one minute beyond his term that expires in 2022.
But that is Duterte, a master of double talk. It has been his style to pretend not to want something but grabbing it at the right time, usually at the last moment when nobody is looking and after he has laid the basis for it.
That was the same ploy he used in the 2016 election campaign when he said repeatedly he was not running for president, while secretly plotting to make a go for it. Feigning lack of interest is one of his favorite tactics for misleading adversaries.
In the meantime, he and his henchmen in and out of government are demolishing all possible obstacles — demonizing critics and perceived foes — to his continued rule under whatever setup.
With the ferment building up, and with Duterte’s operators accelerating the shift to federalism and firming up their hold on power, it is important that the people make it their business to demand transparency as well as a full and free discussion.
In this endeavor, the role of mass media — as watchdog of the people — on any and all platforms will be crucial.