OPINION: Imperial President: The heart of a centralized government

Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M

Posted at Feb 16 2019 03:54 AM | Updated as of Feb 16 2019 04:10 AM

One of the very first matters discussed by the 1986 Constitutional Commission was the form of government well-suited for Filipinos. A query by the sublime constitutionalist, Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, SJ, is particularly relevant now. To wit:“Should we continue a system where practically all governmental power must come from the central government, from Manila? Must we continue the overdominance of Manila over the rest of the country?” (Record of the Constitutional Commission: Proceedings and Debates Volume 1, 1986)

The bitter irony for Filipinos is that those terrible years under the autocratic Marcos regime should have jolted the collective heads of the 1986 Constitutional Commission to change course and avoid the folly of giving too much power to a single human being. And yet the 1987 Constitution still preserved the imperial presidential system in Article VII which established the Executive Department of the Philippine state.

Consider first Section 1 which states that, ‘The executive power shall be vested in the President of the Philippines’. This provision vests executive power not in the office of the president but in the person occupying the office.

Then read this provision in conjunction with this specific portion of Section 16, ‘He shall also appoint all other officers of the Government whose appointments are not otherwise provided for by law, and those whom he may be authorized by law to appoint’.

The power to appoint officials in the executive branch is part and parcel of the executive power. But pursuant to this constitutional provision, the president of the Philippines has complete and almost limitless authority to appoint officials within the executive branch. He appoints for practically all positions in the central bureaucracy including the armed forces and the police.

Such far-reaching command takes on a more autocratic tenor when read together with this part of Section 17, ‘The President shall have control of all the executive departments, bureaus, and offices.’

The exclusive vesting of executive power in the president means that he can overturn the decisions of any officer within the executive branch. The president can substitute his own view on any issue over that of his subordinate. Indeed, he has sole control over the entire executive branch from department secretaries down to the rank-and-file.

The national charter may not explicitly spell it out, but it has encouraged a legislative, and even a judicial, mindset that empowers the president to have a direct hand in all matters of government. From public housing to agriculture to solid waste management to foreign investment to tax collection to sports to water management to foreign trade and affairs, and so forth. Crucially, control over and dispersal of public funds is also heavily concentrated in his office.

Indeed, the imperial nature of the Philippine president was clearly on display during President Rodrigo Duterte’s “tete-a-tete” with Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo. Expressing impatience with questions about the entry of a third major player in the tele-communications industry, his words were not subtle at all:

"I will invite all dito na negosyante, and I will decide in front of them kung sino. Give me your position papers, I'll read it. Give me 30 minutes. Then I'll come back and tell them I will decide. Iyon na [That will be it]."

Unfortunately, the omnipresent characteristic of the office also engenders an inherent desire to test the limits of legal and constitutional boundaries. Sometimes this propensity can evolve into a governance mindset of being overly sensitive to criticism and being rancorous and vindictive towards critics. The worst-case scenario sometimes is a government impervious to demands of transparency and accountability from the citizens.

The very text of the constitution conveys the immense power the president wields. And this has fostered a political culture that pays too much attention on the persona of the holder rather than the gravitas of the office. More importantly, the overcentralized governance structure many Filipinos complain about is actually a result of the way executive authority is expressed in the 1987 Constitution.

It is worth highlighting, therefore, that if the goal of constitutional reform is to decentralize governance, as espoused by those pushing for a shift to a federal system of government, then the provisions cited here must not be adapted verbatim. Especially as the presidential system is likely to be retained in a new charter.

For instance, executive authority should be expressed as follows: ‘The executive power shall be vested in the Executive Branch headed by the President of the Philippines’. Here the power is vested in the institution, not in the person of the president.

Moreover, the appointment powers of the president ought to be specifically limited to upper level officials only. Doing this can potentially remove the politics in the organization of the bureaucracy, and can thus give meritocracy in the civil service, particularly at the Executive Department, a chance to be firmly established.

With regards to the president’s control over the executive branch, it could be expressed this way: ‘The President shall ensure that laws are faithfully executed by departments, bureaus, and offices in the executive branch’. This articulation does not remove the control power of the chief executive over the bureaucracy, but it puts the focus on the position as a responsibility of the office holder rather than a supreme privilege attendant to the office.

In sum, the popular notion of “Imperial Manila” is but a manifestation of the fact that since colonial times Filipinos have placed the nation’s fate on the skills and caprices of the official occupant of Malacañang Palace.

By constitutional design, the Philippine state is essentially controlled by a single Filipino. Correspondingly, public policies that impact 110 million Filipinos are determined by this individual and his allies. This is an anomaly that must be changed.

It maybe three decades late but the collective reply to the question posed by Fr. Bernas is: Filipinos demand genuine and meaningful decentralized government! Naturally, abolishing the imperial presidency ought to be the primary objective of charter change.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.