MANILA -- President Rodrigo Duterte will face the nation on Monday for his annual report, riding high on a record-setting approval rating and a clean sweep of the opposition in the May senatorial election.
By all indications, the 74-year-old leader, backed by clear majorities in both chambers of Congress, is expected to deliver on the remaining items in his legislative agenda — a new constitution and the rest of his tax reform package, among others.
Duterte will also push to reinstate the death penalty for drug traffickers, and a lower minimum age of criminal responsibility.
But governance can be more complicated during the second half of a 6-year term, the period when political support typically weakens for outgoing Philippine presidents.
Duterte may still break the mold, analysts said, with his continuing popularity despite a brutal drug war now under scrutiny by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
But he’s also saddled by criticism coming even from some of his supporters for his handling of Manila’s maritime dispute with Beijing.
He admitted striking a verbal agreement allowing China in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, a 200-nautical mile expanse whose marine wealth is exclusive to the coastal state.
Duterte said he would use his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 22 to “educate” critics on the South China Sea.
“It does seem that he’s going to carry on the momentum that he has toward the second half of his term,” said Michael Henry Yusingco, a senior research fellow at Ateneo’s School of Governance.
“Yet, I also see cracks in his administration that could potentially weaken that momentum.”
Duterte earlier had to step in to avoid what one congressman feared would be a “bloody” vote for the next House speaker hours before he delivers his SONA.
The president decided for the warring factions in the House, picking Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano of Taguig to lead the chamber followed by Lord Allan Velasco of Marinduque. The third contender, Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez of Leyte, will serve as majority leader.
“That he’s presiding over a fractious coalition is a given,” said Ramon Casiple of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
“It’s a coalition of convenience united only because he’s the president and they belong to the administration, nothing else.”
Maintaining order in this unsteady political coalition will be crucial to the success or failure of Duterte’s federalism project.
Yusingco rejected the idea that the president could “bulldoze” amendments to the 1987 constitution through the administration-controlled legislature, saying they would still “meet some resistance.”
Duterte earlier acknowledged that a federal shift might no longer happen within his term, but insisted on revisiting the constitution just the same.
A multi-agency task force has been going around the country explaining the basics of federalism, hoping to generate more public support to restructure the country’s Manila-centric presidential form of government.
Senators earlier sat on proposals to draft a new federal charter, while the House of Representatives produced its own version last year, lifting term limits and removing the constitutional ban on political dynasties.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III insisted that the 24-man chamber won’t be Duterte’s rubber stamp, noting that only 3 of the new senators belonged to the president’s party.
“We are independent, we are balanced, we are not partymates of the administration or the president,” Sotto told ABS-CBN News.
Instead of going into a “full federalism scenario,” he called for amendments to the 28-year-old Local Government Code and further expand local autonomy.
These include, he said, “mimicking some kind of federalism wherein the income of the local governments mostly are retained.”
Sotto predicted that more senators would support constitutional amendments if confined to economic provisions.
“It has always been their thinking,” said the veteran legislator, who is expected to keep the Senate presidency when session opens Monday.
Much is also expected of Cayetano, Duterte’s losing running mate in 2016 who later became his foreign secretary.
Casiple believes the president picked the veteran legislator, not because he had the numbers among his peers, but because he could bridge the House with the Senate and the Cabinet behind Duterte’s constitutional reform agenda.
The president “has to have a smooth relationship with Congress,” Casiple told ABS-CBN News.
Members of Duterte’s own economic team earlier cautioned against the huge cost of shifting to federalism.
Lack of public support also hampered Duterte’s federalism initiative, a crucial hurdle that remains in his last 3 years in office.
“Federalism could have been the feather in his cap,” said Julio Teehankee, who sat in the president’s consultative committee that drafted a new constitution.