MANILA—President Rodrigo Duterte is set to jumpstart his federalism project with a national convention next month, an interior official said Tuesday, dispelling speculations that the chief executive was no longer keen on restructuring Philippine government.
The president skipped mention of federalism in Monday’s State of the Nation Address (SONA), in what its critics said only meant that it was not a priority in the remainder of his term.
But Duterte was reserving the matter for an August forum specifically on constitutional reforms, said Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya, who heads the secretariat of an inter-agency task force on federalism earlier formed by Malacañang.
“No, it’s not dead,” Malaya told ABS-CBN News. “What the president was pointing out was it’s all a matter of timing.”
By next month, the task force, headed by Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, is expected to harmonize proposed changes in the 1987 Constitution, including a shift to federalism, said Malaya.
The group is hoping to get the backing of the president’s economic managers, who earlier questioned the cost of federalism as envisioned by the consultative committee chaired by former Chief Justice Reynato Puno.
Surveys also showed lackadaisical public support for a federal shift, with fears it would only further fatten existing political dynasties.
Once Duterte signs off on the new set of proposals, they will be submitted to Congress to decide on how to proceed with amending or even overhauling the constitution, Malaya said.
“This is the complete package that the president was talking about, that when he presents it to the public, it must be complete, no more dissenting opinions,” said Malaya.
Duterte on Monday explained that discussions on federalism were “better left in conferences that are not allowed to be open to the public.”
“Kasi ‘pag isang provision to one another, magulo eh. Sa isang provision lang if it’s -- there are a lot of complaints. A lot of pros and cons. Mahilo ka,” he told reporters after delivering his SONA.
“So better you just talk it among yourselves and present it to the public ano na, ‘yung package na --- completed.”
Malaya said the president was referring to the process within the federalism task force, culminating with the August gathering.
Duterte will keynote the forum of “all stakeholders,” including Moro representatives, the interior official said.
Michael Henry Yusingco, senior fellow of the Ateneo School of Government, cautioned against closed-door deliberations on charter amendments.
“My worry is because the messaging is not certain, open to interpretation, some sections in his administration, his government, might take advantage of it,” he told ABS-CBN News.
Yusingco cited the federal draft approved by the House of Representatives, highly criticized for inserting what were deemed as self-serving provisions such as lifting term limits.
“Bubulagain na lang tayo na this is the draft we have on offer, essentially railroading the process,” he said.
Revising the constitution should involve active public participation, said political science professor Julio Teehankee, who led discussions on political and electoral reforms in the Puno committee.
Duterte earlier acknowledged that his campaign promise of a federal shift might not take place under his term.
Teehankee described the admission as “a realization late in the day,” saying the president should have pushed for federalism “right at the beginning when he still had the luxury of both time and popularity.
“Now, he’s left with simply popularity and time is running out on him to embark on such a massive political undertaking,” he told ABS-CBN News.
“We cannot hide our disappointment at the turn of events,” he added, but acknowledged that Duterte had other priorities.
“The most lethal blow to the entire federal project came from within the immediate political circles of the president, including his economic managers.”
Malaya said the Duterte administration had “recalibrated” its push for federalism, making it “just one of the pillars of constitutional reforms.”
“For the president, if we can get the same benefits of federalism through a tweaking of a unitary system,” he said, “then why go through that long, long process of re-engineering government? He’s keeping his options open.”
Such options include amending the constitution and the 1991 Local Government Code to spread more wealth and political power to the regions, a proposal originally cited by groups wary of the uncertainties under federalism.
“Surgical amendments, maximum decentralization short of federalism,” Malaya said.