Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Does the Philippines Need a Revolution for the Status Quo?

A group of Duterte supporters has called for a “revolutionary government” that would arm the president with additional powers. What does that even mean?

By Michael Beltran for
Does the Philippines Need a Revolution for the Status Quo?

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he meets members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on August 30, 2020.

Credit: King Rodriguez/Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division via AP)

Supporters of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte generated considerable noise in August by calling for a “Revolutionary Government” or RevGov. Ironically, this so-called revolutionary clamor aims to have the current president keep his post and even increase the scope of his powers. The move comes mainly from the Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte National Executive Committee or MRRD-NECC, a national group of die-hard Duterte supporters. The notion does sound a bit strange at the onset: A revolution fortifying the status quo rather than overthrowing it. Moreover, the Philippines has been embroiled in a half-century-long civil war with guerrillas of the New People’s Army led by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Both groups are now actively engaged in what they call “revolution,” but the more recent cries for a revolution by and for the status quo has left some critics shaking their heads.

The Diplomat spoke with Bobby Brillante, national coordinator of the MRRD-NECC, who clarified that the committee’s campaign is absolutely non-violent. He said that it is taking cues from the People Power upheavals that deposed former Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada in 1986 and 2001, respectively. The main difference, of course, is that instead of toppling an unpopular leader, they want to make the current one more powerful.

Of all those irked by the MRRD-NECC’s call for a RevGov, the most irritated is the CPP. Marco Valbuena, the group’s information officer, labelled the MRRD-NECC a band of “zealots and fanatics” trying to disguise their fascist and right-wing agenda by invoking the term “revolutionary.”

However, Brillante said that his group’s proposed RevGov is only a means of transition. Ultimately, the purpose of the RevGov is to utilize the remaining years of the Duterte presidency to transition the country towards a federal government. As he put it, “the main objective of this is for President Duterte to be able to facilitate the change of our constitution and change the Philippines into a federal form of government, with a parliament and only one legislative body.” He explained that they find the two chambers of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives, redundant. 

Under the proposed RevGov, priority laws could also be hastened without congressional oversight with the president acting as its sole executor. Brillante explains: “We are not closing Congress, but upon their failure to enact a law within 30 days, we want to give the president the extra power to legislate by decree.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Dangerous and Unnecessary

Professor Bobby Tuazon, director for policy studies at the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), and a veteran political scientist at the University of the Philippines, feels that the group is fighting a misguided crusade. He told The Diplomat, “In Philippine socio-economic conditions, the term ‘revolutionary’ is a principled cause advocating basic structural and institutional reforms to ages-old social inequities, elite politics, and political rule by the oligarchy. They are simply out of tune.” 

Duterte and his allies have tried to distance themselves from the MRRD-NECC. The president has claimed that he doesn’t care about its calls for a revolution and has never met any of its proponents. This was echoed by the Philippine National Police. 

Tuazon says that it’s a possibility that many officials already have one eye on the polls in 2022, as Duterte approaches the end of his presidency. He said “some Duterte officials and practically most politicians at this early [moment] have their sights aimed at the 2022 elections. Even if it is installed, any ‘revolutionary government’ will not be supported because it will only derail political plans.” If the RevGov is pushed through, Tuazon still voiced opposition to the proposal given that it undermines the electoral process and panders to the whim of political elites.

Attorney Neri Colmenares, chairman of the progressive Bayan Muna (People First) Party-list and a vocal opponent of constitutional changes, sees a more sinister motive at work. He told The Diplomat, “Despite the denials of [President] Duterte, the threat of establishing a revolutionary government to formally install him a dictator is certainly part of his agenda.” 

A government website has a picture of Duterte attending the National Convention of the MRRD-NECC in 2018 as a keynote speaker, despite the president’s denials.

According to Brillante, the RevGov is premised on the assumption that upon acquiring additional powers, the president will not abuse them. Instead he will opt for a swift transition toward a more efficient government that will coordinate free and fair elections in 2022. But there is a danger to this assumption for Colmenares, who, like many administration critics, feels there have already been grave excesses in terms of the abuse of human rights and the misuse of state forces by the Duterte administration. Allowing a president who has many times been compared to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and who has himself sung the maligned leader’s praises, only raises further questions about the wisdom of handing him yet more power.

Doubt Over Credible Elections in 2022

A revolutionary government under Duterte, Colmenares said, would be “worse than martial law, as it does away with the Constitution and solely lodges all government powers on him. This will cause political upheaval, as he will have the full power to eliminate any political opposition, and ensure that only his supporters and selected lackeys rule the government, even beyond 2022.”

Philippine Presidents are eligible to serve only a single six-year term. No elected ruler has ever been successful in their bid to nominate a successor. Candidates opposed to or at least of a different political inclination to their predecessors have always won. According to Colmenares, the RevGov “shows that [President] Duterte is not at all confident that his chosen successor will win the presidency in 2022.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Moreover, the CPP warned that engaging in constitutional amendments under the oversight of Duterte and his allies will open a Pandora’s box of troubles. Valbuena said, “They form part of and serve Duterte’s overall scheme to establish a fascist dictatorship either through rigging of the 2022 elections to put into position his selected successor; constitutional change to remove term limits or give him continuing powers in the transition period; or staging a palace coup in the form of outright declaration of martial law.”

And yet there are far more pressing matters at hand. 

The Philippines continues to grapple with a grossly inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic. Both Colmenares and Tuazon agreed that the RevGov is itself an inadvertent admission that Duterte has failed the people under the current set-up. Brillante pointed to the pandemic as an extraordinary circumstance that warrants this sort of drastic measure. He said that concentrating extra powers in Duterte’s hands would save lives. But the continued favoring of militarism over civilian welfare remains an ongoing concern. In the proposed state budget for 2021, the president and his congressional allies are pushing for bigger spending on defense and law enforcement rather than public health and social services.

Tuazon countered that instead of being taken as a pretext for the creation of a RevGov, “the poor performance by the Duterte administration on the pandemic can be remedied by simply heeding public calls for a change in strategy from being top-to-bottom to people-based” and by  “decoupling the military predominance in favor of public health.”

Michael Beltran is a freelance journalist from the Philippines.