For all his foul tongue, his habit of comparing himself to Hitler and Idi Amin and his loud encouragement of death squads that so far have killed over 20,000 supposed drug dealers, Rodrigo Duterte campaigned on a big idea when he ran for the presidency of the Philippines in 2016. He promised a new constitution that would reshape the country, turning it into a federation rather than, as it is today, a unitary state ruled from Manila by politicians and bureaucrats who, many Filipinos believe, wield far too much power.
As recently as last year Mr Duterte still seemed to be gunning for “cha-cha” (charter change). He had formed a committee to draft a new constitution. The committee had sent its draft, which envisaged a federation of 18 regions, to Congress. In his state-of-the-nation address a year ago, the president expressed confidence that Filipinos wanted a new constitution. He promised it would strengthen democratic institutions and spread prosperity more fairly.
Mr Duterte had a narrower objective, too: to resolve once and for all Muslim separatism on the island of Mindanao, over whose biggest city he presided for decades as mayor. Eleven years ago the Supreme Court nixed a deal which gave an expansive form of autonomy to some Muslim parts of Mindanao on the ground that the arrangements in effect created a state within a state and thus contravened the constitution.
Yet in this year’s address, on July 22nd, just a couple of months after elections secured Mr Duterte a strong majority of loyalists in the Senate for the first time, not a peep about a new constitution. Why?
One reason is lack of time. Mr Duterte is already halfway through the single term to which the constitution limits him. He is ill and tired. Some doubt that he will serve his full six years. And when the draft went to Congress, the federation idea hit a big practical obstacle: Congress could not agree on the best procedure for reforming the constitution.
In theory, with the Senate now firmly in Mr Duterte’s camp, obtaining an agreement should be easier. Yet there are other snags. If Congress declares itself a constituent assembly, it is not limited to considering the draft suggested by Mr Duterte’s committee: it can do what it likes with the constitution. The House of Representatives, for instance, has eagerly voted to strike out provisions in the existing constitution which impose term limits on elected officials and seek—largely unsuccessfully—to curb the establishment of political dynasties.
There is thus a reluctance among some politicians and many voters to let Congress even begin tinkering with the constitution. Besides, it is far from clear what the criteria should be when drawing the boundaries of new states. In such a far-flung archipelago, language often defines regions more than any other factor. But should language regions be preserved whole or divided? There is no consensus. Meanwhile, despite “imperial” Manila’s supposed dominance, many parts of the Philippines are still, in effect, independent fiefs run by big landowners, powerful local clans, governors or mayors backed by private armies, garrison commanders, police chiefs, criminal gangs, communist rebels or jihadists. Many who live in such places would presumably welcome more of the central government’s writ.
As for Mr Duterte’s most pressing concern, autonomy for mainly Muslim parts of Mindanao, circumstances have changed. A more comprehensive peace agreement with the main insurgent group in 2014 is being implemented without any objection from the Supreme Court, which is ever less inclined to challenge the president.
In the end, the main kibosh to federalism has come from the technocrats running the economy for Mr Duterte. They are struggling to build the infrastructure needed to prevent the economy hitting the buffers. To fund it, the government must borrow. Yet neither the central government nor the new federated states would be a good credit risk until the division of revenues is settled.
Mr Duterte appears not to have slammed the door entirely on constitutional tinkering. The same economic managers who are wary of federalism are in favour of removing constitutional limits on foreign ownership of local companies, as are many investors. But that is both a relatively modest reform and hardly a crowd-pleasing one—not the sort of idea, in other words, to which Mr Duterte pays attention.