MANILA (AFP) - Philippine lawmakers on Tuesday (Jan 16) began formal proceedings on changing the government into a federal system that could allow President Rodrigo Duterte to stay in office for more than a decade.
The proposed shift from a unitary system would give the next president two five-year terms and strong federal powers over a nation that would be divided into five federal states, congressional leader Roger Mercado said.
Although the proposed charter calls for a federal, parliamentary system with the prime minister as head of government, the president would still have vast powers, Mr Mercado, a member of Mr Duterte's ruling coalition, said.
"The president will have oversight power over all branches of government," including Parliament and the courts, Mr Mercado, the House of Representatives constitutional amendments committee chairman, said at a public hearing.
Under the proposed draft being debated by Mr Mercado's commission, Mr Duterte, whose single six-year term ends in mid-2022, would again be eligible to run for two more five-year terms.
Ramon Casiple, head of a think-tank involved in the charter change process, said that Mr Duterte and all elected officials would no longer be bound by the term limits under the current 1987 Constitution.
"That is always the case: If you have a (new) Constitution, everybody starts with a clean slate," he told AFP.
He said Mr Duterte, who has been pressing the charter-change effort, wants the new Constitution ratified in a vote by May 2019. Mr Mercado is pushing his committee's version to be adopted.
Mr Casiple said Congress, which is controlled by Mr Duterte allies, could form itself into a "constituent assembly" to rewrite the Constitution as early as May and could finish the draft new charter by December.
Mr Duterte and congressional allies want to effect the changes by having the House and the Senate sit as one in a constituent assembly to change the Constitution.
The president says giving more power to the regions will answer the demand by the country's rebellious Muslim minority for more self-rule by creating a federal autonomous state for them.
But critics charge that the switch is unnecessary and fear that it will weaken the current Constitution's safeguards against dictatorship.
It was written and ratified after the overthrow of the 20-year regime of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos who looted state coffers and oversaw massive human rights abuses after declaring martial law in 1972.
Mr Marcos died in exile in Hawaii in 1989. Mr Duterte has described him as the best president ever and in 2016 controversially allowed the former president's remains to be interred in Manila's "Heroes' Cemetery" despite widespread protests.