From the beginning of President Duterte’s single presidential term in July 2016, many expressed fears that the Philippine system of checks and balances of presidential power would prove lacking again.
The Duterte administration quickly claimed super-majorities in both houses of Congress. The Liberal Party, shorn of most of its members, chose not to become the opposition party. President Duterte quickly declared an indefinite nationwide state of emergency and has repeatedly publicly mused about the utility of martial law in his bloody anti-drugs crusade. Questions about the conduct of this campaign from the Chief Justice led to a presidential tirade and more musings about martial law. Criticisms from Catholic priests were also profanely dismissed. President Duterte’s understanding of the presidency is that of a dynastic provincial mayor and is uneasy with the co-equal nature of the office.
Fortunately, it looks like the legislative, legal and civil society checks and balances against presidential overreach are working. Seven months after the president requested emergency powers from Congress to deal with Metro Manila’s traffic morass, these powers have not been granted. Legislators want to know what the executive will do with these powers before granting them. Likewise, the presidential push to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 9 years old and to reintroduce the death penalty are being stymied by the legislature and opposed by key members of Cabinet.
Duterte’s signature crusade against drugs, recently suspended due to police abuse of power and extended to the end of the president’s term in June 2022, is becoming a major test of presidential prerogative. On February 5, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines released a pastoral letter denouncing the “reign of terror” on the Philippine poor wrought by the war on drugs. Vice President Robredo, showing the first signs of becoming a leader of the opposition to the President, fully supported the Church’s strong condemnation of President Duterte’s war on drugs. Major Philippine media outlets, despite pressure from the executive and the army of social media trolls supporting the president, are exposing this campaign’s tragic human costs and abuses of state power.
The Philippine checks and balances against presidential overreach were tested by the Estrada administration two decades ago and proven effective and resilient. The Duterte administration is posing a new test of these institutions and, so far, it looks like they may prove effective again.
Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.