NEVER one to stick to a script, Rodrigo Duterte regales audiences with tirades, profanities and anecdotes. A politician forged in town-hall frays, he knows how to capture hearts and headlines. This week he decided to take on God, calling him “stupid” and a “son of a whore”, to predictable uproar. Mr Duterte clearly relishes the spotlight—which has caused some Filipinos to wonder whether he will ever willingly leave it.
Mr Duterte became president two years ago, after winning 39% of the vote in a four-way race. He immediately implemented a series of controversial policies, most notably a bloody anti-drugs campaign. He also imposed martial law on the troubled southern island of Mindanao, a bold step given that a former president, Ferdinand Marcos, used martial law to turn himself into a dictator. Indeed, he allowed Marcos’s embalmed body, previously preserved in a ghoulish shrine in his home province, to be interred in Heroes’ Cemetery in Manila, the capital.
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Most voters are untroubled: seven in ten Filipinos approve of Mr Duterte’s performance. Members of Congress, intimidated by his popularity, fawn in the face of his rough talk and tough policies. Both the Senate and House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to extend the state of emergency. “There’s something about him which draws you in,” trills Alan Cayetano, the foreign secretary.
Those who are not drawn in find themselves in trouble. In May the chief justice of the Supreme Court lost her job, ostensibly for failing to file some asset-disclosure forms, after she upbraided the president for infringing on the independence of the judiciary in his anti-drugs campaign. Senator Leila de Lima, who has accused Mr Duterte of orchestrating extra-judicial killings in Davao, a city he ran for more than two decades, has found herself in prison for 16 months. She was accused and convicted, improbably enough, of peddling drugs with a former lover. “De Lima is not only screwing her driver; she is also screwing the nation,” Mr Duterte thundered before her arrest. In both cases, Mr Duterte denies involvement, but did nothing to restrain the allies and underlings who pursued the two women.
For my next trick
The president’s next initiative, and perhaps his most controversial, is an attempt to change the constitution, both to introduce federalism and to change the central government from a purely presidential system to a presidential-parliamentary model, similar to that of France. In his big set-piece address to Congress in late July he is expected to urge the lawmakers to declare themselves a constituent assembly with the authority to redraft the constitution. They may cravenly oblige.
Mr Duterte argues that federalism would transfer power and money away from Manila to other, poorer parts of the country. It would also bolster peace deals with armed groups in Mindanao which have sought greater autonomy. The country’s 18 regions could become states. The main argument in favour of a parliamentary model, meanwhile, is to foster party politics, rather than the patronage system that currently applies. Lowlier politicians, whatever their notional partisan affiliation, typically rush to ally themselves with the president of the day; there are no mass, ideologically based parties. Even so, the president struggles to push legislation through Congress, not because of determined opposition but because it is a hopeless morass. The need for a government to command a durable majority in parliament, it is hoped, would change all that.
In theory, all these changes would reduce Mr Duterte’s authority, both over the regions and over Congress. But critics worry that amid all the upheaval Congress could easily be induced to slip in a provision scrapping the rule limiting presidents to a single six-year term. And there might not be term limits for the new office of prime minister, giving Mr Duterte two potential future perches. Even elections could be affected if the period of transition to a federal system is deemed an excuse to delay them (the next ones, for half the Senate and the entire House, are due in May).
Mr Duterte has repeatedly said that, should he attempt to stay in office beyond the six-year limit, someone should shoot him. But sceptics note that he showed no compunction about gaming term-limits when mayor of Davao. The first time he reached the maximum of three consecutive terms, he spent three years as the local congressman before running for mayor again. The second time, he served as vice-mayor while his daughter was mayor. In all, he held the job for 23 years. He has made no secret of his admiration for Marcos, who was president for 21 years. And as long as Mr Duterte is president, he is immune from prosecution—something activists say he deserves for his conduct of the war on drugs.
There are plenty of obstacles to “cha-cha” or “charter change”, as Filipinos call the process of amending the constitution. Three administrations have previously tried to alter it and failed. Mr Duterte commands Congress like a strongman, thanks to his approval ratings. But his predecessor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, also enjoyed sky-high ratings for a couple of years before voters lost their enthusiasm. Accelerating inflation is a potential vulnerability. In May prices rose 4.6% year-on-year, the highest rate in five years.
Even if the fawning Congress produces a new constitution, a plebiscite will be needed to approve it. Mr Duterte is probably the most powerful president since Marcos’s dictatorship was overthrown in 1986. The centrepiece of the constitution approved in the wake of the “People Power Revolution”, ironically enough, was the six-year limit on the presidency.