Church groups question move to rewrite Philippine charter

Fears of dictatorship grow with draft constitution set for submission to Congress
Church groups question move to rewrite Philippine charter

Church and activist groups stage a protest in January against moves to revise the Philippine constitution to accommodate a federal system of government. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Various church groups in the Philippines have raised concern over moves by legislators in recent weeks to railroad an amendment to the constitution.

The Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum said it is "seriously alarmed and highly apprehensive" of the way allies of President Rodrigo Duterte want to rewrite the charter.

In a statement dated July 11, Catholic and Protestant bishops said they suspect something "sinister" behind the rush to shift to a federal system of government. 

"The proposed charter grants Mr. Duterte the power to exercise a monopoly of executive, legislative and judiciary powers," read the prelates' statement.

They said that with "mounting pieces of evidence" pointing to Duterte’s alleged intention to hold on to power, "the proposed federal charter appears to pave the way for one-man rule."

The bishops said there is a widespread perception that the amendment to the constitution would only lead to the establishment of a "constitutional dictatorship."

They called on Duterte "to stop misleading the people into believing that his federal charter will work for the good of the country." 

"In reality, it is far worse than charter changes that past governments have sought to put forward," read the bishops' statement.

A Catholic lay group, meanwhile, called for prayer vigils in dioceses, parishes and communities around the country on July 23 when Duterte delivers his annual State of the Nation Address.

The Catholic Sangguniang Laiko ng Pilipinas (Council of Laity of the Philippines) urged Catholics to "reject attempts" by legislators to delete provisions in the constitution that guarantee people's rights.

"Reject any attempt to bring back dictatorship, undetermined extension of office terms of elected officials, and the postponement of national and local elections," read the organization's statement.

"Mr. Duterte’s charter changes only make the intention to place the entire country under an authoritarian rule appear more clearly before our eyes," said the group.

A survey by pollster Pulse Asia in March showed that opposition to charter change had risen from 44 percent in July 2016 to 64 percent in March.

On July 12, the presidential palace announced it was ready to submit to Congress a draft federal constitution written by a commission created by Duterte.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque expressed optimism that the new charter to facilitate the shift to a federal government would be ratified next year.

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"The president has said that if it is finally ratified by the people then he will step down," said Roque.

Duterte earlier said that he would not head a transition body to oversee the shift to a federal government if the new constitution is passed by Congress.

The draft constitution gives regions more power to self-govern and distributes power and resources of the national government. 

If adopted by Congress, the new charter would create 18 federated regions that have autonomy and control over socioeconomic and financial systems. 

The document proposes the election of 36 senators — two from each federal regions, and 400 district representatives that would compose the legislative body.  

Other provisions include the prohibition of political dynasties, and clearly stated rights in an expanded Bill of Rights such as environmental and socioeconomic rights.  

The new charter also mentions three high courts — a Federal Supreme Court, Federal Constitutional Court, and Federal Administrative Court with nine justices for each court. 

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