The Philippine political opposition and Catholic church leaders warn that moves in Congress to shift to a federal system of government can result in the extension of the term of office of President Rodrigo Duterte. (Photo by Vincent Go)
The possibility of congressional elections not being held in the Philippines next year has sparked alarm among Catholic Church leaders who warned their cancellation could lead to a dictatorship.
Allies of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippine Congress have announced that the scheduled elections could be suspended to make way for the transition to a federal form of government.
Moves toward federalism gained steam when Duterte, who believes that the creation of autonomous states can address conflicts especially in Mindanao, won the 2016 presidential election.
The Philippines has a presidential form of government wherein power is equally divided among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
Under the current system, authority is centralized in the national government in Manila. The proposed shift to federalism will decentralize power to the regions.
Opposition leaders, however, warned that the shift to federalism would pave the way for the extension of Duterte’s term in office beyond its expiration in 2022.
Catholic Church leaders, who have been vocal in their criticism of Duterte's policies, have warned against the move.
Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon said suspending next year's election "would be another specter of a looming dictatorial government."
"We citizens should be vigilant to avoid political pitfalls," the prelate said, adding that such a scenario would be a "blatant violation" of the country's democratic form of government.
He said extending terms of elected officials is not allowed by the constitution.
"An extension smacks of an imminent dictatorship, which happened during the presidency of Marcos," said Bishop Bastes.
Former president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the 1970s and ruled the country for two decades.
Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga appealed to political leaders not to "precondition the minds of people" by floating the idea of no-elections.
The prelate said if changes to the country's constitution are made they should not be for the personal agenda of individuals or tailored for the interest of political parties.
"There are so many urgent needs and pressing problems that should be immediately addressed and attended to," he said.
Duterte's allies in the Lower House are set to form a constituent assembly next week to introduce changes to the constitution to give way to a federal form of government.
A referendum on whether to adopt federalism will then be held along with the May 8 village elections, according to House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, Duterte's main supporter in Congress.
Opposition congressman Edcel Lagman said the planned assembly will turn Congress into a "a virtual rubber stamp" for Duterte.
Gary Alejano, another opposition legislator, said a transitory provision of a federal constitution could give Duterte "absolute power."
Alvarez said the House, which is dominated by Duterte allies, has already laid down the groundwork for the drafting of a new constitution.
Political analyst Ramon Casiple said it is too early to judge the intention of the Duterte administration over the issue of a term extension.
"You cannot determine actually what would be the impact of this constitutional change," he said.