Denigrating the Constitution

Two years ago, the Philippine Constitution Association (Philconsa), a non-government and purportedly non-partisan organization, celebrated its 56thanniversary at the Centennial Pavilion of the Manila Hotel. Its prime objective is to promote respect for the Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines. It does not specify which but I suppose it includes respecting the memory of past Constitutions and upholding the current 1987 “Freedom Constitution.”

On that particular anniversary, 26 September 2017, the guest of honor and speaker was the sitting president, Rodrigo Roa Duterte. He must have had a prepared speech, which an aide placed on the lectern as soon as the Chief Executive approached; it is always enclosed in a fine leather folder with the presidential seal. Sometimes there is a teleprompter, almost invisible, which makes the audience think that the speaker’s memory remains untarnished despite his age.  But President Duterte spoke extemporaneously.

From the official transcripts released by the Presidential News Desk of the Presidential Communications Office, I gleaned the following nuggets: the President mentioned the Constitution three times.  He said he had just come from the Department of Justice which was celebrating its   120th anniversary so he would continue where he left off, which probably meant that he was  discarding his prepared speech.     His “penultimate statement” was that we are in trouble, “… and this is the first time that I would reveal it because we’re talking about the Constitution and the interest of the country, and of course, the Bill of Rights and due process.”

President Duterte continued: “We are a client state of the Bamboo Triad that has taken over the operations, sad to say Chinese, but I do not mean the country and the people.” By mentioning the Constitution practically in the same breath as the Bamboo Triad, President Duterte pushed one   to conclude that he would   use the full force of the law, with due process, to protect us.

After rambling on about the diabolic effects of the drug trade, how successful the Davao template, he alluded to the Constitution a second time in the context  of age limits: “That’s the Constitution. It prescribes the Bill of Rights. They say the great magistrate here is the limit of power because we have the inherent police power, taxation…So it’s the limit of what the government can do, well, so long as you do not destroy, we will always abide by the limits, the Bill of Rights, due process. They say that we cannot investigate children,we have to release them. Allow them to…”

For the third and last time, at the Philconsa anniversary dinner, President Duterte invoked the Constitution: “What keeps us here tonight? What is the unifying factor in the Filipino?  It is the Philippine Constitution signed by our forefathers that we will be one. (Resounding applause from the audience). The Constitution keeps us united. You start to destroy the Constitution, there will be a breakage of our society.”  The President was not reading a prepared speech. Was he speaking from the heart?

As it turns out,  he was not speaking from the heart.  Today, barely two years after that rambling discourse at the Philconsa, President Duterte blustered that China would tell him to use our Constitution as toilet paper, if he were to assert our claim in the West Philippine Sea.  He said: “I will go there, tell them to get out, this is the Constitution. They will tell me, you run out of toilet paper, use it. …”

Philconsa, say something!  Your honored guest, the President  himself, is denigrating our Constitution.

Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno said that Rodrigo R. Duterte should not be called president because that position

comes from the 1987 Constitution, which he disrespectfully likened to toilet paper. He should be called emperor, and a naked one at that.  For her part, Vice President Leni Robredo found the presidential statement  alarming (nakababahala) because their positions as president and VP are embodied in the Constitution like the very structure of the government.

Could all this be a prelude to a second round of charter change, the cha-cha? Newly elected Representative of Leyte, Martin Romualdez was/is the president of Philconsa. He ignored the ignominous “toilet paper” comment, but in a recent interview he affirmed his commitment to “constitutional reforms” that will bring about economic progress, and to the president’s federalism agenda. It sounds like a very malevolent script.