2019: The year Duterte further strengthened his grip on the country

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies continued their domination in Philippine politics in 2019, further strengthening their grip over the country, leaving some experts worried.

Following the usual pattern since the restoration of democracy in the country in 1986, the administration nearly decimated the opposition, striking a huge blow against them in the midterm polls, where Duterte’s allies secured nine out of 12 Senate seats.

On his third year at the helm of the country, Duterte’s “honeymoon period” still has not ended as he — and subsequently, his allies — enjoy high trust and approval ratings, slumping only in October, but rebounding in December.

The result? At first glance, it seems that what Duterte wants, Duterte gets.

Senators Grace Poe and Nancy Binay did not follow suit with 10 of their fellow Senate race winners who posed for a photo doing President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature fist bump.

Duterte’s allies in Congress stood fiercely loyal to him, looking to him for guidance on their legislative agenda.

Congress approved a handful of the laws he championed, including additional taxes on alcohol and tobacco products, the Universal Health Care law, the creation of Malasakit Centers, the postponement of barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan polls, and a fresh salary hike for government workers.

It also approved changes to the franchise of Mindanao Islamic Telephone Company, Inc., the country’s third telecommunications company which is now known as Dito Telecommunity.

It also heeded Duterte’s call to pass two of his promises on the campaign trail: the creation of a trust fund for coconut farmers using the Coco Levy Fund and the end of labor-only contracting. The President, however, vetoed these two measures when they reached his desk, sending them back to the start of the legislative mill.

Congress has also so far listened when Duterte does not want certain laws passed, like the legislative franchise of broadcast giant ABS-CBN, which still sits in limbo in the legislature and may end up being vetoed by the President if it does eventually reach his desk.

For the House, they even looked to the President to tell them who their leader should be. The potentially divisive jockeying for the speakership ended with Duterte brokering a term-sharing deal between two close allies — Taguig-Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano and Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Jay Velasco — to keep the pro-administration coalition intact.

Sa punto-de-vista ng policy-making, actually may advantage nga kung ma-dominate ng Presidente ang both chambers kasi mami-minimize ang tinatawag nating gridlock,” Rogelio Alicor Panao, a political science professor, told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: From the point-of-view of policy-making, there’s actually an advantage if the President dominates both chambers because gridlocks would be minimized.]

“It ought to make the administration easier to push its agenda in terms of legislative support for it,” said political science professor Herman Kraft. “But the interesting thing is medyo underwhelming ‘yung nangyari [what happened was underwhelming.]”

Sixteen of the measures that Duterte mentioned in his last two State of the Nation Addresses are still pending in Congress, including his push for the revival of the death penalty and the return of the mandatory Reserve Officers Training Corps program.

His administration’s flagship campaign for a shift to federalism seems to have been abandoned by Congress, especially by the administration-controlled House, which is now more keen on limiting tweaks to the Constitution to liberalizing economic provisions and easing term limits.

Things might just get even more difficult for Duterte and his legislative agenda as the country approaches closer to the 2022 presidential elections.

“It’s easy to see [the supermajority gradually splitting] kasi [because] within the supermajority, there have already been factions. So the one thing that’s holding them together is the Duterte presidency. Once there are already feelers as to who will be running in the 2022 elections, there will definitely be hiccups” said political science professor Jean Franco.

Verbal orders

Faced with this challenge, Panao said Duterte opted to send “signals” to Congress on his stance on legislative policies.

Among these are his many verbal orders in the past year, including the closure of Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) outlets, the rearrest of those freed through the expanded Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) law, and the ban on the importation and use of e-cigarettes and vapes.

Nagbibigay siya ng posisyon, pero dinadaan niya sa mga ganitong pronouncements. Ang totoo, kapag nagpapalabas ng mga ganitong pronouncements ang Presidente, tinitimbang din niya, may pagtitimbang na nagaganap sa pulso ng bayan kung susuportahan ba ito o hindi,” Panao said.

[Translation: He gives out positions, but he does it through pronouncements like these. But the truth is when the President gives out these kinds of pronouncements, he is also weighing whether the public will support this or not.]

But Duterte’s “signals” have led to uncertainty for PCSO outlets and their employees, the surrender of more than 2,000 former convicts — way higher than the 1,900 heinous crime convicts said to have been released through the expanded GCTA policy — and the arrest of hundreds of vape users even if the police admit that they could not charge them for any crime.

His rants against water concessionaires Manila Water and Maynilad have also prompted a review of the government’s 22-year-old agreements with them and led to the revocation of its extension until 2037.

READ: Contract extension beyond 2022 still stands, Manila Water clarifies

“He doesn’t seem to be familiar with the procedures of government which is why he thinks everyone should follow any and all of his orders— and that’s really not how the system was built or designed. Kaya tayo nagkakaproblema eh [That’s why we run into problems,]” said constitutional law professor Dante Gatmaytan.

Gatmaytan added, “That does have very serious implications sa rule of law because if he thinks he has all these powers, he is in effect usurping the functions of other branches of government.”

No matter the questions raised by members of the legal community about Duterte’s orders, government officials still implemented these without much question and at times even managed to find ways to justify them, even if they themselves were at times “surprised.”

When Duterte closed down PCSO outlets, Malacañang said this was completely within his power as the state gaming firm is under his office.

Following public uproar on the possible release of convicted rapist and killer Antonio Sanchez, the police rounded up former prisoners who have already been freed and the Justice department crafted new rules barring heinous crime convicts from benefiting from the GCTA.

READ: Bilibid inmates run to SC to question new Good Conduct rules

The Philippine National Police justified the arrest of vape users by saying that Duterte’s verbal order expands the definition of smoking in Executive Order 26, which only defines it as “being in possession or control of a lit tobacco product.”

And when Duterte threatened a military takeover of water distribution, the Justice department claimed that the Constitution allows for a state takeover of privately owned public utilities or businesses affected with public interest in case of national emergency and when public interest requires it.

Ferrer said authorities are very much willing to comply with the President’s verbal orders — despite the questions hanging over them — because the bureaucracy had been “historically weak.”

For his part, Kraft said, “I think nagko-contribute ito ngayon sa paglusaw nung mga democratic institutions natin [this contributes to the dissolution of our democratic institutions]. So the rule of law, for instance, is compromised when state authorities act using shortcuts.”