A strange thing tends to happen when people rise to positions of power, especially politicians and elected officials who, thanks to their good office have the resources of the country at their disposal. We see it happening all around us, all the time… it’s the often-told tale of power corrupting the person who reaches a pinnacle of state power. Their egos inflate and they begin to believe and act as if they are above everyone else, even the law. They begin to subvert institutions, twisting things for their own benefit and aggrandizement. Nobody should dare question, criticize, disagree or offer a different point of view. Having achieved and reached the highest echelons of power, and having tasted what power brings—prestige, money, people around you bending backward to do your bidding, people below you—citizens in particular– hoodwinked with falsehoods or made to feel powerless to change things, these “leaders” will, of course, not want to let go of their prized position, high above everyone else. Once up there, they believe that such positions of power should be maintained at all costs for as long as possible. And for many noble and good reasons—they enjoy the trust of the majority, they know and act on the interests of the people they govern, they need more time to implement all their good plans and policies, etc… And, if the reins of power finally need to be relinquished, then it must pass on to a favored few, notably relatives, close friends, and allies.

Someone once called it the heights virus.

Once infected, the virus is quite tenacious and difficult to shake off. Unfortunately, the virus spreads to those around them, and worse affects the social body as well.

Such seems to be the current state of affairs, heights virus at work. Just one case in point, since events appear oddly synchronous. Just as we hear news of China’s Communist Party proposing to change its constitution, notably, lifting restrictions in the term of office of the President, moves are also underway to change the constitution in the Philippines. Ostensibly to make way for the federal form of government, the stated objective is to decentralize power from “Imperial Manila”. New reforms are needed to be more responsive to the needs of the times and for greater economic development in the provinces. Greater latitude for governance will redound to the local state level to make and implement its own laws and policies and, this will ensure that resources will remain and be at the service of the individual states that will be created. Development and progress for the federal states should be faster and more efficient as there is no need to wait for the central government with its red tape and bureaucracy. The change to federalism was one of the campaign promises made by President Duterte. Counting on the 15 million or so who voted for him, the belief is that majority of Filipinos would also approve the new Constitution once drafted and presented in a plebiscite.

The Cha Cha Movement (Charter Change) is in high gear; rumors say legislators and the President want it drafted and approved as soon as possible, even as early as May or if not possible as early as this October. Instead of convening an independent Constitutional Convention, touted to be too expensive and time-consuming, Congress, convening itself as a Constituent Assembly, is currently drafting its proposed amendments and provisions. Meanwhile, the President has also formed an independent Commission to come up and recommend their own proposals to Congress. At the grassroots level, we hear that a campaign has been going on to generate support for federalism among barangay and local officials.

The reasons for changing the constitution appear noble and justifiable. “Recent events show that it is imperative that reforms be introduced in the present Constitution for it to be responsive to the exigencies of the times, including the need to provide a long-term solution to the decades-old conflict in Mindanao and to spur economic regional development in the countryside, and provide impetus to much needed socio-economic and political reforms,” reads the bill which called for convening the Congress as a Constituent Assembly and which was passed at the lower House.

While not yet final and made public, the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments has already started discussing the “Salient Features” of the draft constitution, a copy of which circulated online. But, while not yet final and made public, a closer look, especially at the transitory provisions, calls to question the purpose and intention behind Charter Change. The transitory provisions outline how the transition will be made from the current form of government to the new one.

A provision reads: “The incumbent President shall exercise all the powers and functions of the head of state and head of government under this Federal Constitution until the election of the next President and Prime Minister in May 2022. He shall appoint the New Cabinet from among the Members of Parliament. He shall have supervision and direction over the Interim Prime Minister and Cabinet.” If this provision will be retained in the final draft, this gives President Duterte not just executive power but law-making powers as well since the legislative body will no longer be separate and co-equal to that of the executive. This is reminiscent of what Ferdinand Marcos did when the sixth amendment was introduced in the 1973 Constitution which legalized Marcos’ law-making powers.

Another provision states that the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate and, by appointment of the President, the members of Cabinet, will become members of the interim Parliament until the regular members get elected. This means that the congressmen who would need to run for re-election next year get to have their term of office extended until 2022, including the senators who should seek re-election or retire by 2919. If this pushes through, Duterte also gets to keep his supermajority control of Congress.

What about federalism?

Again the transitory provisions reveal that federating the provinces into separate states will take a long while. First Parliament has to create and pass a State and Local Government Code and they have 18 months to do so. The Federal Government will then “gradually devolve”and decentralize functions to the States but it doesn’t state how long this will take as no deadline is set. For a state to become autonomous, its State legislature will have to enact an Organic Act, be ratified by the people of that state and then ratified by the Parliament. Only then can they function as a separate Federal State. Thus, it looks like implementing federalism will be a convoluted process and can take a long time. How long? Who can tell?

It is no small wonder then, that government watchdogs, students and sectors of civil society are closely following developments. It appears that incumbent officials are taking advantage of Charter Change to perpetuate themselves in power, the stage being set up for President Duterte to weld enormous, almost dictatorial powers in the interim, and federal autonomy a dubious promise to be fulfilled in some indeterminate future.

If heights virus is at work, the antidote is for the citizenry to be well informed and discerning, and to take necessary action, before it is too late.