October 8, 2020

Asia

PHILIPPINES: Duterte threatens Congress with … possibly, maybe, something

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 5 mins)
  • A fight over the speakership is threatening to delay the approval of the 2021 budget, which would slow the country’s economic recovery.
  • President Rodrigo Duterte asked the legislators in a press conference to resolve the issue, otherwise he said, “I’ll do it for you.”
  • However, he appears to have limited leverage even with his own coalition to force the issue on purely parliamentary dynamics.
  • The prominent presence of senior security officials, including the chief of the armed forces, the commanding generals of the navy and army, and police service, as well as the secretaries for defense and interior, at the televised press conference was, while likely bluster, unusual.

President Rodrigo Duterte today held one of his most unusual press conferences, where he made an unspecified threat against the lower house of congress while flanked by the secretaries of defense and interior, with the chief of staff of the armed forces and the chiefs of the navy, army and national police standing behind them. He specifically asked the lower house to move the 2021 budget forward as infighting between two contenders for the speakership threaten to seriously delay its approval. The House was expected to approve its draft on the third reading by the first half of this month, which would then have allowed its transmittal to the Senate before a one-month congressional recess that starts 17 October. Normally, the House finishes its work on the budget sometime in September or October.

However, the House suspended its session on 6 October after a hasty — and dubious — approval of the budget on the second reading, to reconvene for approval of the bill on the third reading in mid-November. The underlying reason is a fight between the current speaker and his expected replacement. Either a vote for a new speaker or a transfer of leadership is supposed to take place on 14 October, based on an agreement supposedly brokered by Duterte. However, to forestall the scheduled change, the current speaker suspended the session immediately after the rushed approval of the budget on the second reading, with the House to return only next month for the approval of the budget on the third reading.

This creates the risk of a delay in the House approval, possibly resulting in a cascade of delays in the Senate that could eventually push the approval of the budget to next year. Should the government enter 2021 without an approved budget, it would have the ability to spend based on the 2020 budget; however, with 2020 projects completed, this would essentially mean an incomplete spending program, jeopardizing the government’s ability to act quickly to stimulate the economy. It could also lead to delays in the approval of the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act (CREATE), a key reform initiative of Duterte that is supposed to cut corporate income taxes and streamline the country’s incentive-granting system.

What exactly is the threat of Duterte against Congress?

Duterte avoided mentioning what he would specifically do if the budget delay approval worsens, especially since he seems to endorse the transfer of the speakership. He only said “I’ll do it for you.” Since the Philippines follows the US system, Duterte does not have any power to override congress on budgetary approval. However, Duterte does not have a strong hand on purely parliamentary dynamics. His coalition nominally controls almost 90% of parliament, but his own party has only about a fourth of these seats. And historically, members of congress have followed the president’s party because of the lure of pork barrel perks and the threat of their spending allocations not being released on time. However, Duterte does not want to be drawn into a fight where he has to threaten to withhold spending, because of the urgent economic needs created by the pandemic. The current speaker seems to be fully leveraging his ability to influence budgets to keep key congressional leaders on his side, thereby frustrating Duterte, which is why Duterte’s choice of the officials surrounding him at the televised press conference was interesting.

Speaking for about nine minutes — short by Duterte standards — and staying on a single topic, Duterte was flanked by the secretary of defense, secretary of interior and local government, the executive secretary (the equivalent of his chief of staff but with a more powerful office) and his top personal aide, now a senator. Standing behind him were the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the chief of the Philippine National Police, and possibly (given the lack of resolution and the use of face shields and masks) the chiefs of the navy and the army. This is unconventional, especially since no other security topic was discussed at the press conference that could have made their presence incidental to the congressional issue.

Most likely Duterte is projecting the strong security and enforcement persona to intimidate the bickering legislators. It is most likely bluster, as he is unlikely to take any action against the institution or the legislators. Nonetheless, because no other topic was discussed, the prominent presence of the service chiefs was institutionally questionable, even as he threatened another branch of government. If his efforts to force a resolution prove successful, then regardless of the institutional improprieties, Duterte will again be perceived as having the ability to force the resolution of unpopular political bickering, furthering his appeal as an outsider to traditional elite politics. Duterte has given congress a few days, possibly up to early next week, to clarify the budget timeline.