Punch & Judy, Philippine-style

Manuel L. Quezon III
8 min readFeb 9, 2024

The President and his immediate predecessor bash each other

Two rather fun reads are courtesy of The Guardian ( Philippines says it is ready to use force to quell secession attempts as Duterte row deepens, February 5), and The Asia Sentinel ( Marcos, Duterte at Each Other’s Throats, February 7), in whichViswa Nathan observes that,

This spat is rooted in a four-letter word. Fear. Fear on both sides. Marcos while taking over the presidency at the end of Duterte’s six-year term in mid-2022, was worried about Duterte’s overarching popularity across the nation and influence over the military and the police. When Marcos declared his candidacy, Duterte publicly disparaged him as a weak leader, a spoiled child with the baggage of his family, who is credited with having stolen billions of dollars from the country before being deposed in the 1980s.

When he was leaving office, opinion surveys claimed that in this country where machoistic behavior is applauded, the unpredictable Duterte commanded a 75 percent popularity rating, which had risen to 79 percent in December 2023, as opposed to 68 percent for Marcos according to Pulse Asia. Therefore, also recognizing Duterte’s cantankerous ways, Marcos had to tread a tricky path in his first year in office. So he chose to keep Duterte at ease by keeping the International Criminal Court investigating Duterte for his alleged human rights violation away from the country.

Now, however, Duterte has good reason to be very afraid. As a former lawmaker explained, he is now “obsessed with fear and in a state of panic” that Marcos could let the ICC grab him and prosecute him for the so-called Davao Death Squad when he was mayor of Davao, and Operation Double Barrel during his presidency that killed thousands in the name of cleansing the country of dangerous drugs. “Look at it: he is calling the army and the police to protect the Constitution, and at the same time calling for Mindanao to secede! He is off his rocker.”

In his self-interested effort to shield Duterte from the ICC’s reach, Marcos first figuratively stuck his neck out. In January 2023, when Marcos was just six months in office and the ICC authorized reopening the investigation into Duterte’s drug war, which had remained suspended since November 2021 at Manila’s request, Marcos’s justice secretary, Jesus Crispin Remulla, denounced the ICC move…

This strategy helped Marcos to keep Duterte appeased while he reorganized command lines and took a good grip of the nation’s reins. As his administration completed its first six months, the secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Benhur Abalos, asked full police colonels and generals to file their courtesy resignations while a five-person team investigated officers to cleanse the force. As a part of it, 49 members of the drug enforcement group that included 12 high-ranking officers were also ordered to surrender their firearms as they were found liable for drug-related irregularities. Marcos was now well in the saddle with European leaders acknowledging that human rights are upheld better under Marcos than under Duterte, although extrajudicial killings continue, albeit at a slower pace, according to Human Rights Watch.

Still, there remained a long way to go to realize the objective Marcos declared in his inaugural address: raising per capita GNP to the equivalent of US$4,256, uplifting the country to upper middle-income status by the time his administration reached mid-term. It called for expanding foreign trade and attracting foreign direct investment. In both, Duterte loomed large. Some of Manila’s trade partners, particularly the European Union, which granted more than 6,200 Philippine products duty-free access under its GSP+ scheme, which helped Philippines exports to the 27-nation market rise from a minuscule US$6.14 billion in 2014 to $11.17 billion in 2022, is determined that whoever seeks preferential access to the EU market must uphold human rights standards. Allowing ICC investigators access to the Philippines falls within that framework. Hannah Neumann, a member of the European Parliament who led a delegation to the Philippines early last year, reminded Manila that this condition of the European Parliament is “not going to go away.”

In the meantime, just over two months ago, the EU agreed to let Manila continue enjoying the privilege while it worked towards fulfilling human rights conditions. Just as it happened, the Marcos administration’s solicitor general, Menardo Guevarra, who was justice secretary with the Duterte administration, clarified that ICC investigators are free to visit the Philippines like any visitor with proper travel documents, and gather the information they want. “You can investigate in whatever way you want; you can talk to any person…interview any person,” but do not expect cooperation from the government.

Since then, matters have moved swiftly, and according to former senator Antonio Trillanes IV, a Duterte nemesis, ICC investigators entered the country, conducted interviews, and gathered the information they needed. The ICC, said Trillanes, could soon issue arrest warrants against Duterte and his aides. Duterte and his associates then saw what was imminent. Ronald dela Rosa, Duterte’s first chief of police (now a senator), who is included in the ICC investigation for carrying out Duterte’s shoot-to-kill order in the drug war, demanded the president to be “man enough” to admit if he has allowed ICC investigators enter the country.

The credibility of Trillanes’s claim aside, the important question now is how the ICC would execute its arrest warrant. The court has no enforcement team….

It should have let Duterte continue to remain relaxed. But he panicked. Now, Duterte’s roar to have Marcos overthrown or for Mindanao to break away from the Philippines could go like a cry in the wilderness as leaders of the autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao have denounced his call to secede while the chief of the armed forces, Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said the armed forces would remain with its duty to protect the state against threats, whether external or internal. Duterte has a right to be afraid.

Which means everything else -all the lurid drama, in other words- is the byproduct of a former President coming to see the limitations imposed by being out of power, and the incumbent having to navigate the inevitable breakup of his electoral coalition.

You could argue that what Duterte accomplished in his presidency was a long-overdue transfer of wealth to Mindanao by virtue of his assiduously applying what the Americans used to call the “spoils system” to Davao in particular and Mindanao in general. But it would be difficult to imagine that he approached the question of patronage with the thoroughness and strategic thinking of, say, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who saddled her successor with appointees up, down, and sideways in the bureaucracy who were loyal to her. Combined with his contemptuous approach to Congress, and his targeting local government officials during his term, this means he has no real reservoir of strength to draw on in the current government.

As for my column this week, it looks at Charter Change and whether it’s yet another victim of the manner in which the current Constitution was written so as to make amendments virtually impossible.

This week’s The Long View:


Against the clock

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 04:30 AM February 07, 2024

At the end of January, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Caloocan issued a statement in his capacity as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines on the topic of Charter change. The bishops had reached a couple of conclusions.

First, with regards to the “so-called people’s initiative,” referring to the signatures gathered, “it is clear that their signing is not the result of careful study and discussion.” What’s more, “It seems that this people’s initiative was initiated by a few public servants and not truly from the initiative of ordinary citizens.”

If these conclusions are true, he wrote, then a third is inescapable: “It involves deception and disregard for our true and free participation in the democratic process of our country.” He concludes with an appeal to the citizenry: be aware of the implications of the initiative (more than economic provisions could be amended in the Constitution) and to please engage in “discernment and prayer” before signing any petition.

The bishop also mentioned that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) “has made a decision temporarily dismissing these petitions.” And here is where the story lies, for the moment-in the doldrums, seemingly having lost momentum. In politics, part of the conventional wisdom is that the Catholic Church can’t make candidates or causes win, but it can make a difference by helping to defeat them. I asked a former senior government official what exactly was going on, and the razor-sharp explanation that I got goes along these lines. First, the Comelec didn’t throw out the people’s initiative; it refused to accept, verify, and certify the signatures attached to the petitions while it reviews the rules on initiatives.

The Comelec did concede, according to the former senior government official, that the rules governing a people’s initiative aren’t clear. An example: both the Constitution and the Supreme Court in Lambino v. Comelec say that a people’s initiative can only amend, and not revise, the Constitution. For constitutional revision, a constituent assembly must be convened to debate the proposed revision.

So with any proposal, the first question that needs to be answered is, what, exactly, is being proposed as a change to the Constitution: an amendment or a revision? If the rules don’t clarify the difference, then a follow-up question arises: what, exactly, did the signatories to the petition sign on to? “Substantive due process requires that the signatories must be fully appraised of what they were signing,” the former official told me.

This made me reflect on a phrase much-beloved by government officials, which is, the “presumption of regularity” concerning their actions. This phrase is often invoked to put an end to questions arising from the official conduct of officials. Ordinary citizens, it seems, don’t enjoy a similar presumption when it comes to the Constitution that they, theoretically, willed into being (“We, the sovereign Filipino people …”). And yet, in many instances, when a citizen signs something, it is taken as proof that the person knows what they are signing on to. Otherwise, every signature could be the subject of an inquisition into the innermost heart and mind of the citizen. Consider that, in electing a president, or a senator, no inquisition would be tolerated as to knowledge or motives for voting. And yet when it comes to efforts to petition for something like an amendment to the Constitution, an investigation into every motivation (or level of knowledge, or lack of it) is in order: the irony, then, is that defending democracy requires a fundamentally undemocratic assumption about a power given to the citizens themselves.

And so, we’re back to the problem that the Constitution is impossible to amend, or revise, whichever way you try. Another example: even if, in the end, the Comelec concludes these questions and other issues can be clarified by referring to the existing rules, the process would lead to, in effect, new rules, requiring new forms to be used and the signature-gathering process having to be repeated

Opponents of the efforts can still go to the Supreme Court, which can take as much (or as little!) time as it pleases to resolve questions raised before it: and while the high court does what it does, the Comelec would be bound to decline to accept the signed petitions.

All by July, because the Comelec has to prepare for the 2025 midterms, and this includes the filing of candidacies by October, a process which concludes in November. Before then, coalitions and parties have to go through the selection of candidates and the many other preparations needed to conduct a campaign.

Originally published at https://mlq3.substack.com.



Manuel L. Quezon III

Columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer. Editor-at-large Spot.ph. Views strictly mine. I have a newsletter, blog, podcast, and Patreon.