Duterte and the Perils of the Modern Imperial Presidency

Opinion & Analysis Aug 10, 2018 at 3:55 pm
Franklin D. Roosevelt (center front) and Manuel Quezon (right)

Franklin D. Roosevelt (center front) and Manuel Quezon (right)

By Jose Victor ‘Jayvee’ Salameña

In Duterte’s push for a shift towards a federal republic, a dialogue has begun on whether elements of Westminster-style Parliamentary governance should be included in the proposed charter change. Often, proponents of a Parliamentary system use the term the “imperial presidency” to criticize the vast powers that are bestowed upon the modern Philippine and American presidencies. So what is this “imperial presidency”? Where did it originate?

In American political philosophy, the 1973 political book “The Imperial Presidency” by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. highlighted how the American Presidency had gradually amassed powers that could be argued were overreaching the limits originally imposed upon it by the American Constitution of 1787, hence the term the “imperial presidency”. Soon after the book was published in 1973, the Watergate scandal erupted, seemingly proving the premise of the book.

While opinions and analyses differ, many agree that the modern Imperial Presidency took shape in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. And it is often argued by his admirers that FDR needed to extend the powers of the Presidency as the United States was at that time facing the direst economic maelstrom that was the Great Depression, and faced that gathering war storms that were brewing over the Pacific with Japan and over the Atlantic with Germany.

It also can be argued that a strong presidency was necessary for the strong government needed to fully implement the modern social welfare state that we

Obama-QuezonAt the same time as Franklin D. Roosevelt, his good friend Manuel Quezon was elected President of the Philippine Commonwealth. And like his good friend in the White House, Quezon in Malacañang expanded the powers of the Philippine Presidency – and often not for benevolent purposes.

Yet while the roots of the Imperial Presidency in the United States and in the Philippines, can be seen from the 1930s, the unhinging of the modern Imperial Presidency can be seen in full effect in the modern period. Conservatives in America often lamented in the Obama years on the quick readiness of President Obama in using executive orders to override an obstructionist Republican-controlled Congress. Now that the tables have turned, Canadians and Americans have rightly criticized President Trump in his imposition of tariffs with little support of his own Republican Congress.

But what of the Philippines? The recent drama between the offices of the President and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines also shows the perils of the modern Presidency. Many see indirectly the hand of Duterte in the ouster of former Chief Justice Sereno, after she criticized Duterte over the extra-judicial killings, with Duterte saying “I’m putting you on notice that I am now your enemy and you have to be out of the Supreme Court”. But supporters of the President quickly point out that the previous Aquino administration also impeached a sitting Chief Justice because he was appointed by the Arroyo administration after the electoral win of NoyNoy at the transitional period just before Arroyo’s term expired, which was constitutionally still legal. Nevertheless, is it right for a President to directly interfere in the affairs of the Chief Justice? Isn’t it violating the checks and balances that the Constitution is supposed to impose?

Trump-DuterteIt is one of history’s greatest ironies, then, that Duterte, a President criticized by his detractors as holding dictatorial ambitions, is openly pushing for constitutional reform that would limit the powers of the Presidency. As Duterte said in his first SONA:

“You know my advice to you is maintain a federal system, a parliament, but be sure to have a president … You copy the France system. Huwag mo hayaan yung puro na parliament.”
It is interesting that he references the French system. The French President’s main role is in foreign affairs. But this French President must work with a Prime Minister, who, like the National Assembly he or she helps administer, focuses on domestic affairs.

Unfortunately, the new draft constitution early on voted in the retention of the Presidential system as it currently stands in the 1987 Constitution. Many detractors also are alarmed at the amount of power it gives the Presidency in the transition period. While Duterte has approved that this draft constitution goes to Congress, it seems that there will be some opposition in Congress towards this draft constitution. It will also have to go through a plebiscite. Neither its passage in Congress nor its victory in the plebiscite is guaranteed, and it faces stern opposition ahead, and will most likely be log-jammed in the Senate.

My hope is that the Congress highly recommend a much weaker Presidency, and re-assert its prerogative as the Legislative Body. Because our modern era has shown the perils and pitfalls of the Imperial Presidency – a Presidency that has already yielded abuses of power on all sides of the political spectrum.