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Duterte's bid to give away his power raises eyebrows in Manila

Jason Koutsoukis and Andreo Calonzo, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

MANILA, Philippines -- Few elected world leaders have more constitutional power than Rodrigo Duterte.

From Malacanang Palace, Manila's answer to the White House, the Philippines president controls 83 percent of all public expenditure and appoints 12,000 government officials. U.S. President Donald Trump, by comparison, is responsible for around 4,000 politically appointees and needs Congress to approve his spending proposals.

Even so, Duterte is backing a push to give more power and money to regional governments, which would be the first change to the Philippines constitution since the overthrow of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. The proposal would create the position of a prime minister and may scrap restrictions on foreign ownership in some industries.

While Duterte says the move is necessary to boost economic growth and quell a decades-long Muslim insurgency, his opponents see it as a ploy to stay in power. Since taking office in 2016, the 72-year-old leader has launched a deadly drugs crackdown and sought to silence political opponents, drawing the ire of human-rights groups.

"The administration, particularly Duterte, really believes that there will be real political and economic benefits -- from better dispersion of growth to less political anger in the more remote areas," said Bob Herrera-Lim, a managing director at Teneo Intelligence, a global political risk advisory firm. "Insofar as allowing the president to serve another term, that's going to be a very big fight."

Duterte has repeatedly rejected calls from his allies to extend his six-year term. Last month the House of Representatives passed a resolution to convene both chambers of Congress to draft changes to the country's constitution, which could still include an extension.

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"No dictatorship. No extension. I am ready to abbreviate my term," Duterte said on Tuesday.

But his opponents don't believe him. Sen. Leila de Lima, Duterte's staunchest critic who was jailed by his administration on drug charges, called on supporters to fight against the plan during a court appearance last month.

"He just wants to stay in power for many years more through federalism," she said. "We all have to be vigilant and not allow this sinister plan."

The Senate now must approve of the amendments before they are put to a public referendum among more the country's 109 million people spread across 7,000 islands. At its quickest, the amendment process will take at least one year.

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