March 31, 2017 / 5:13 AM / 4 months ago

Duterte allies seek to take over Philippine village councils as part of war on drugs

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while answering questions during a news conference upon arrival from a trip to Myanmar and Thailand at an international airport in Manila, Philippines March 23, 2017.Romeo Ranoco

MANILA (Reuters) - Allies of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte have prepared legislation to postpone elections to the over 40,000 village councils in the country and allow him to choose replacements in what they say is part of the war on drugs.

If passed by Congress, the move would make Duterte, a former mayor, the most powerful leader in the Philippines since late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos was widely accused of exploiting village council leaders to legitimise his rule.

Duterte has declared that 40 percent of the Philippines' village chiefs, known as barangay captains, are "into drugs", and obstructing the anti-narcotics crackdown launched by his administration. Over 8,000 people, mostly drug users and small pushers, have been killed since Duterte took office at the end of June, about a third by police and many of the rest by mysterious gunmen.

The proposal to delay the barangay polls due in October has been filed by Congressman Robert Barbers with the support of Duterte loyalist and House of Representatives speaker, Pantaleon Alvarez. They say it aims to stop local drugs barons from winning posts.

The bill, slated for discussion when Congress reconvenes in May 2, seeks to postpone for a second successive year the ballot for 336,000 chairmen and councillors in the nation's 42,000 barangays. But instead of extending the tenure of incumbents, Duterte's allies want to declare all posts vacant until 2020, and let the president appoint caretakers instead.

If successful, that would effectively expand Duterte's control of the executive and legislative branches to the local government apparatus.

Duterte's spokesman, Ernesto Abella, said the president wanted to keep drugs out of politics, but would let lawmakers decide on the elections.

"He is aware of the process, respects the law, and defers to the independence of Congress," Abella said.

Barbers, who chairs the house committee on dangerous drugs, said he had not contacted Duterte about his proposal and took it upon himself to intervene. He said the move was neither authoritarian nor undemocratic because "extraordinary times need extraordinary measures".

"We are afraid that 40 percent of our barangays are controlled, affected or infected by drugs and that will increase," Barbers told Reuters.

"Especially if we give access to the drug lords to come into play, maybe run for public office. And that's more dangerous."

Grassroots Power Base

The barangay is the smallest political unit in the Philippines dating back to before Spanish occupation started in the 16th century. Similar to a mayor, barangay leaders have considerable influence.

Via appointments, Duterte could, potentially, build a grassroots power base, adding to the majority support he holds in the lower house and Senate, and his fervently loyal following on social media.

Barbers said Duterte had no desire to entrench his power.

"He does not need an additional power base," he said. "We don't want to turn into a narco-state, we don't want to be under the auspices of drug lords."

The bicameral Congress can pass a bill to postpone the barangay elections and vacate the posts, and according to Barbers, Duterte can appoint caretakers, because the constitution states he exercises "general supervision over local governments".

Critics say he has no authority to do that and are suspicious of his motives.

Congressman Edcel Lagman said the democratic process "should never be sacrificed to the questionable scheme of the president and his cheerleaders."

Former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel, the author of a 1991 Local Government Code, called the plan "a joke" and said Duterte should jail rogue officials instead of purging all barangay leaders.

"We cannot do away with the right of the people to elect their own leaders," he said on television.

"Assuming there are drug dealer, addicts, abusers among them, then the solution is to prosecute them, put them behind bars."

Some barangay captains have indicated they could challenge the plan if Congress pushes it through. They will hold talks next week.

Ramon Casiple, head of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said Duterte's allies might be pushing the proposal to curry favour with the president, who tended to "think aloud" about ideas that may be impractical on a national scale.

"He still thinks like a mayor," he said. "What he says and what he does are not the same."

Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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