Allies of Philippines Duterte have prepared legislation to postpone elections to barangay (village) councils and instead allow him to personally choose replacements.
If approved by Congress, the move would make the president the most powerful Filipino leader since Ferdinand Marcos, who was often accused of exploiting barangay leaders to underpin his dictatorship.
The president has claimed that 40 per cent of barangay captains are involved in illegal drugs, and getting in the way of his war on drugs.
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 will stop local drugs barons from stealing elections.
The election of some 336,000 chairmen and councillors, have already been postponed, and should have taken place last year.
Now, instead of extending the tenure of incumbents, the president’s allies want to declare all posts vacant until 2020, and let the president appoint caretakers instead.
Presidential 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,” he said.
Congressman Barbers, who chairs the house committee on dangerous drugs, said he had not discussed his proposal with the president, and had taken it upon himself to act.
He denied that the move was authoritarian or undemocratic, saying “extraordinary times need extraordinary measures”.
“We are afraid that 40 per cent 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.”
Via appointments, the president could, potentially, build a grassroots power base, adding to the majority support he already enjoys in the lower house and Senate.
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.”
Critics are suspicious of the proposal.
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 called the plan “a joke” and said the president 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 in a television interview.
“Assuming there are drug dealer, addicts, abusers among them, then the solution is to prosecute them, and put them behind bars.”
Some barangay captains have indicated they would seek to challenge the plan if Congress pushes it through. Talks are due to be held next week.