Palace seeks emergency powers for Duterte during COVID-19 crisis

Palace seeks emergency powers for Duterte during COVID-19 crisis
Photo taken last March 22, 2020 shows market-goers at Brgy Quirino 3A in Project 3 Quezon City observing social distancing.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines (Update 3,  5:27 p.m.) — The Palace is seeking the grant of sweeping emergency powers to President Rodrigo Duterte to address the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

According to a transmittal letter from the Palace signed by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, the executive branch is calling on Congress to hold a special session on Monday "to authorize the president to exercise powers necessary to carry out urgent measures to meet the current national emergency relating to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19); to provide ample latitude to utilize appropriate funds to strengthen governmental response against the said disease; and to continue providing basic services to the people."

As first reported by ABS-CBN, the unnumbered Bayanihan bill, a copy of which has since been obtained by Philstar.com, was proposed by the Palace, grants the chief executive the power to take over the operations of any privately-owned public utility or business affected with public interest.

The proposed measure, which needs a counterpart bill at the House of Representatives, grants Duterte the authority to regulate all forms of transportation, telecommunications, and the distribution of power, fuel, energy and water if needed.

He may also purchase more testing kits and construct properties without passing through the usual procurement processes. 

Among the powers proposed in the bill are: 

  • Power to "ensure" that all local government units are "acting in line with the rules and regulations issued by the National Government" 
  • Adopt measures against hoarding and profiteering 
  • Procure goods, including medical equipment and supplies 
  • Lease property to house health workers or serve as quarantine centers 
  • "Liberalize" incentives for manufacturers and importers of supplies 
  • Regulate traffic on all streets 
  • Cancel programs and reallocate funds from 2019 and 2020 budget bills to generate savings

Section 6 of the proposed bill, which touches on penalties of rules issued, also reads: 

"Any violation of the rules, regulations and directives of the National Government issued pursuant hereto, shall be punishable with imprisonment of two months or a fine of not less than [P10,000] but not more than [P1 million], or both such improsonment and fine at the discretion of the court. 

"Nothing in this act shall be construed or interpreted as a restriction of the Bill of Rights or of the Constitution. In case of conflict of exercise of the powers herein granted with other laws, this Act shall prevail," the following section reads. 

Should the bill pass, it will take effect immediately upon its publication in a newspaper of general circulation or in the Official Gazette. 

It will be in "effect only for two months or longer if the calamity will persist."

As of this writing, the Philippines has 380 confirmed cases of the new pathogen in the Philippines after the Department of Health disclosed 73 more confirmed cases on Sunday.

The president last Tuesday declared a state of national calamity after cases continued to rise despite government intervention. The declaration allows the government to use funds allocated for calamity response.

'Standby power'

In appealing to the House to grant President Duterte emergency powers on Monday, Executive Secretary Medialdea said: "We do not desire to overstep the bounds of Constitution which remains firmly in place during times of emergency."

Amid concerns over the Palace request for power to take over private establishments, Medialdea said that this would only be what he called a "standby power."

"We only desire such a power to be legislated because the virus we are up against is so unpredictable and can spread rapidly in a community. The power to take over is intended merely as a standby power in the event the crisis reaches its worst," he added.

"It is a power which we do not consider necessary to be exercised at all times."

He said the Palace only wants to expedite the delivery of services aiding the fight against the new virus "in a manner free from the restrictions that might prove disadvantageous during such an unusual time as this." 

In particular, he said the Palace wants authorization to purchase equipment for health workers "in the most expeditious way possible."

Stay in line, LGUs warned anew

"The confusion sowed by local government units who are acting on their own preventing the entry of people and cargo in their territories when the national government has exempted them from the following is making life difficult," he said. 

One such official is the presidential daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, who suspended all travel to and from her city. 

READ: National government calls the shots in a crisis, not LGUs — Duterte

Duterte had already made these same pronouncements in an earlier public address, asserting that the national government calls the shots in a public emergency and that LGUs should simply comply.

For all his vigor against unsubmissive local government officials Friday morning, this was in direct contradiction to an earlier remark he made.

In his address on Monday, March 16, the chief executive said mayors can come up with any measure to protect public health, public order and public safety, "as long as they are [made] in good faith."

He also said then that mayors had the power to issue executive orders imposing restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19 under a state of public health emergency.

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