MANILA, JANUARY 16 (Reuters): Philippine lower house lawmakers on Tuesday kicked off discussions on possible changes to the 30-year-old constitution, with the aim of shifting to a system of federal government and allowing the president up to two terms in office.
The switch to a federal system was one of the key planks of President Rodrigo Duterte's election campaign, aimed to remedy what he saw as neglect by a Manila-centric political establishment that has left provinces in perpetual poverty.
Duterte's allies, who dominate the nearly 300-member house, want a constitution that broadly aims to expand both legislative chambers, lengthen lawmakers' terms, give provinces more fiscal autonomy, have a prime minister as head of government, and a separately elected president.
The tentative plan is to agree and draft the amendments late this year and hold a referendum in May 2019.
Roger Mercado, head of the house panel on constitutional amendments, said lower house representatives were on track to vote and approve a resolution this week that would convene both chambers of Congress into a constitutional assembly.
"Let's not waste people's money and time. Let us go ahead and convene already," Mercado told a hearing on Tuesday.
The alternative, of creating a special constitutional convention, would cost 11 billion pesos ($218 million), he added.
Senators are opposed to combining the two chambers to draft the amendments, which would make the normally powerful 24-seat upper house less relevant in the process. On Monday, Senator Panfilo Lacson launched a resolution urging the senate to convene a constituent assembly of its own.
The push to change the constitution has been a divisive issue, with critics accusing lawmakers of trying to prolong their stay in office, or of creating a way for Duterte to stay in power beyond the end of his term in 2022.
Opponents warn the process could bring a repeat of the 1970s-era of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and say they are troubled by Duterte's stated admiration for him, and the president's similar authoritarian traits.
The opposition says the 1987 constitution was drafted to stop that from happening.
Duterte has made clear he has no desire to stay longer than his term and, if anything, would prefer to retire earlier.
Lawmakers have yet to decide on what federal model to adopt, Mercado said. Duterte's preference is for one similar to that of France.