A dangerous game

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ABOUT Benigno Aquino III’s declaration in a TV5 interview that he would “listen to his bosses,” we can either (1) assume that it was his demure way of saying that he will indeed seek a second term, or (2) dismiss it as merely an attempt to allay the fears of his Liberal Party mates that, without him, they would have no winnable candidate in 2016 and would have to face the chilling prospect of not having anyone of their own in Malacañang for six years. In either case, it has triggered a contentious debate that could lead to consequences Mr. Aquino may not have anticipated.

In reply to host Mel Sta. Maria’s asking whether he intends to seek a term extension or not, Mr. Aquino was evasive. He recalled that when he went for the Presidency (in 2010), he was thinking only of one six-year term, but that now he has to “listen to his bosses.” It doesn’t mean that he would automatically run again, he said, but that the question is how we can be sure that the reforms that have (allegedly) been accomplished would be permanent.

This statement fits into his Interior and Local Governments Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II’s claim that there’s a public clamor for Mr. Aquino to run—a claim Roxas first made two weeks ago, and which has since provoked debate and controversy.

Mr. Aquino’s coyly non-categorical response was made almost immediately after his saying that while he feared that the better provisions of the 1987 Constitution could be diluted, he is open to Constitutional amendments to restore “the balance” among the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. This view is also consistent with his previous statements decrying the supposedly excessive power of the Supreme Court to check Congress and the Presidency.

When asked if there were other provisions in the 1987 Constitution he was open to amending, Mr. Aquino said yes, since nothing man-made is perfect and that he was sure that many other provisions can still be fine-tuned and updated. (“Sure ako marami pa hong ibang provisions na puwedeng i-fine-tune, puwedeng i-update.”)

Among those provisions that presumably can be “fine-tuned” and “updated” is that which imposes a limit of a six-year term without reelection for the President, which would have to be amended so Mr. Aquino can run for another term—in response to, what else, a “clamor” from his “bosses” for him to go for it so the “reforms” he claims to have introduced can take root. (In his words, “magkaroon na ng ugat.”)

The skeptical can’t be blamed for seeing in these and past Aquino and allies’ statements a concerted effort to create the conditions that would lead to changing the limits on the terms of Mr. Aquino and of other officials, and enabling them to run again. A public clamor for them to stay in power can always be manufactured and legitimized on the bases of checking the supposedly excessive powers of the Supreme Court, and the need to institutionalize the “reforms” Mr. Aquino claims to have achieved. But the real reason is likely to be, quite simply, the desire to remain in power.

Roxas’ declaration that he’s not so much interested in the Presidency as in Mr. Aquino’s extending his term seems utterly selfless, but only on the surface. As in the case of Aquino’s other officials, a second Aquino term would mean at least the possibility of Roxas’ staying in his present post, or even rising to a better one, even as Aquino allies in the House and in the Senate who have reached the limits on their terms can, with the “right” amendments, run again for who knows how many times.

House Speaker Belmonte and Senate President Drilon say they’re not for amending the political provisions of the Constitution. But can they stop the 200-plus members of Congress from tampering with those once the amendment process—whether by simply inserting the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law,” or through a constituent assembly or a constitutional convention—is set in motion?

Whatever the mechanism for amendments is adopted would hardly matter, although the first path—that of inserting the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law” in those provisions the pols want to change—and the second, through a constituent assembly, would be the more convenient for both Houses. But because of the exclusionary character of the political system which puts money above everything else, elections for a convention could still result in the politicians’ and their surrogates’ winning the majority of seats. Whatever the mechanism, the pols are likely to still get what they want when the Constitution is amended.

If the amendments include changes in term limits, it could mean the continuing dominance of one party for who knows how long, and together with it, the distinct possibility of restoring authoritarian rule in fact—and, quite possibly, in law as well.

All these, however, could merely be expressions of skeptics’ unfounded fears. Mr. Aquino and company may just be saying what they’ve been saying over the media so their own partymates won’t write him off as no longer of any consequence to their future. It could be his way of preventing his party membership’s hemorrhaging in a surge of turncoatism as 2016 approaches and it becomes clearer than crystal that the Liberal Party’s likely to get trounced in the elections that year—unless he runs.

The problem is that even if that were so, let’s not forget that the House leadership has declared its determination to amend the Constitution. Mr. Aquino has begun a process that can lead to precisely the amendments that would not only give him what he wants by way of curbing the powers of the Supreme Court (about that he seems very serious), but which would also savage the Constitution by changing term limits, the Bill of Rights, and who knows what else.

Some of his allies in the House are in fact already talking about amending the Constitution to allow him to run for a second term. If offered the possibility of running again once the Constitution has been altered to the pols’ liking, would Mr. Aquino refuse, given the slim chances of anyone else from his party’s winning the Presidency, and his apparent conviction that only someone like-minded can continue and institutionalize the “reforms” he claims to have put in place?

Whether he does intend to run for a second term and is only being coy about it, or is merely calming the fears of his partymates, it’s still a dangerous game he’s playing, and it’s time to put an end to it. He should heed former President Fidel Ramos’ advice: stop hemming and hawing, and categorically declare whether you want a second term or not. That way the people—his “bosses”—will know what they’re up against.

BusinessWorld