The Bagumbayan of reforms

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They’ve been hyped as means of hastening reforms and as reforms themselves. But Constitutional amendments will make reforms not only even more difficult than they already are; they will make them impossible. It isn’t because amendments to the 1987 Constitution are by themselves regressive, but because the people proposing them are not interested in reform, but in stifling them.

When then President Fidel Ramos and company began agitating for amendments to the Constitution over ten years ago, it was primarily out of self-interest. Ramos wanted to remain in power by running for a second term, and among other initiatives launched a signature campaign demanding that the ban on a second term for presidents be lifted.

It didn’t work. Survey after survey showed that Filipinos didn’t want either that amendment to the Constitution– or any other amendment, for that matter. The surveys still say the same thing today, but neither Malacanang nor the House is listening. They’re listening to themselves instead, particularly to their self-interest, whose voice is louder than that of the 60 percent of the population who don’t want the Constitution amended.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo joined the Cha-Cha charade only last July, when her presidency was on the brink of collapse. Charter change, to mix metaphors, was the life-line Ramos threw her then, proposing that Mrs. Arroyo commit to them in return for his support.

Mrs. Arroyo obliged. In her July 25 State of the Nation Address she threw her support behind Cha-Cha, claiming that it wasn’t the political class and dynasties to which she belongs that are blocking reform and making elections a farce, it was the presidential system.

Mrs. Arroyo’s predicament provided the window of opportunity Ramos and company needed to boost their tottering campaign for Cha-Cha. In 1998 Ramos reluctantly gave up power, and endorsed Jose de Venecia for the presidency. But de Venecia lost badly to Joseph Estrada. De Venecia forthwith became one of the loudest advocates of charter change, and was specially focused on the shift to a parliamentary system.

No one needs a PhD in political science to figure out why. Demonstrating the pulling power of celebrities—they had managed to send one of their own to Malacanang—the 1998 elections also proved that De Venecia’s chances of being elected to a national post was near zero.

A shift to the parliamentary system, in which MPs would be elected by district, would put the post of prime minister within De Venecia’s grasp. What’s more, depending on who does the amending of the Charter, every politico who will have to give up power under the elaborate system of term limits the drafters of the 1987 Constitution devised could stay in his or her post, and, who knows, run again, this time under unspecified terms, and without any limits. The possibilities are endless, and they call come under the heading of Cha-Cha.

Beyond these immediate concerns, Ramos, De Venecia and company, now with the support of Mrs. Arroyo, also want to accelerate the globalization process through, among other means, the elimination of the nationalist provisions of the 1987 Constitution, among them the ban on foreign ownership of mass media, and on 100 percent foreign ownership of public utilities. Not incidentally, there’s also the thought of the benefits the unrestricted entry of foreign capital can mean to the second most corrupt government in Southeast Asia.

What has driven the Cha-Cha campaign all these years is the politicians’ discovery that most of the provisions of the 1987 Constitution meant to minimize control by the political dynasties and to limit their power, open law-making to marginalized sectors, and stem the tide of globalization, were somehow working.

They’ve been joined by short-sighted academics. But it’s mostly the political class that’s been agitating for charter change over the last decade out of sheer self-interest. It was too obvious a scheme even for Mrs. Arroyo, but to mask that glaring truth she constituted some three months ago a so-called “Consultative Commission” made up of 55 members appointed by her.

The Commission was obviously meant to achieve three things in furtherance of Mrs. Arroyo’s and other traditional politicos’ interests: (1) It would take the edge out of the accusation that it will be congressmen acting out of self-interest who’ll be amending the Constitution; (2) By supposedly “consulting with the people,” it will seem as if whatever recommendations it makes will be according to the citizenry’s wishes; and (3) Its functions being purely recommendatory, the House of Representatives of De Venecia can take them or leave them.

The Commission proposed last week that Mrs. Arroyo head the interim parliament from 2007 to 2010 as President and Head of State. She will have supervision over the interim prime minister, who will be elected by members of parliament. The interim parliament will be composed of current members of the Senate and House of Representatives. Local and national elections for Congress scheduled for 2007 will be postponed. Instead, the incumbents’ terms will be extended till 2010.

As expected, the Commission also recommended the lifting of the ban on foreign ownership of natural resource- exploiting groups such as mining companies, as well as on educational institutions and the mass media. The House, without the benefit of anyone’s recommendations, is also likely to eliminate the party-list system.

While likely to continue to oppose Charter amendments despite the proposal to extend its
members’ terms, Senate resistance can be neutralized. De Venecia and company have insisted that the present Constitution’s mandate that amendments can take place only if three- quarters of Congress approve means three -quarters of the membership of the entire Congress voting together rather than as separate houses.

A Supreme Court decision to this effect, given De Venecia and company’s numerical superiority, will assure amendments as ordered and planned. Those amendments will not only keep Mrs. Arroyo and her House allies in power. They will also strengthen the political dynasties, further constrict already limited citizen participation in governance, and close all avenues for the political and social reforms that the 1987 Constitution sought to encourage. Cha Cha will be the contemporary equivalent of the execution of Rizal at Bagumbayan in 1896– the coup de grace to the Filipino middle class’ quest and hope for reforms.

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