The revived debate on charter change has inevitably called attention to the possibility that Mrs. Arroyo could extend her tenure in Malacanang beyond the six- year term that she supposedly won last May.

There is so far no evidence that Mrs. Arroyo plans to be prime minister or president—or even prime minister and president—in a parliamentary system after her term ends in 2010.

But Mrs. Arroyo’s credibility is in such a state that even those who voted for her and who’re willing to ignore accusations that she stole the May 10 elections out of their fear of a Fernando Poe Jr. presidency agree that she could be favoring amendments so she can stay in power beyond the term limit in the 1987 Constitution.

In addition to these suspicions, there is also the rampant belief that the third- termer advocates of constitutional amendments in Congress could also be thinking of recycling and succeeding themselves as MPs once a parliamentary government is in place.

What’s even worse, their favoring amendments via Congress as a constituent assembly is more than likely to be their ticket to assuring not only that they will not be prevented from standing for parliament.

It could also result in a constitution without those provisions that, for example, now bar nuclear weapons and foreign troops and bases from the Philippines, and which prevent foreign ownership of the mass media, or even that which guarantees the right to free expression and assembly, which has lately become a police prerogative to either withhold or grant.

Despite whatever merits the proposal to amend the Constitution may have, they could be buried under the political acrimony that has so far refused to go away, and is in fact growing among opposition ranks and their constituencies as a consequence of Mrs. Arroyo’s far from perfect mandate and her congressional allies’ equally diminished credibility.

What’s more, the most valid and urgent of the proposed charter amendments —the shift to a parliamentary form of government and the change to a federal system—could open the floodgates to a deluge of amendments that would negate the progressive origins and character of the 1987 Constitution.

Former University of the Philippines president Jose V. Abueva, an advocate of charter change, warned in May, 2003, that the best features of the constitution should be preserved, among them its “democratic, anti-authoritarian, progressive and humanistic features.”

Abueva said during hearings at the Senate that amendments should not be rushed, and that “we” must “prevent a resurgence of authoritarian rule. We also want to continue with the progressive and humanistic constitutional ideas related to peace, nuclear weapons, foreign military forces or bases, the bill of rights and other human rights, the rights of women, children and indigenous peoples, environmentalism, participatory democracy, and the active role of civil society, and so on. We must also ensure the subordination of the military to civilian rule.”

The congressional proponents of amendments are not likely to be interested in the preservation of those features, however. Given Arroyo’s and their own mindset, they’re more likely to savage most of those features instead should they end up proposing and adopting amendments as a constituent assembly.

What is in fact disturbing is that the debate over charter change is focused on no more than the questions of how and when the Constitution will be amended.

Mrs. Arroyo revived the debate by declaring charter change a priority of her administration which she wants Congress to address and to complete by the end of her term in 2010. She had earlier agreed to be a transition president by cutting her term short in 2007, by which time, said supporters of charter change in Congress, the amendments to the Constitution could be in place.

That was before May 10, however. Lately the palace line has been to take things slowly, and for the amendments to be completed by 2010. Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye has thus become an advocate of the let’s- not- rush –this position “because the end result will play a huge role in the future of our people and their children and the succeeding generations.” It would be safe to conclude, however, that the Palace doesn’t want to rush things so as not to put an untimely end to the Arroyo term.

But in a demonstration of its assumption that amendments must take place in the next six years, Malacanang has urged both houses of Congress anyway to agree first on how the Constitution would be amended, whether through Congress as a constituent assembly, or through a constitutional convention which will require the election of 204 delegates.

There is no doubt where the sympathies of the congressional partisans of amendments lie. Among their most telling arguments in favor of a constituent assembly is the expense electing delegates to a constitutional convention would entail, and the political divisions it will worsen.

The first will require between P7 to P10 billion, an amount that, given the country’s fiscal woes, the representatives of the people say the government can ill afford to spend (although the 13th Congress will certainly allot the usual P22 billion + + in pork barrel to itself when it convenes at the end of the month).

As for the hostilities, resentments, and partisanship that the second will provoke, listen to administration senator Ralph Recto—who certainly knows whereof he speaks—when he says that “we need another election like we need a hole in the head.”

A hole in the head enough to kill us is certainly what we’ll get if an election for delegates to a constitutional convention ends up just like the most recent one—meaning bitter, fraud-ridden and violent.

And that would be merely on election day itself. The campaign would most likely turn into a battle for supremacy between the administration and the mainstream opposition, during which Mrs. Arroyo and company’s post- 2010 plans will be at issue, among others.

The convention itself could result in a reprise of the 1971 Constitutional Convention, when the possibility of Ferdinand Marcos’ running for a third term became the most contentious issue. Both the administration and the opposition will thus do their utmost to gain the majority seats in the convention. The campaign for delegates will certainly be as bruising as the recent campaign for the presidency.

The May 10 campaign being of recent memory, we need go no further for an indication of how damaging the campaign, the actual election, and the weeks after could be. That would be if the election to a constitutional convention were held in 2007. But some charter change advocates are talking about next year, when the wounds inflicted by this year’s elections would still be festering.

Unfortunately for the proponents of a constitutional convention (con-con), the majority of congressmen who favor a constitutional assembly (con-ass) have all of reason and practicality on their side.

Con-con proponents say that a convention would widen citizen involvement as well as be more independent of political interests than a con-ass. That would be true if the delegates were not the creatures of politicians, and if the process itself assured maximum citizen participation. Given the current political context, both are about as likely of realization as a non-partisan Comelec within this generation.

A con-con, in short, is likely to be exactly what its shorthand name says—a double con on the Filipino people—while a con-ass will be composed of the same asses we saw in action only a few weeks ago, and whose major concern is to keep themselves in power.

There could thus be more wisdom in postponing amending the constitution to a better, if far-off time, as Senate President Franklin Drilon suggests, rather than in attempting them now and ending up with a basic law far worse than the original.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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