The devil himself can cite scripture–and so can lawbreakers cite the law, and liars accuse others of lying. Traditional politicians (“trapos” in the Philippine setting) thus usurp the texts of people empowerment to disempower the people, and accuse others of being trapos in the process. The most resistant to change, they also cite the need for change so they can prevent it.

These horrors aren’t happening in a nightmare world only Stephen King can imagine. They’re in the reality called the Philippines that no television reality show can ever really recreate.

The campaign to revise–not amend, but rewrite–the 1987 Constitution is passing off charter change as the solution to the country’s problems, among them its economic woes and the political instability that has haunted it since 1972. Along the way, its advocates have also premised the eradication of poverty and corruption on Constitutional revision.

The changes the advocates of Charter Change say they want include, but are not limited to, allowing foreign ownership of land, public utilities and the mass media. But the most prominent of these is the shift to a parliamentary form of government from the present presidential one.

The loudest advocate of what’s popularly known as “Cha-Cha” in acronym-prone Philippines is House of Representatives Speaker Jose de Venecia, who last week said that a parliament would reduce the corruption for which the Philippine government is world famous.

Corruption is the inevitable result of traditional politics, in the arts of which trapos are especially adept. Trapohood is firmly based on mastery of the perverted politics of the Philippine elite, in which any politico can get anything so long as he or she has something to trade in return.

Getting something for something is the only rule during electoral campaigns, when political alliances are made on the basis of mutual advantage rather than programs. It is also the only law politicians observe once they’re in office, when supporting a bill, for example, usually depends on what one can get out of it. Not surprisingly has political support become for barter and sale, as it was rumored to have been during the attempt to impeach Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo last September.

If there were a trapo king in these parts de Venecia would get the crown. De Venecia’s sits at the apex of the dynastic-landlord alliance in the House that prevents the passage and even the introduction of bills that would, for example, restructure the country’s debt burden, encourage the growth of industrial development, or finally eliminate land tenancy. His status as House kingpin would make him as committed to reform as a tiger would be to vegetarianism. But the way he’s talking now about “Cha-Cha”, a visitor from another planet would assume that he’s one of two lead reformists in this country.

The other lead reformist, our extra-terresrial visitor is likely to assume, is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who recently expressed support for the so-called “People’s Initiative” by declaiming that “the old-time politicians of the status quo better stand back because this train has left the station. It is time for politicians to stand back or get run over.”

“Old time politicians” is apparently Mrs. Arroyo’s preferred term for “traditional politicians”, among whom, if de Venecia’s the potential king, she’s the closest to being queen.

Our extra-terrestrial visitor might benefit from an appreciation of the context in which these seeming reformists are singing their siren song. De Venecia has been accused of lusting after the post of prime minister in a parliamentary system. Beyond that, however, is the long-term purpose of consolidating control of the legislature in the hands of the same dynastic and landlord interests that dominate the present House.

On the other hand, Cha-Cha has been a godsend to Mrs. Arroyo. In July last year she agreed to it as the means for her “graceful exit” this year. She has since reneged on that agreement, made with former president Fidel Ramos. Her House allies have instead assured her of finishing her term until 2010. Beyond that year she could run for parliament, and end up as either president or prime minister–whichever is convenient.

De Venecia and Arroyo’s coming together is thus in the worst tradition of trapo, or, as Mrs. Arroyo prefers to call it, “old time” politics. What’s even more crucial is that Cha-Cha the way they want it is also exactly what the rest of the political elite and its foreign patrons want. Cha Cha could get de Venecia the prime minister’s post, while Mrs. Arroyo stays on till 2010, and even beyond. The dynasties in control of the House return as MPs once parliamentary elections are called, while foreign interests are allowed to own mass media and land, and to control public utilities.

The foremost advocates of “reform” via constitutional revision are in short the two politicians who have benefited the most from the very status quo they’ve been accusing those opposed to Cha-Cha of supporting. It’s also the same status quo they would preserve–but under the illusion that it’s being dismantled, whereas the only thing that would be dismantled are the presidential system and certain other provisions of the Constitution.

But to foster the illusion of reform, and to mislead the well-meaning, Cha Cha advocates refer to the need to change “the system,” meaning the presidential form of government primarily. What they conveniently forget to mention is that people are part of any system, and that any reform necessarily includes changing those who’re part of it.

The “presidential system” thus includes the dynasties that have ruled the country since the US colonial period. Changing “the system” while the same dynasties are in command of it is the equivalent of dressing up a corpse in new finery to conceal the rot within. Or, to mix metaphors, it’s like the devil’s saying hell has to be reformed, while keeping him and his fellow demons in firm control of it.

(Business Mirror)


Luis V. Teodoro

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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