The Arroyo regime may have lost a battle. But apparently it doesn’t think it’s lost the war.
Listen to House Majority Leader Prospero Nograles. “I personally think that even if we are brought to the Supreme Court, I don’t think that we can lose twice on the same issue,” Nograles said during an interview.
The “we” in that declaration refers to the House majority that favors convening Congress into a constituent assembly. The same majority led by House Speaker Jose de Venecia interprets the 1987 Constitution’s injunction that “any amendment or revision may be proposed by the Congress upon a vote of three-fourths of all its members” to mean all the members of the Congress together, including the Senate, sitting as one body.
The Senate, most of whose members are opposed to constitutional amendments for one reason or another, disagrees, interpreting that provision to mean three-fourths of the membership of each chamber.
That’s where the Supreme Court would come in again. It would have to rule on which interpretation is correct—and that’s where Nograles is laying odds that “they” can’t lose again, as “they” did on the so-called “people’s initiative”.
The Supreme Court majority described that scheme the other day in a landmark decision as “most likely a deception” and “a gigantic fraud on the people,” since, said the Court, the initiative “gather[ed] signatures from the people without first showing [them] the full text of the proposed amendments.”
The Court majority was apparently fully aware of the far-reaching consequences of what the regime and its cohorts in the shadowy Sigaw ng Bayan (People’s Cry) group and ULAP (Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines) are up to, which is to use the regime’s monopoly of political power to ram through Constitutional amendments despite opposition from the Senate, civil society groups, and the people as a whole. The 1987 Constitution, it declared, cannot be “set adrift in unchartered waters to be tossed and turned (sic) by every dominant political group of the day.”
To emphasize this point, the Court noted ULAP’s Resolution 2006-02, the basis of its petition, which declared its “unqualified support” for Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s drive for constitutional amendments, as well as of Sigaw ng Bayan’s admission that the “people’s initiative” was in support of the same purpose.
The use of brazen power to achieve its aims despite the Constitution (which it wants to dismantle—“revise” rather than “amend”, as the Court declared—and to replace it with one more to its liking anyway) is at the heart of the regime campaign for charter change. Those aims are far-reaching and crucial in that the elite faction that has hijacked the government intends, through a new constitution, to dismantle the progressive legacies, as limited as they are, of EDSA 1.
As embodied in the 1987 Constitution, those legacies include a Bill of Rights that in addition to protecting free speech, press freedom and freedom of assembly, specifically put free expression in all its manifestations under the same protection.
In partnership with the Bill of Rights are the provisions intended to prevent the return of authoritarian rule, specifically those that limit the duration of a declaration of martial law by the President of the Philippines to 60 days, bars him or her from shutting down Congress and the courts, and subjects any martial law declaration to congressional and Supreme Court review.
The same Constitution broadens political participation through the party list system. Although critics characterize it as tokenism, the system puts party platforms above personalities, and in its operation has helped bring the concerns of marginalized groups to media and national attention. Corollary to the creation of the system are the limits on the terms of national and local officials intended to curb dynastic dominance in government.
These provisions have become hindrances to the unaccountable, corrupt and inefficient government that’s the inevitable consequence of minority dominance over Philippine politics. Freedom of assembly, for example, is a thorn on the side of the Arroyo regime, as is the free press—which is why, despite the Bill of Rights, it has banned protests against its rule, made political assassination a policy, and used the libel law and other means to intimidate the press even as it tolerates the killing of journalists.
To curry favor with the international community, but with an eye as well on the windfalls and enhanced opportunities for corruption such changes will make available to a corrupt bureaucracy, the regime is supporting the dismantling of the 1987 Constitution’s ban on foreign ownership of the media, of land and of public utilities.
The bottom line is the regime need to assure continued dominance in the political system and to consolidate its rule through, among other means, diluting the Bill of Rights, making “emergency rule” or a declaration of martial law less difficult than it is now, ending term limits, and doing away with the party-list system. The goal is no less than the legitimization of political dominance and authoritarian rule via a new constitution.
This is what the war is all about. It is in Congress where the regime’s monopoly over power will count the most in winning that war, and it is there where the regime will and has concentrated much of its efforts since day one of its campaign for a new constitution. The Supreme Court decision was a major battle it lost. But it can still win the war.