The Long View
There is no debate
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:56:00 06/25/2009
LAST Tuesday, during a discussion held at the Ateneo Professional Schools in Makati, three things Rep. Victor Ortega said in passing concerning Charter change caught my attention. My personal opinion concerning Ortega is that he is trying to walk a fine line between his personal views and maintaining his intellectual integrity, and being a loyal party man and one of the senior players in the ruling House coalition.
The first thing he pointed out is that while he and his fellow representatives have pledged not to touch term limits or cancel the 2010 elections, if a shift to the parliamentary system takes place before then, there will be no such thing as term limits. To my mind this explains why the administration can insist elections will take place in 2010, and that no one in the ruling party is contemplating extending either the President’s, or anybody else’s, term. No one is lying when they make such claims, for, as Ortega pointed out, if a shift in government occurs, everyone starts afresh. And so, if the old limits are erased, everyone can still say, with a straight face, that neither has anyone’s term limit been extended.
Later that evening, when I ran into a media colleague at the Philconsa night featuring former President Joseph Estrada, the colleague’s opinion reminded me of what Ortega said. Basically, the media colleague said he was frustrated by all the opining taking place on whether the President, should she decide to run for a House seat, was entitled to do so. This was a point easily disposed of by Comelec Chairman Jose Melo himself who says she can run, without having to relinquish the presidency.
Particularly frustrating to my colleague were the questions being asked lawyers about whether the President would be accorded any meaningful legal protection by becoming a representative. People are barking up the wrong tree, my colleague opined. If you change the system and the rules, then the old answers concerning legal immunities of officials become obsolete. The real question should be: What legal immunities will be accorded not just an ordinary member of parliament, but the prime minister? Chances are, at a bare minimum, the privileges enjoyed by the present chief executive.
The second thing Ortega mentioned is that theoretically the Comelec must be given a minimum of 60 days to schedule a plebiscite, and a maximum of 90 days, which means the latest that the Comelec can be instructed to hold a constitutional plebiscite is February or March 2010 (if it will be put on the 2010 ballot). Put another way, the earliest a plebiscite could be held, if a constituent assembly were held starting in July, is late September or October of this year – ahead of the filing of candidacies on Nov. 30, 2009.
And the third thing Ortega mentioned is that no specific amendments have been proposed, which is supposed to reassure the public.
I contested this. The proposals are clear, and have been on the table, unchanged, since 2005: a unicameral parliamentary system, with the possibility but not certainty of a later shift to a federal setup.
The only real leeway for compromise is the manner in which the president of the Philippines (under the proposed system, a purely decorative head of state) would be elected. The administration has seen that the electorate opposes being deprived of the opportunity to directly elect the head of state, so it would be reasonable – and wily – to propose the election of a decorative head of state while the head of government, who holds true power, would be elected by the members of parliament.
It simply isn’t true, however, that the only thing the House wants is the opportunity to freely propose amendments to the Constitution. There has been a constituency for a shift to a unicameral, parliamentary system, and that constituency has embraced the President who, in turn, did so, at first grudgingly, but now seems to be clinging to the idea with greater and greater enthusiasm as the terminal date for her term draws near.
If politics is the art of the possible, then a resourceful politician will first identify what lines cannot be crossed. The line seems to be the holding of elections in 2010. This also implies that the incumbent will not be tolerated as president past June 30, 2010. Therefore, the window of opportunity for President Arroyo is open widest from July to October of this year, and begins to close as we approach Nov. 30 of this year. But it theoretically, at least, does not close entirely until February or March next year, which is when, traditionally, the point of no return as far as her being a lame duck would have been reached anyway (for this is when the campaign really gets under way).
This is in terms of Charter change. The President still has time, then, to experiment with seeing how far things will go with Charter change, while simultaneously checking out her potential list of successors to see who might be amenable to scratching her back if she scratches theirs going into 2010.
Another truism is that finality is not part of the language of politics – never say never – and so long as there are multiple options, the President will, of course, explore them.
All the rest – whether certain tactical moves will be done on specific dates, for example – are things for the clairvoyant to determine. It’s more important to identify the overall strategy, which remains unchanged: not just survival until 2010, but avoiding being disgraced when her term expires at noon on June 30, 2010.
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THE Ateneo forum with Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, Rep. Victor Ortega, lawyer Adel Tamano and myself were recorded and put online at: http://philippinecommentary.blogspot.com/2009/06/amongst -legal-eagles-on-constituent.html