Amending the Constitution:Where Do Filipinos Stand?

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Amending the Constitution:Where Do Filipinos Stand?

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Following political events in the Philippines can be so confusing. But really, there’s only one issue: President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Every issue that takes turns hogging the headlines — coup attempts, impeachment, and now, amendments to the constitution — involves the Philippines head of state to a large extent.

While announcing in July 2005 that a “great debate” on the Philippine Constitution should begin, Mrs. Arroyo put forward three major changes: From a unitary to a federal state; from a bicameral to a unicameral legislature; and from the presidential to the parliamentary system. However, as the Philippine Daily Inquirer pointed out in its March 24 editorial, each major proposal submitted by a supposedly nonpartisan commission appointed by Mrs. Arroyo has yet to be adequately debated. The proposals were submitted to the House of Representatives, which made changes of its own. However, the Philippine Senate has rejected appeals by the other legislative chamber for the entire Philippine Congress to propose constitutional amendments. Instead, the Senate prefers a constitutional convention composed of elected delegates. The House has responded by threatening to approve amendments anyway, and along the way take advantage of an ambiguously written provision in the constitution that is silent on requiring both houses of Congress to vote separately on such changes.

Right now, not enough congressmen have signed on to a proposition that, if pushed forward, could provoke a full-blown constitutional crisis if one chamber of the Congress tries to override the other. In the meantime, a different path is being pursued by allies of Mrs. Arroyo. The tactic involves another constitutional provision meant to institutionalize people power by giving citizens the chance to directly propose changes to the laws and the constitution. Over the weekend, barangay (or village) assemblies were announced, during which a petition to amend the constitution was introduced. Citizens were asked to approve the abolition of the Philippine Senate and any other changes that might promote “efficiency” in the form of government. Organizers of the effort trumpeted that they’d amassed up to four million signatures in a single weekend.

Unfortunately, the constitutional provision in question is in limbo, because the law meant to implement it had the provisions on constitutional change by means of a “people’s initiative” struck down as deficient by the Philippine Supreme Court. This was in 1997, when President Fidel V. Ramos gave his blessings to a similar effort to eliminate the single, six-year term limit on presidents. Many of the same individuals behind that doomed attempt are behind the present one.

Where do Filipinos really stand with regards to amending the constitution? The Social Weather Stations (SWS), one of the two leading independent survey firms in the Philippines, summarized its findings over the years as follows:

1. Extensive education on the constitution is called for.

2. Suggestions for constitutional change do not come from the grass roots; their role is to approve or disapprove.

3. The (parliamentary) idea of fusing the legislative and executive branches has a fighting chance.

4. The idea of removing the present term limit on the chief executive is not popular. (On the contrary, most favor shortening the term of Mrs. Arroyo.)

5. The idea of a unicameral legislature is not popular.

6. More foreign participation in the economy is now welcome.

7. The idea of having regional governments is popular.

The latest SWS constitution-specific survey results released on Sunday shows the percentage who do feel constitutional change is required is larger than President Arroyo’s base of political support among Filipinos, which stands at roughly 30 percent. This is a healthy enough number to produce the millions of signatures the proponents of amendments claim they’ve obtained. And because they have the blessings of Mrs. Arroyo and her allies, they are in the best position to mobilize people. It capitalizes on those who might view amendments as a means of easing Mrs. Arroyo out of office.

The timing of the ongoing efforts to ram amendments through also seems too convenient.

Among other things, the proposals would eliminate any chance for a second round of impeachment this year, and retain all provincial and national elected officials in office for an additional term.

The result is less a “great debate” and more a gigantic political steamroller. Will it succeed?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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