Arroyo Administration Ready to Try Everything to Get Charter Change

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Arroyo Administration Ready to Try Everything to Get Charter Change

by Manuel L. Quezon III

A pincer movement is taking place. The leadership of the Philippine House of Representatives says it is a handful of votes shy from attempting something novel in the history of bicameral legislatures. Because of a vaguely-worded provision in the current constitution, which says two-thirds of Congress is required to propose constitutional amendments, the members of the House say that if they can obtain two-thirds of the total membership of both houses, the Senate, even if opposed, can be bypassed. If this tactic is pursued, the Supreme Court will have to decide if an interpretation that defies the very nature of a two-chamber Congress, will stand. The House is confident that they will be upheld; at the very least, they are poised to try it.

An effort to petition for a plebiscite on proposed amendments, being undertaken through a so-called “people’s initiative,” is the other part of the pincer. For months, with the wholehearted support of provincial officials and the Arroyo administration, various groups have been going around collecting signatures to fulfill a constitutional provision that says citizens can directly propose constitutional amendments. There have been allegations and even direct eyewitness accounts, that signatures for the petition have been obtained in unorthodox ways. In one village, door prizes were offered to those who attended meetings called by village officials, who then asked their constituents to sign the petitions. In other cases, some have claimed that they signed, because they were assured it was a way to get rid of the president — even though supporters of the president were doing the asking.

Though it’s been announced as sure thing almost every day for the past couple of weeks, there seem to be strong indications that the “people’s initiative” organizers will finally submit their petition to election authorities. They will have to prove that they obtained a certain — small — percentage in every province and city of the country, for their desire for a plebiscite to be heeded. Again, that effort will be challenged in court, because the law that supposedly enabled such an effort, according to a previous Supreme Court decision, was defective and thus, inoperative. The strongest argument the “people’s initiative” proponents can make, is that not even the courts can stand in the way of their collected signatures. Never mind the law, just mind the signatures (but never mind how they were collected).

Whichever method to push forward amendments to the constitution prospers, is irrelevant for the purposes of those who want those changes. Namely, the ruling coalition the Arroyo government heads. The benefits of their proposed changes — or really, change, since what is actually proposed is the abolition of the Philippine Senate, and its merger with the House of Representatives and the Cabinet of Mrs. Arroyo in a parliament — are being touted as practically magical.

One advertisement, for example, should be of interest to Filipinos working in the Middle East. The television advertisement shows a Filipina in a burka, trembling and crying, complaining of abuse and loneliness. Then the advertisement shows the same lady, this time in a lovely middle class home, surrounded by her beaming family. Thanks to constitutional amendments, she says, such a transformation would be possible. The ad ends with the viewer being urged to support constitutional change.

Critics of the proposed amendments — and there will be many — say that what would really be in a plebiscite is the Senate’s abolition, which would then make it easier for the new parliament to propose, and approve, a multitude of changes, and also point out that there’s the possibility of too many self-serving changes. Among the changes frankly stated by supporters of the administration’s efforts, for example, are the elimination of term limits and the extension of the duration of terms. Normally, such changes, if desirable, would not be applied to incumbents in government, who could (rightfully) be accused of pushing for such changes to benefit themselves. But there is no such prohibition from self-enjoyment, and no such prohibition seems possible.

In light of such criticism, proponents of amendments say that it is the will of the people, and that it must be done, as a matter of economic survival. Perhaps those currently in office haven’t recuperated their expenses, so that’s why they want their term limits abolished, and their future terms to be five years and not the current three years (for provincial officials and members of the House). The manner in which the shift from the current presidential, to a parliamentary, system, too, they say, will result in amazing and immediate benefits, and anyone who is skeptical is unpatriotic and possibly, a communist.

Anyway, that’s the official logic and that’s where official efforts are headed. Certainly, the administration is demonstrating tremendous political will. Just yesterday, a committee of the House of Representatives, meeting on their report recommending the dismissal of impeachment charges against Mrs. Arroyo, decided to ignore the opposition’s request to include its disagreement with that decision. The administration coalition voted to approve the report, regardless of the sentiments of their minority colleagues. The minority correctly refused to vote.

This week will see the entire House of Representatives tasked with voting on the committee’s recommendations. Since the president controls the House, the outcome will certainly be in her favor. A funny thing happened, though, last week. When the administration coalition prepared to vote not according to what justice would dictate, but according to the interests of their presidential patron, members of the audience began to fan themselves with white envelopes. In a country in which bribes are normally passed along in such envelopes, the meaning of the audience’s actions was clear. It infuriated the majority. They proclaimed the proceedings closed to the public, and prepared to go to another room. Most of them got up and left to do so.

The minority, and the public remained, and after a few hours it became clear that what the radio and television audience watching the proceedings would remember, would be the sight of Philippine congressmen hiding themselves after their fellow citizens dared to fan themselves with envelopes. The majority returned to the hall, they voted as they intended to anyway. They got done what they wanted to do.

But when they began to make speeches to justify themselves, the minority politely stated it needn’t stay behind to listen to such justifications, which were not owed them, as proponents of impeachment, but rather, owed by the majority to the public. After all, public opinion has been significantly favorable towards impeachment (as measured in surveys).

An oppositionist put it best: In pursuit of its objectives, the government of Mrs. Arroyo will stop at nothing to keep itself in power and reward its allies.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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