The Long View: Parameters

By Manuel L. Quezon III

Published on page A15 of the December 18, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

GARRY WILLS WROTE: “THE LEADER IS ONE who mobilizes others toward a goal shared by leader and followers. In that brief definition, all these elements are present, and indispensable… Leaders, followers and goals make up the three equally necessary supports for leadership… The goal must be shared, no matter how many other motives are present that are not shared.”

When President Macapagal-Arroyo set the Charter change ball rolling in the crisis month of July 2005, I pointed out she was doing a disservice to its cause by wrapping herself up in its mantle. Whether or not she was ever intellectually convinced of the need for constitutional amendments and of the manner she felt best to pursue it, that became beside the point: operating in an atmosphere of a political emergency, she retained one of the greatest powers of her office, the power to propose, but she lost the legitimacy required to unite the country.

It is said that pride goes before the fall. One kind of pride is intellectual pride – manifested in “the pride of authorship,” as I like to call it. It is a kind of stubborn, relentless pride to which intellectuals, political leaders – indeed, anyone involved in the realm of ideas, whether in public or private life – are particularly susceptible. Convinced that they had the solution, some proponents of constitutional change thought they could turn the President’s misery into a historic opportunity – they failed.

A leader fighting for political survival is in no position to appeal to, much less harness, the idealism of a divided country. That otherwise sincere and dedicated Cha-cha proponents failed, even refused, to see that – hoping to turn the President’s politically imperiled position into a situation that would harness her leadership and the resources at her disposal into a kind of knife to cut through the Gordian knot of constitutional change – only proves that even the well-meaning aren’t beyond political opportunism at its clumsiest.

This is why an emerging consensus for Charter change among public thinkers was broken. It wasn’t just the House of Representatives that thought it had everything worked out and, therefore, confused the tyranny of coalition majority with political will. You can list those who threw their support behind the President’s call for Cha-cha and enumerate the many different ways otherwise sterling reputations have been tarnished.

The greatest enemy of their cause was themselves. This is why those formerly inclined to work things out with them ended up pitted against them. The dividing line was on whether they were for or against the President and her ruling coalition: and rightly so. It was the fundamental “issue of the day” in July 2005 and remains the unresolved crisis that afflicts our country.

The trinity of objectives announced by the President in 2005 was: a parliamentary, unicameral and federal government. The first of these proposals to fall by the wayside was federalism. Only the unicameral-parliamentary government proposal survived – and its proponents, like demented sea captains, kept running their efforts aground on the shoals of the Constitution, common sense and public opinion.

Their dementia was caused by the pride of authorship. That left no room for honest debate or for compromise. What compromises there were only proved the folly of their political calculations: federalism was watered down, then dropped, alienating the non-politicians from the provinces; an insistence on unicameralism or nothing left those unconvinced of the soundness of the idea with no choice but to oppose it; and in turn, the manner in which the House recently behaved demonstrated the perils of a parliamentary setup.

The problem with Charter change, as pursued over the past year, was that even its proponents lacked shared goals. The political considerations of the President turned out to be different, even contradictory, when compared to those of her allies in the House. Her supporters from the private sector differed on what motivated them: was Cha-cha’s paramount consideration the loosening of economic provisions, or was it federalism or a parliamentary government (itself an authentic urge for a century but only among intellectuals and the barons who rule provincial fiefdoms)?

But even more crucial to their lack of success was their unwillingness to respect basic parameters that public opinion outside the corridors of power had been repeating.

Filipinos have been pretty clear about their ultimate parameter: they should retain the opportunity to directly vote for their chief executive.

A citizenry that has had a hand in electing its national leadership since 1935 can’t be asked to willingly give up that right, and rightly so. No democratic people have ever given up the right to directly elect their chief executive in exchange for indirect selection by members of a legislature.

If no free people on earth have ever given up the presidential system to replace it with a parliamentary one – though parliaments have been abandoned for the presidential system – then it is unreasonable to first propose, then demand, and then attempt, to make the public abdicate that right to a bunch of politicians. Such a thing only happens when dictatorships are established and all elections of whatever kind become meaningless rituals.

Most of all, they ignored a fundamental reality in politics: you cannot have everything. Absolute victory and total surrender are the goals of warfare, not politics. Only when the present proponents of constitutional change shall have realized this, will the time be ripe for the setting aside of past differences. Only then can a frank, but mutually respectful and productive, debate resume. But not before.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.