Arroyo Should Not Misread Opposition to Charter Change
by Manuel L. Quezon III
On Dec.14, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said this: “It is time to gather together all the energies of our people for the continuing work ahead… Philippine democracy will always find the proper time and opportunity for Charter reform at a time when the people deem it ripe and needful, and in the manner they deem proper. The nation must consolidate now and I call upon all our institutions and sectors to stand as one for the country’s future.”
On Dec. 19, she said this: “There are three realities we face as a nation: One, that the people accept the need for Charter change to overhaul the system; two, that there is a need for a unified national consensus on the means and timetable; and three, that this is a platform commitment of the administration that will be pursued with urgency and fervor…This is a matter of paramount national interest and our leaders must all rise to the challenge.”
Her Dec. 14 statement marked a turnaround, and was widely assumed as a deliberate effort to distance herself from her closest allies. Five days later, she was back to hugging the allies she’d so nimbly set aside. What happened?
The month began with the House of Representatives vowing it would finally propose amendments to the Philippine Constitution. It would do so with or without the participation of the Senate. To facilitate the process, it amended its own rules to dispense with a previous (and long-standing) requirement that constitutional proposals undergo the same process as legislative measures. In a marathon session that went on from Dec. 5 to 6, the House majority forced through the change.
The next day, the House proceeded to attempt to propose a resolution which would transform itself into a Constituent Assembly; this would be made possible by a House Resolution stating the intent of the House. This was passed early in the morning of Dec. 7. But the bruising dusk to dawn sessions of the past days antagonized the public to an extent that surprised the House leadership and even the president.
The reason people were antagonized was in the nature of the House proposals. First, to postpone elections from May 2007 to November of next year; second, to immediately transform the Congress into a Parliament if the proposals were approved in a plebiscite; third, to lift term limits (congressmen are presently limited to three, three-year terms) and lengthen terms from 3 to 5 years. They would do so, even in the face of Senate opposition, and provoke a constitutional crisis if necessary.
The Catholic hierarchy said it would call the people to a rally on Dec. 15. Word got around that other influential groups would join the Catholics; the president got nervous, and told the House leadership she would disown them if they didn’t drop their plans.
On Dec. 9, the Speaker of the House held a press conference saying he was bowing to public pressure, but -in his own words — then tried to “turn the tables” on the Senate by challenging it to call for a Constitutional Convention. The Speaker gave an ultimatum: The Senate had three days to respond or the House would continue with its plans. This further galvanized public opposition and the intention of the various churches and civic groups to rally.
It was at that point that the president began more public maneuverings even as some pretty frantic plans were launched to blunt the effect of a rally. First, the national gambling authority, the Philippine Amusements and Games Corporation, hired the location where the rally was supposed to take place. The rally organizers were forced to announce a postponement from Friday the 15h to Sunday the 17th. Then, on the 15th, the president made the announcement quoted above.
In the meanwhile, her Cabinet said they’d discovered terrorist threats to the rally; government workers were warned they could be fired or suspended if they attended any protest actions; troops were recalled to the capital; and a flood of proposals and appeals were made to possible participants. The appeals went along these lines: Attend at your own peril; there is no reason to attend, because the president has disowned the plan; and there was even one proposal for the government to attend the rally, too.
In the end, the rally pushed through but it wasn’t clear what there was to fight, if the fight was about opposing the House of Representatives, which had not only stopped its undertaking, but later on, withdrawn its ultimatum to the Senate. The religious organizers said instead of a protest, it would be a thanksgiving service; but if there was something to be thankful for, then why bother to attend? Besides which the holiday season has always been a lousy time for protest actions.
Attendance expectations were unrealistically high, not least because one of the spokesmen for the Catholic bishops breathlessly predicted half a million would turn out. Instead, anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 showed up, itself a figure unmatched since the protests that took place last year, but far from what was predicted.
And this explains why the president of the Philippines, after she abandoned the fight, said the fight would not only resume, but take on the characteristics of a “paramount national concern.” The immediate emergency had passed; they had been handed a propaganda opportunity; they could reclaim the initiative.
How they will utilize the momentum they think is theirs once more, remains to be seen. The president’s reversal of herself, however, only confirms those skeptical that the effort to engineer amendments favorable to the ruling coalition was ever really shelved. In this light, the chirpy over-confidence of the rally organizers is as nothing to a resumption of the administration attempt to force through constitutional changes prior to what will be a hotly-fought, surely expensive, probably bloody, and most likely mired-by-fraud national and local election next year.
The president forgets that the holiday season in the Philippines has only been a prelude to, and not the end of, larger political confrontations. The confrontations themselves take place, and are resolved, during the cooler months of January to February. It was a close call for her last year; it may not be a close call the next time around. Particularly if her camp assumes that it has the luxury of reconsidering the postponement of elections.