Politicians afraid of elections
Last February, a couple of weeks after the President’s consultative committee on Charter change convened, I wrote that “the evolution in the Duterte administration’s policy on Charter change is not an exercise in possibility; rather, it is crass political opportunism.”
I wasn’t referring to the 21 members of the committee or its chair, retired chief justice Reynato Puno. By opportunists I meant the President and his chief allies, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez among them; and by opportunism I especially meant the administration’s “shifting position on the separate-voting provision.” Would the Senate and the House of Representatives, convened as a constituent assembly, vote jointly, as one Congress, or separately, as distinct chambers of the legislature?
We can call that the opportunism of procedure. After the Duterte administration had completed its conquest of the Supreme Court, Alvarez expressed the ruling coalition’s new sense of invincibility by asserting that the House did not need the Senate to revise the Constitution, and that the Senate was free to challenge this position before the Court.
But behind it was the opportunism of substance. The politicians in the ruling coalition want to change the Constitution, under the flag of federalism, to effect “total capture of the political infrastructure” (as I wrote last October, in “What are we in ‘werpa’ for?”). They tried to do it through the “revolutionary government” tack. When that failed, they moved to Plan B: the overhaul of the constitutional system. When this fails, they will try to coax the reluctant armed genie out of the bottle and declare nationwide martial law.
There is a cleverness, even a certain stylishness, to the Charter change option; unlike the undisguised brute force behind Plan A (RevGov) and Plan C (nationwide martial law), Plan B involves hiding under the wide mantle of illustrious names, at least for a few months, before revealing its true nature.
I was sorry to see eminences like Puno and former Senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr. used to provide cover for the Duterte administration’s power-in-perpetuity project, but that was the plan behind Plan B: For the consultative committee to work on a draft of the federal constitution for several months, and then for Congress, convened as a constituent assembly, and without the participation of a recalcitrant Senate if necessary, to revise the draft as required—and pass it within weeks.
But character is all, and Speaker Alvarez could not contain himself. Two days after the consultative committee submitted its draft federal constitution to the President, Alvarez counseled “focus.” Speaking in Filipino, he said: “If we want to complete that [in time], for me we should really study the timetable. If we really want to finish this, we need focus.”
When asked whether he was telegraphing the infamous “No-el” (no election) scenario, the most practical man in both chambers of Congress suddenly waxed philosophical: “Hindi tayo sure na magkaka-election dahil hindi tayo sigurado na buhay pa tayo by that time.” That’s right, that’s what he said: “We can’t be certain if there will be elections because we can’t be certain if we will still be alive at that time.”
We are a government of laws, not of men. Yes, we cannot be certain that all incumbent politicians will still be alive by May. That is no reason to postpone elections. What we should do is make certain that our government survives the defunctioning of any political incumbent. But, of course, Alvarez wasn’t being serious.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III initially joined the No-el chorus, saying it was possible, but he later backtracked, arguing that for the No-el scenario to push through, the 1987 Constitution must first be amended.
Members of the consultative committee have since pleaded with political leaders to stop talking about the possibility of postponing or even canceling the 2019 midterm elections; the No-el scenario wasn’t doing the federalism project any favors, they said. A sad spectacle—because, in reality, the leaders of the ruling coalition do not actually subscribe to the federalism ideal. Like President Duterte himself, they are all Johnny-come-latelys to federalism, using the good name and the good faith of the true believers as mere cover.
Unless it can guarantee that elections will be like Supreme Court decisions these days, all but guaranteed, the ruling coalition will continue to regard Plan B in the exact same way it regards the other plans, as means to seize complete control. When politicians see elections as a distraction or a threat, you know the democratic project is at risk.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.