No to ‘No-el’
The consultative committee President Duterte created to draft a new constitution for a federal republic must have seen it coming. For instance, a few days before the committee formally began its work last February, some of its members heard a particular kind of feedback from the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines.
“If we will not talk about a no-election [scenario], all politicians now [on] the local level will be very busy aligning and realigning for the elections next year,” Oriental Mindoro Vice Gov. Humerlito Dolor told committee members. “It is the truth,” he added. ABS-CBN News, which reported the exchange, noted that Dolor’s statement was met by applause—from other local government officials.
Fast forward to July, two days after the committee submitted its draft charter to the President. Now it’s Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez laying the predicate for “No-el.” “How can we have a quorum?” he asked in Filipino. “Of course congressmen will campaign. It’s elections, it’s survival. So how can we work on the proposal to revise the Constitution?”
The simple answer stares Alvarez, Dolor, and other politicians in the face: If you cannot work as a constituent assembly because the May 2019 elections are only a few months away, then do not convene ConAss until after the midterm elections.
But the simplicity of this answer reveals the Charter change project championed by President Duterte and his supermajority in the House of Representatives for what it really is: an excuse, a maneuver, a gambit, to extend their term of office.
Enter the consultative committee. Its members have resorted to appeals to politicians to stop talking about postponing elections. “I suggest elections will continue [otherwise people would suspect that] we are proposing federalism so that the elections can be postponed,” said former Senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr. “It is not true, not at all.”
All this greedy political talk of No-el only heightens the difficulty of mustering public support for the massive task of changing the system of government.
The latest Pulse Asia survey, conducted from June 15 to 21, brought terrible news for the Charter change crowd. Fully two-thirds of voting-age Filipinos, 67 percent, do not support changing the Constitution at this time. (Pulse Asia, in its official report in English, describes the mode of change as amendment; but the survey question in Filipino actually goes beyond mere amendment and encompasses whole-scale revision: baguhin means to change, but also implies an attempt to make new.)
But the survey also shows that, in the three months between the March and June surveys, the proportion of survey respondents who do not support changing the Constitution at this time (sa ngayon) grew from 64 to 67 percent. Even worse for the blinkered advocates of a rush to federalism, the proportion of respondents who said they support changing the Constitution dropped from 23 percent in March to 18 percent in June.
Even the question about the conditional changing of the Constitution “sometime in the future” showed the already small base of support slipping between March and June, from 32 to 30 percent. Worst of all for the drivers and riders of a Charter change express, the proportion of survey respondents who said the Constitution must not be changed, “now nor any other time,” rose from 32 percent in March to 37 percent in June.
It’s clear as day: There is no draft, no clamor, no groundswell of support, for any attempt to change the Constitution at this time. (Note that the June Pulse Asia survey shows a higher level of support for President Duterte than the Social Weather Stations survey conducted the week after.)
Does this fact by itself invalidate the good intentions of those who truly and sincerely believe in the gospel of federalism? Not at all. They have all the right to mount a campaign to convince more people to support their version of the good news—and thus to change the Constitution and convert our system of government.
But the Charter change express does not only disorient the mind; in its stress on speed, it also disturbs the conscience. Why the rush?
This brings us back to the brazenness of the No-el scenario. All this bold talk will not compensate for the lack of popular support. On the contrary, it will only anger an already alienated public. On no account would the people support any postponement of the 2019 elections.
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