Rejecting ‘No-el’, rejecting ‘Con-ass’
Shortly after it happened, Party-list Rep. Lito Atienza offered the most positive spin a politician could give to that spectacle of a coup against Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez that upstaged President Duterte’s State of the Nation Address. The congressmen, said Atienza, ousted Alvarez because he wanted to cancel the 2019 midterm elections.
This narrative dramatizes the determination of the legislators to ensure that the 2019 elections take place, despite the risk in opposing their powerful Speaker and the advantage to them of the “No-el” (no elections) plan.
True, No-el would have benefited all incumbents, even those holding seats safely in the pocket of political dynasties; it would have extended their terms and postponed an electoral campaign that would have cost them substantial time and resources. The greater gain would go to members ending their third term and barred from running for a fourth, as well as to reelectionists expecting a strong challenge from political rivals, among them Alvarez himself, whose No-el advocacy came off as self-serving.
But the risks diminished over time. Alvarez overreached in publicly quarrelling with presidential daughter Sara Duterte, and became vulnerable when the President refused to endorse No-el. Politicians, especially those who hoped to win political office in 2019, also recognized that the public expected and wanted elections. However unrealistic their prospects, like lottery gamblers, they wanted their chance to bet. Thus, the anti-Alvarez forces, championing the widely popular cause of elections, emerged in a better light than Alvarez supporters who, presumably, preferred No-el.
There were probably as many individual motives as the 184 legislators who cast their votes against Alvarez on Sona day: policy differences, personal slights at his management style, party interests. While recognizing the play of such individual calculations of costs and benefits, let us grant that the defeat of No-el was a victory for the people’s democratic right to choose their leaders.
We know the many weaknesses from which Philippine democracy suffers: personality-oriented, principle-challenged political parties; political dynasties; institutions limited in their capacity to hold leaders accountable for their actions. But, at least, we get the chance in regularly scheduled elections to pass judgment on the leaders we elected. No-el denies us our ultimate weapon against impunity—the power to dismiss the officials who betray our trust.
Let us acclaim, therefore, the House rejection of No-el, whatever the congressmen’s motives were. Hopefully, the cautionary tale of the Alvarez ouster discourages any future attempts to abort scheduled elections outside the most compelling reasons understood and supported by the public.
With the 2019 elections assured, the legislators must now make the exercise meaningful. Alvarez justified No-el as necessary so that Congress could act as a constituent assembly (Con-ass) to fast-track Charter change toward federalism. In repudiating Alvarez, the legislators have supported a more inclusive process for implementing constitutional change. Having rejected No-el, they should now also reject Con-ass in favor of a constitutional convention (Con-con), which is advocated even by members of the President’s consultative committee. This stand would again place the congressmen on the side of the people, and demonstrate that public interest did prompt their rejection of Alvarez and No-el.
Surveys show that voters do not regard either Charter change or federalism as their priority concern. Many in academe, the business sector and civil society favor changes in the present Constitution and are open to discussing the shift to federalism. However, they oppose railroading such a radical, complex project through Con-ass.
The crafting of a new constitution that will establish the fundamental rules that will govern the country for decades deserves the time and resources required to ensure broader public participation in the process.
The 2019 elections present an opportunity to educate and engage the people on the issues of constitutional change. Prospective candidates should be made to explain their views on Charter change and what they believe a new constitution should contain. They should start by taking a stand on the process for Charter change: Con-ass or Con-con?
Edilberto C. de Jesus (edcdejesus@ gmail.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.
Business Matters is a Makati Business Club project to share the views of key leaders in the business community. The ideas do not necessarily reflect MBC’s position.
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