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Commentary

Citizen participation in Charter reform

In 1986, the Constitutional Commission formed by President Cory Aquino was working under a strict deadline drafting a new charter to formalize the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. Today, the circumstances are vastly different. Filipinos actually have the luxury of time to pursue constitutional reform.

For constitutional law scholars and practitioners, the active engagement of the people in the entire constitution-drafting process is a key factor in demonstrating the internal legitimacy of the outcome, as well as securing for it the necessary external validation. Therefore, Filipinos must not contemplate, or even tolerate, an elite-driven and -dominated constitutional reform process.

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Engagement is usually implemented via citizen assemblies, where deliberative discussions relating to constitutional reform are done. Deliberation in these assemblies means the open exchange of ideas and insights, with participants willing to listen, reflect and, if warranted, change their views.

But the most crucial role of these deliberations is to give the people the platform to frame the issues that need to be addressed in the constitutional reform initiative. In a way, these assemblies reflect the moment when citizens actually take ownership of what their constitution should be.

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The Barangay Assembly mechanism in the Local Government Code meets these prescriptions quite ideally. For one thing, it is the most convenient way to gather ordinary citizens and give them the opportunity to speak out and be heard. Indeed, by statutory mandate, the barangay is a “forum wherein the collective views of the people may be expressed, crystallized and considered.”

However, utilizing the Barangay Assembly to facilitate deliberations on Charter change would require the participation of constitutional experts. In this regard, groups like the Philippine Constitution Association, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and the Philippine Association of Law Schools can be commissioned to provide warm bodies to assume the role of moderators.

These volunteers, though, will not only facilitate the discussion of the relevant constitutional issues; they must also provide some basic education on fundamental constitutional principles to the participants of the Barangay Assembly.

The program can consist of interactive lecture-style sessions first, supported by pre-session reading materials assigned to participants, followed by a series of deliberation sessions.

The targeted output for each Barangay Assembly can be a written report that can then be formally endorsed to Congress, to be utilized as resource materials in the revision process.

With regard to the constitution-writing process itself, the proceedings of the drafting body, whether it is a Constituent Assembly or a Constitutional Convention, must be open to the public. The media must have full access to records and papers related to the drafting process. The key point here is that there should be complete and absolute transparency from day one.

Moreover, there must be mechanisms that will allow civil society organizations, business groups and academic institutions to submit proposals to the drafting body, as well as for private individuals to be heard during formal sessions.

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The drafting body must likewise put up a website where updates on the working draft and the writing process are posted, thus allowing the public to comment on the progress of the draft in matters of substance and style, and for the drafting body to respond to these concerns accordingly.

Note, however, that when the final draft is done, there should also be an appropriate amount of time allowed the public to reflect on whether to ratify or to reject the new constitution in a plebiscite. Filipinos must be given the opportunity to get their minds ready before they make this big decision.

Now that the administration has decided to take it slow with its Charter change drive, the focus can be on the quality of the process, ensuring that it is truly inclusive and participatory. Indeed, more effort can be exerted to make constitutional reform a genuinely deliberative and transformative exercise for all Filipinos.

Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M, is a nonresident research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government.

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TAGS: Charter reform, Citizen participation
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