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Why Charter change will not succeed

No Filipino president has ever been reelected, except for Ferdinand Marcos in 1969. That election was reputedly the dirtiest, where guns, goons, and gold were the primary persuaders. Under the 1935 Constitution, reelection was allowed. The historical trend tells us the people always find their presidents disappointing after four years at the helm. In the next election, their best strategy is to look for another “overall governance contractor” to deliver what the previous president had failed to deliver. After three centuries under Spain, four decades under the United States, and seven decades under self-rule, the Filipino electorate remains unreasonably impatient. It wants deliverance from poverty, corruption, crime, and vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters within a presidential term.

Not that there had been insufficient time to solve intractable problems like poverty, crime, and corruption. Our neighbors Singapore, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan show that if only there were a coherent, long-term, and far-seeing strategy, national visions could be achieved within decades. But the 75 years since Philippine independence in 1946 has seen mostly tactical attempts at governance, like a car that needs to stop, idle for a while, change drivers, and restart after four or six years. At each stop, the whole bureaucracy gets reshuffled, becoming disoriented and immobilized. Good if the car travels the same road, but each president starts out in a different direction, hoping that succeeding ones will magically carry on. But without the scaffolding of a system of programmatic political parties, this is wishful thinking.

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Under the 1987 Constitution, there is no presidential reelection. Yet, whether they imagine that they have done well by the people, or revel in the rosy atmosphere manufactured by concentric layers of sycophants that surround them, presidents have entertained the notion of staying beyond one term, which would require Charter change (Cha-cha).

Fidel Ramos, the first president elected under the new Constitution, entertained these desires, manifested in the People’s Initiative for Reform, Modernization and Action, which sought to amend the Constitution via a signature campaign. The petition was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 1997. Under Joseph Estrada, there was the Constitutional Correction for Development initiative, supposedly to amend only those provisions that impeded the entry of more foreign investments. This initiative fizzled out with the Estrada presidency. Gloria Arroyo went further, convening upon her election in 2004 a Consultative Commission that proposed a unicameral-parliamentary-federal government and economic liberalization. The Sigaw ng Bayan signature campaign that pushed this Cha-cha was initially rejected but eventually sustained by the Supreme Court. Despite follow-on “con-ass” actions initiated in the Lower House, massive anti-Cha-cha protests silenced the initiative. There were also tentative congressional Cha-cha initiatives under Benigno Aquino III.

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Like Arroyo, President Duterte started his Cha-cha moves early. He created a consultative committee that submitted a draft federal constitution to him on July 9, 2018. So far, the initiative has been stymied. Now, in the twilight of his term, another Cha-cha effort by Duterte partisans has emanated from the Lower House.

The clumsy, pretentious “con-ass” attempt to change the 1987 Constitution claims that at 34 years old, the Charter is no longer responsive to the times. Yet, that argument can be turned around. Why has it aged that long despite the 34 years of frequent dissatisfaction with government performance after the People Power Revolution of 1986? It is precisely because it is key to the need of the people for political security and stability. Deep in their hearts, the people distrust politicians. The 1987 Constitution is practically an affirmation of the 1935 Constitution. That political formula is now 86 years old.

I am not worried that the latest effort at Charter change will succeed. The weight of history and public opinion is against it. And Mr. Duterte and his partisans do not have a lever long enough to overturn it.

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TAGS: 1987 Constitution, charter change
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