Charter change: Zubiri holds the line
The Philippine political system is in deep need of positive transformation. Ours is one of the most oligarchic on earth, with few political dynasties dominating between 70 and 90 percent of legislative offices in recent decades. Even compared to neighboring Thailand (42 percent) or peer nations in Latin America such as Mexico (40 percent), the Philippines has a chronic dynastic political dilemma.
Our economy broadly mirrors our political institutions, with the 40 richest Filipino families taking home 76 percent of newly created growth in the early-2010s. This is far worse than neighboring Thailand (33.7 percent), Malaysia (5.6 percent), and Japan (2.8 percent). So, dear reader, the question is: What is to be done? Enter neophyte Sen. Robinhood Padilla, who has taken up the cudgels for a swift and comprehensive constitutional change, which is supposed to autocorrect our deeply broken political system.
On the surface, the constitutional change proposal seems attractive. The logic is simple, or to put it more accurately, simplistic: Let’s try to copy the constitutional arrangements of some neighboring/prosperous countries and, accordingly, we can have an economy as successful as theirs.
Never mind that authoritative studies by leading economists such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Daron Acemoglu (“Why Nations Fail?” 2012), Harvard University’s Dani Rodrik (“One Economics, Many Recipes,” 2009), and emerging markets guru Ruchir Sharma (“The Rise and Fall of Nations,” 2016) clearly show that a complex set of variables determine sustained economic development. For instance, what’s important is the trade and industrial policy (Rodrik), the overall quality of bureaucratic and state institutions (Acemoglu), and macropolicy dynamism (Sharma).
A comprehensive study by the UP School of Economics, led by professor Raul Fabella, has shown federalism can often reinforce extreme poverty and inequality in developing nations. Meanwhile, having a parliamentary system didn’t prevent political chaos in places as varied as Israel and the United Kingdom, nor has it prevented massive corruption scandals in places such as Malaysia and Iraq.
None of these, however, means that we should not carefully deliberate the potential merits of constitutional change. And here enters Senate President Miguel Zubiri, who has courageously pushed back against ostensible efforts to railroad a potential constitutional change. Lest we forget, Zubiri was a maverick in his younger years in the House of Representatives, belonging to the “Spice Boys” group of fiery legislators during the Estrada administration.
To put it briefly, there are three major problems with Charter change at the moment. To begin with, there is no widespread public clamor based on all authoritative surveys. In 2016, constitutional change received a net -7 percent support, according to Pulse Asia. Two years later, even more Filipinos opposed the proposal, as many as seven out of 10 respondents in a Pulse Asia survey.
Almost zero percent of the populace has identified constitutional change as a top urgent issue in the past year. No wonder then, neither President Marcos nor top business groups such as the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry view the Charter change proposal as an urgent concern.
As Zubiri pointed out, however, railroading Charter change has created another major problem, namely undermining ongoing efforts to properly implement three key laws, namely the Public Service Act (Republic Act No. 11659), Retail Trade Liberalization Act (RA 11595), Foreign Investments Act (RA 11647). The three laws were precisely passed to make the country more economically competitive, yet they still lack implementing rules and regulations.
Mind you: From China to Vietnam, restrictive property laws didn’t deter a massive inflow of investments and double-digit growth rates. Authoritative studies show that investors are often more concerned with the quality of basic infrastructure, human capital, and the rule of law.
Finally, Zubiri has also correctly pointed out that the current push for Charter change is far from feasible since only a tiny minority of his colleagues are on board. Senators like him may also fear ulterior motives behind constitutional change: namely, the removal of term limits as well as the institution of the Senate in favor of a potentially even more dynastic legislature. After all, one wonders why key proponents of Charter change are pushing for a constituent assembly, whereby current congressmen and senators will oversee a new constitution, rather than a constitutional convention, which provides more representation to ordinary citizens and stakeholders.
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