A terrible blunder
Is President Aquino gunning for a second term? He dropped broad hints in a television interview conducted last Wednesday but aired only on Sunday night: “When I took this office, I recall that it was only for one term of six years,” he told TV5. “Now, after having said that, of course, I have to listen to my bosses”—alluding to a supposed clamor from the people for a second term. His spokespersons, however, have denied there was any actual plan to push for a second term, which requires the use of the still-untried process of constitutional amendment. “What I remember the President say was that he’s thinking about it. He didn’t say, ‘Let’s do this tomorrow,’” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte told reporters on Friday.
But the fact alone that Mr. Aquino was considering a second term, even tentatively (openness to the idea, he was careful to say in the interview, did not necessarily mean that he “would automatically go after an additional term”), was a startling about-face for a reluctant politician who had always been against changing the Constitution that his own mother midwifed into existence. Why did he even raise the possibility?
We can think of at least three plausible reasons; each one demeans the memory of his mother, the first President Aquino, who personified the post-Marcos ideal of a single presidential term. Not one of the reasons comes close to being even an adequate justification. Whatever the rationale, the damage to the President’s reputation has been done.
The President was testing the idea. One of his close allies in the Senate, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, said as much: “It was a trial balloon to begin with.” In that case, Mr. Aquino besmirched the memory of his own mother merely in an attempt to plumb political waters. Just three weeks ago, the second President Aquino echoed the first when he used his penultimate State of the Nation Address to say, again, that he was counting down the days until the end of his presidency. The abrupt turn sharpens the contrast between mother and son; it also undermines the most effective part of his fifth Sona. He had choked up when he recalled his parents’ sacrifices: “If I had turned my back on the opportunity [to serve by running on a reform platform], then I might as well have turned my back on my father and mother, and all the sacrifices they made for all of us; that will not happen.” A second term would run counter to the spirit of self-abnegation that Sen. Ninoy Aquino proved during seven years in prison and three years in exile and that Cory Aquino displayed not only when she willingly stepped down from office but when she counseled her successors against term extensions.
He was trying to intimidate the Supreme Court. During the interview, the President actually had more to say about the threat of judicial overreach, and the need to strike a balance between the three branches of government, than his own term extension.
“Before all of these happened, I admit I had a closed mind. But now I realized that there is judicial [over]reach. Congress and the executive may act but they can be punished anytime.” Valte offered a variation on the same theme. In the TV interview, she said, the President “indicated his openness to Charter change to restore the balance” between the three powers.
This is not only a misreading of the true source of judicial review (that power is rooted not in the Constitution per se but in the existence of a judicial branch in the first place), but an unfortunate continuation of the war over the Disbursement Acceleration Program by other means. Yes, the judiciary can overreach, but the solution is not a constitutional overhaul (no one is dense enough to suggest doing away with judges) but naming better candidates to the bench.
The President wants to continue the reforms he started. On its face, this rationale appears to be substantial, but in fact it only shows that the Aquino administration has failed to provide for something fundamental: continuity of program. With less than two years to go, the administration does not yet have a viable candidate to succeed Mr. Aquino. His sudden openness to Charter change, then, is best understood as a president’s worst lame-duck fears come to life. Not only is his signature budget reform initiative under attack; the durability of reform now looks uncertain.
The President’s surprise semi-announcement only adds to the uncertainty.
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