Is PH ready for constitutional reform?
President Duterte won on a platform that included giving the federalization of the Philippines very serious consideration. Necessarily, this radical political reform proposal must be viewed within the context of overhauling the 1987 Constitution.
But many Filipinos are still wary of a constitutional reform initiative. A significant number among us still see this move as an underhanded scheme to extend the term of a sitting president.
Indeed, the memory of President Ferdinand Marcos successfully doing this in 1973 with the help of martial law is still fresh. And Mr. Duterte’s closeness to the Marcoses is not helping assuage our fears at all.
Notably, three other presidents have pushed for “charter change”: Fidel V. Ramos in 1997, Joseph Estrada in 2000 and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2006.
Admittedly, term extension was never declared as the primary motivation behind these moves to revise the Constitution. But the public always knew, or at the very least suspected, that it was. This patent lack of trust is partly the reason these three presidents failed in their attempts to change the Constitution. And worse, their efforts did very little in allaying the people’s negative attitude toward constitutional reform.
But I suspect that our unreadiness fundamentally lies in our shaky comprehension of the Constitution itself. For instance, a lot of us are not even aware of President Corazon Aquino’s Proclamation No. 211 (1988) officially designating Feb. 2 as Constitution Day in the Philippines.
I conducted an informal survey in my immediate community to determine the level of awareness about our nation’s Constitution Day. The outcome is both pathetic and revealing. An uncle of mine summarized it quite well: “The meaning of Constitution Day to many of our people is as murky as the polluted Pasig River.”
The results of surveys conducted by two of the most respected polling firms in the Philippines explain why we have sunk this low. In 2002, a Social Weather Stations poll showed that three out of four Filipinos readily admit that they need to be better informed about the Constitution. And in 2014, a Pulse Asia survey showed that 70 percent of Filipinos have “little or no knowledge” about it.
Clearly, these numbers do not inspire confidence in our readiness to participate in the revision of our Constitution. Hence, it might be a good idea for the Duterte administration to initiate a preparatory step to constitutional reform.
I highly recommend a massive civic education program targeting local communities. The aim shall be to reeducate all Filipinos on two very important truths before we embark on such a significant political exercise: first, that one key function of the Constitution is to organize our government, and second, and more critically, that the Constitution plays a major role in the way our political system works. Hopefully, arriving at these realizations would encourage many of us to be heavily invested in the constitution-drafting process.
Concretely, this campaign can be undertaken via the Barangay Assembly apparatus. Note that by law, the latter also functions as a “forum wherein the collective views of the people may be expressed, crystallized and considered.” Additionally, the president can by executive fiat commission law schools to assume the role of moderator in these education sessions.
In sum, undergoing this preparatory step can cultivate within Filipinos a deeper attachment to the Constitution. This experience may then lead them to see themselves as continuing stakeholders in the enforcement of constitutional principles.
And I truly believe that it is only upon reaching such a level of constitutional awareness can Filipinos confidently undertake constitutional reform, be it through Con-con or Con-ass.
Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a practicing lawyer, is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.
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