Why Charter Change failed under President Arroyo (2003-2008)

A Boholano’s View by Jose “Pepe” Abueva

The Bohol Chronicle

September 30, 2012

Lessons of history. Our history teaches us that every successful endeavor to write and approve a new constitution, or to amend the existing constitution, had the support of our highest national leader who also enjoyed the people’s trust and support. This was true under President Manuel L. Quezon in 1935 and 1941, President Ferdinand E. Marcos in regard to authorizing by law the 1971 Constitutional Convention, and under Corazon C. Aquino in 1986-1987. (But Marcos subverted the 1971 ConCcon in writing and approving the 1973 Constitution to legitimize his dictatorship.)

On the other hand, President Arroyo failed in her effort to amend the 1987 Constitution because during her extended term more and more leaders and citizens, including the media, would dislike, distrust, and oppose her for various reasons. Other factors led to her failure.

The 1987 Constitution: Pros and Cons. As I have written many times, the 1987 Constitution is commendable for its lofty vision of building “a just and humane society” and “a democracy  under the rule of law,” where we are guaranteed ample human rights as never before.

Regrettably, however, instead of learning from our long, hard, and costly experience in governance since our independence in 1946, the 1987 Constitution essentially restored the old  institutions of presidential government with its excessive and paralyzing separation of powers and checks and balance among the President, the bicameral Congress, and the Judiciary. Moreover, the Constitution largely restored the old and dysfunctional unitary system that had centralized power, authority, and resources in the national government, at the expense of the people and their local governments.

Cutting the tenure of representatives and local officials from four to three years reduced their effectiveness in office. It also made them more vulnerable to corruption and abuse of power because of the higher cost of more frequent elections. Term limits on elective officers induce  them to support their relatives to succeed them. The party-list system is very defective.

We know that the national election of the president, the vice-president, and the senators involves huge sums of money, that some of them seek to recover somehow while in office. Moreover, in national elections many people choose candidates for their personal popularity, celebrity, name recall, and money; rather than for their demonstrated capability and competence as leaders. In local elections people are able to know their candidates better.

Proposals for Charter Change since 1996. In light of the many defects of the 1987 Constitution and the political system after the EDSA Revolt, various leaders and groups have initiated amendments to the 1987 Constitution over the past 25 years. In 1996 a group calling itself “Pirma,” urged an amendment that would allow one reelection of the incumbent president. This would have enabled President Fidel Ramos to seek a second term in 1998, but this was strongly opposed and failed.

Our Citizens’ Movement for a Federal Philippines (CMFP), launched a national campaign in 2000. We wrote a draft constitution for a federal-parliamentary government and produced primers and readings that we used in our campaign for constitutional change. In his time President Joseph Estrada wanted to liberalize the nationalistic provisions in the Constitution in order to attract more foreign investments. But nothing happened.

Charter change under President Arroyo. In 2003, House Speaker Jose C. de Venecia spearheaded constitutional reform toward a parliamentary government. He rallied leaders of various political parties to this end at a meeting in the Manila Hotel. More legislators, academics, local government executives, and civil society leaders joined the burgeoning movement for Charter change.

Late in 2003, before becoming a presidential candidate in 2004, President Arroyo indicated her interest in Charter change. Later she would invite leaders of our Citizens’ Movement for a Federal Philippines (CMFP) to brief her on the subject. In 2004 she was the only presidential candidate who called for Charter change. Most senators opposed amending the Constitution. However, the majority in the House believed that they had the required number to constitute three-fourths of the all the members of Congress to propose the amendments.

President Arroyo suffers loss of trust, support, and legitimacy. Meanwhile, President Arroyo was accumulating criticism and opponents in various sectors of society, including the influential media. She first made enemies by becoming president upon the removal of President Estrada who was a very popular movie star and an avowed friend of the poor. She made more enemies when she reneged on her promise in December 2002 that she would not run for a full term in the 2004 presidential election. In July 2003 some 300 armed soldiers staged the Oakwood mutiny alleging corruption in President Arroyo’s administration.

By a million votes President Arroyo defeated Fernando Poe, Jr., another movie idol, known as “da’ king.” This victory in 2004 gained her more detractors although Poe had never held an elective or appointed position in the government. Then in 2005 it was revealed that President Arroyo had telephoned a regional director of the Commission on Elections in 2004, allegedly to ensure that she would win the election in that region in Mindanao. She had to apologize for making that call in what had become the “Hello, Garci” scandal. In protest ten senior administrators and members of her Cabinet resigned. Former President Cory Aquino would personally ask President Arroyo to resign. An impeachment complaint against her was filed in the House but this failed. She would be implicated in other publicized allegations of wrongdoing. For all these the President was demonized in the media and in the public view.  And so was Charter change which was trivialized as “ChaCha,” the latin American ballroom dance.

But President Arroyo pursues Charter change. To fulfill her election promise to amend the Constitution, President Arroyo issued Executive Order 453 on August 19, 2005. This created the Consultative Commission to propose the revision of the 1987 Constitution, in consultation with various sectors of society. I was chosen to head the Commission. We worked very hard and held consultations in Metro Manila and the regional capitals. On December 16, I submitted to President Macapagal Arroyo our Proposed Revision of the 1987 Constitution for transmittal to Congress.

But the President decided to push for only one amendment: to change our presidential government with a bicameral congress to a parliamentary government that would be unicameral. She dropped our proposal to change our unitary republic into a federal republic and to liberalize the nationalistic provisions on foreign participation in our economy. Led by Speaker de Venecia, the pro-Arroyo majority members in the House of Representatives continued pushing for this one amendment.

The People’s Initiative: Sigaw ng Bayan. In the continuing stalemate between President Arroyo’s allies in the House and the opposition majority in the Senate, the President’s forces decided to resort to the third and new constitutional mode of proposing amendments to the Constitution: “the People’s Initiative.” Prominently behind the proposal to amend the 1987 Constitution was the Sigaw ng Bayan (Cry of the People). This was an alliance of local leaders and citizens initiated in Manila under Manila Mayor Lito Atienza on February 15, 2006. Many NGOs and labor and business organizations joined the movement.

As a nationwide movement, Sigaw was supported by the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines that unites the various leagues of elected local government officials, and by the Charter Change Advocacy Commission that succeeded the 2005 Consultative Commission. Sigaw enjoyed the backing of President Arroyo, Speaker de Venecia who co-chaired with the President the Lakas Christian-Muslim Democrats Party, the majority coalition in the House of Representatives, and Secretary Rolando Puno of the Department of Interior and Local Governments. They seemed formidable but their cause suffered from the people’s mounting opposition to the President and to ChaCha.

Sigaw ng Bayan and local government leaders gathered more than six million signatures of qualified voters nationwide, verified by registrars of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), in support of its petition to the Comelec to hold a national plebiscite on its proposal to establish a unicameral parliamentary government. The movement fulfilled the constitutional requirement that the third mode of amending the Constitution, through the people’s direct action or people’s initiative, should generate the support of at least 12 percent of the total number of registered voters, including at least three percent of the registered voters in every legislative district nationwide.

However, when the proponents of the people’s initiative submitted their petition to the Comelec on August 25, 2006, the body ruled against it. The petitioners then asked the Supreme Court to compel the Comelec to act on the petition for the initiative and to hold the needed plebiscite. At the same time the House of Representatives activated their move for Congress to be the one to propose the amendments to the people. The unity of diverse factions in the political opposition—the militant left, the urban middle class, the Catholic church, some business groups, and much of the media—doomed the desperate effort of President Arroyo and her allies in the House of Representatives to force the proposal of amendments through a constituent assembly without the Senate’s  agreement.

The Supreme Court rejects the People’s Initiative Petition. Reflecting adverse public opinion, on October 25, 2006 the politicized Supreme court voted 8 to 7 to dismiss the petition of Sigaw ng Bayan and the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines for a people’s initiative proposing amendments to the Constitution that would change the bicameral presidential government into a unicameral-parliamentary government if ratified by the people in a plebiscite, and providing for the transition. The Supreme Court majority decision suggested that the petition was “a gigantic fraud” and “a grand deception.” On the other hand, the dissenting opinion said that the majority opinion had subverted the will of the sovereign citizens who had approved “Sigaw” in their votes gathered by the Commission on elections.

Conclusion. In effect, even if not directly intended, the dominant opposition to Charter change through the petition for a people’s initiative, or by Congress acting as a constituent assembly, and the Supreme Court’s decision itself, favored the status quo in the fundamental structure and the basic institutions of governance and politics. The agenda and vested interests of those who blocked the proposed reforms were largely obscured in the whole process.

What loomed large and sinister in the political contention were President Arroyo’s motives and interest in changing the form of government from the familiar presidential system to the new and untried parliamentary government. Some who favored Charter change wanted it done through a constitutional convention, not by Congress directly proposing the amendments, much less by the novel mode of change through “a people’s initiative.”

But there were other factors that blocked Charter change. Foremost were the vested interests of those who wanted to maintain the political status quo. Another was the lack of understanding of the need for change in our political system and institutions. Many believed that all we needed to do is change our leaders, and our character as a people. But by their poverty, insecurity, lack of awareness, and dependency on their political patrons, many citizens are not empowered to take part in the political process except to vote. Also at play were ignorance, apathy, and indifference; as well as the ill will of those who wanted democracy to self-destruct so their own ideology and political system would prevail.

On hindsight, President Arroyo was the wrong leader to lead the movement for Charter change. Therefore, it was also the wrong time to do it.  



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