Philippines: Of Con-Con And Cha-Cha

2002

Lorraine Salazar

They’re at it again. For the third time since 1987, and despite Malacanang’s repeated objection, efforts towards Charter Change (‘Cha-Cha’) are in full swing. This time, the issue of changing the constitution seems to be one of the rare points of consensus between lawmakers in the administration coalition and the opposition - with both Houses of Congress having permanent committees on Constitutional Amendments.

Most people agree that the Constitution is an imperfect document that was written during an euphoric time in the country’s history, when the experiences of Martial Law excesses were fresh in the memory of its framers. The only disagreements are over how to change it (referendum, constitutional assembly, or constitutional convention), when to go about it, and which provisions to amend. The most contentious issue is whether the term limits for elected officials should be removed. Yet, compared to the huge opposition faced by similar attempts under Presidents Ramos and Estrada, today’s Cha-Cha movers found it easier to reach an accord at their three-day political summit on 3-5 May 2002. The First Philippine Political Parties Conference, convened by House Speaker Jose De Venecia, was attended by 21 political parties: 7 national, 6 regional, and 8 party-lists, including Akbayan. The main opposition party, the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) along with PDP-Laban and Bayan Muna, decided to boycott the summit in protest against the ‘repressive policies and terror tactics’ of the GMA Administration during Labor Day celebrations.

The summit’s stated aim was to ‘put negative politics behind’ and initiate a ‘culture of cooperation among political parties to reverse the Filipino people’s deepening frustration with politics, politicians and political parties’. While critics have dismissed the summit as an empty exercise, it is nonetheless significant in two ways.

First, it was convened on an historic date, a year after ‘Edsa 3’ and the attack on Malacanang Palace, the biggest display of desperation and frustration of a considerable proportion of the population towards the current political system. Second and more importantly, the summit arrived at a consensus to amend the 1987 Constitution by means of a Constitutional Convention (Con-Con), but only after 2004. Such agreement solves two of the most contentious points about Cha-Cha. The summit participants decided to change the constitution via a Con-Con, as in 1935 and 1971, rather than by a constituent assembly (composed of the current House and Senate members), or by an appointed constitutional commission, as in 1987. By rejecting the constituent assembly as a mode of changing the Charter, the summit removed the advantages of sitting representatives and senators who, by declaring themselves constitutional delegates, would provide themselves with opportunities to rewrite the charter provisions according to their interests.

Secondly, by pushing the date of a Con-Con to 2004, the administration will not be distracted from addressing the problems of poverty, economic recovery, and peace and order - problems whose solutions do not lie in revising the Constitution. The postponement also lessens suspicions that Cha-Cha is a partisan effort to extend the term of the President or to advance the interests of incumbent lawmakers, which was a claim that hounded both the Ramos and Estrada administrations.

Finally, by allaying suspicions of self-serving term limit extensions, more substantive issues can be focused on. The most important of these issues is finding a way to prevent a repeat of the Estrada crisis, by adopting a mechanism to change administrations that have lost political legitimacy without the need for people to go to the streets. This can only be done when political institutions are working. Proponents of Cha-Cha believe that the solution lies in changing the present personality driven multi-party presidential system into a parliamentary system. Even Estrada, who was the most popular elected President, only garnered 35 per cent of the total vote. There is need to shift toward a more institutionalised approach to politics in which political parties are seen as the central and organising mechanism for articulation of interests and demands. That the summit was attended by most political parties signals efforts in this direction. Whether this problem can be alleviated by a shift in the system of government promises to be the central issue at the upcoming Con-Con.

WATCHPOINT: To what the extent is the summit agreement binding, given the current power configuration in Congress?

 

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