Philippines: Manila Cha-Cha


Dr Ron May

Following the overthrow of President Marcos in 1986, Filipinos set about restoring democratic government and giving effect to 'people power'. A major element of this was the drafting a new constitution, through a broadly participatory process. The new constitution was ratified in 1987. At the time, many commentators predicted the re-emergence of much the same pattern of political activity as had characterised pre-Marcos politics: a system of 'elite democracy' dominated (as in US politics) by two weakly differentiated parties.

Those who drafted the constitution, however, had other ideas. Anxious to avoid the fractious and often corrupt patterns of 'traditional politics', the framers of the new constitution inserted several provisions intended to curb the powers of traditional politicians ('trapos'). These included a party-list component in the election of the legislature, provision for a system of initiative and referendum, and limitations on terms of office. On the latter, the president may serve only one six-year term; the vice president and senators may serve for no more than two consecutive six-year terms; members of the House of Representatives no more than three consecutive three-year terms, and so on. Legislation was also directed against political 'dynasties'.

In fact, though the traditional two-party-dominant style of politics has not re-emerged (indeed parties remain weak and fluid), an examination of membership of the legislature suggests that the traditional elite has maintained its political dominance, and political dynasties continue to thrive; the party-list system has had very limited influence, and the proposed initiative and referendum system has yet to be established. Limitations on the terms of political office, however, have seen politicians come and go.

Towards the end of his presidency, President Fidel Ramos sought to initiate a process of constitutional review ('charter change' or 'cha-cha'). Amid rumours that the president was seeking to remove the limitation on his seeking a second term of office (even though Ramos' presidency was generally regarded as successful, and there was no particularly attractive alternative in sight), the move to change the constitution quickly elicited strong opposition, and was eventually abandoned.

Early in his presidency, Ramos's successor, President Estrada, has again raised the prospect of constitutional review, specifically, the president has argued, to facilitate selective economic reforms (including an amendment to allow foreigners to own land in the Philippines). Again, proposals for change have generated a powerful reaction. On 20 August an anti-cha-cha Rally for Democracy, addressed by former president Corazon Aquino and church leader Cardinal Jaime Sin, drew a crowd of several thousand protesters. Another rally was held on 21 September. There has also been substantial opposition to charter change in Congress, including from within the governing Lapian ng Masang Pilipino party. Even among supporters of charter change, there has been a split within the National Coalition for Constitutional Reforms, producing a breakaway Struggle for Advancement and Viability Through Economic Reforms (Saver).

The opposition to constitutional change must be seen, at least in part, in the context of accusations of croneyism against President Estrada (among others, several 'cronies' of former president Marcos have been associated with the Estrada administration), allegations of corruption against several top officials in the Estrada government, and more recently, the president's attack on the Philippine Daily Inquirer, probably the country's leading daily newspaper.

At one level, the dispute over charter change reflects (apart from the usual rough and tumble of Philippine politics) a growing dissatisfaction about President Estrada's style of administration; charges of 'dictatorial tendencies' have come from several sources. At another, it reflects popular anxieties about the executive's moves to 'tamper with the constitution'. But at another level it does raise the question: is the 1986 constitution so perfect a document that even to suggest the possibility of change, some fourteen years after its drafting, revives the spirit of EDSA 1986?

WATCHPOINT: Will suspicion of Presidential motives stop the cha cha?


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