THERE will be much debate, discussion, division and deception over the coming year as Congress, constituted as a constituent assembly, deliberates proposed amendments to the 1987 Constitution, with the paramount goal of laying the legal groundwork for federal government in the Philippines.
Bad news and sabong journalism sells, so media will go to town on everything wrong about federalism and other proposed constitutional changes. Not to mention the process of enacting amendments.
Last week, retired Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr., who opposes Charter change and federalism, and fellow ex-CJ Reynato Puno and former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel 2nd, who favor both, all preferred an elected constitutional convention for Charter change.
Conveniently forgotten in that Senate hearing was the trivia that the 1987 Charter, which former drafter Davide extolled as the best constitution ever, was written by a 50-member commission wholly appointed by then-President Corazon Aquino.
Meanwhile, the much-maligned Marcos-era Charter of 1973 was the work of an elected Con-con, infamously greased by the strongman, as exposed by its oldest delegate, septuagenarian Valentin Quintero, brandishing envelopes of cash. As Filipinos have long known, election does not guarantee intelligence or integrity.
So, let’s not get all worked up about the how of Cha-cha, which will be whatever the administration-dominated Congress decides, but what amendments should be enacted, and why.
The bane of Philippine politics
Let’s start with the why: What problems of governance and politics can Charter change address?
Given space limitations, let’s just cite the biggest bane: the presidential system.
Really? How can one blame the Chief Executive for national ills, especially the incumbent Rodrigo Roa Duterte, who enjoys unprecedented popular support despite endless attacks at home and abroad?
Well, the problem isn’t him, but the system that endows him and his predecessors with immense power, far more than even the American president.
Our leader controls a national budget now exceeding P3 trillion, appoints more than 10,000 officials all the way to director level and all around the world, and commands the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police.
With this mammoth clout, hundreds of congressmen quickly switch parties or join coalitions to give Malacañang’s occupant a legislature under his or her sway, at least in the House of Representatives.
Like legislators, justices cannot just ignore a request from the appointing authority of all magistrates, who also names most members of the Judicial and Bar Council shortlisting candidates for the President to choose judges from.
The result of such gargantuan concentration of power at the top is the obsessive goal of mainstream politics trumping all other objectives, including the nation’s welfare: winning the presidency.
For this singular aim, presidentiables solicit hefty sums with compromising promises, and their parties use government posts to amass cash, with their man in Malacañang using his clout over budgets and appointments for party gain. Just look at the drugs, DAP, and Dengvaxia accusations facing the past regime.
Worst of all, unless a president commits some truly blatant and egregious excesses, his sleaze and incompetence cannot be stopped or sanctioned until all the damage is done over his six years in office. And maybe longer if his party assembles unmatched funds and political machinery.
That nearly happened in the last regime, but for a totally unexpected, even miraculous landslide victory by an unheralded mayor from marginal Mindanao, with far less money, no machinery, zero Smartmatic connections, and the disdain of the political, financial, and even religious elite.
More power to the people
The fundamental change needed therefore is to cut the presidency down to size by redistributing the power, resources, appointments, and other clout controlled by the office. And one way to do that in a big way is federalism.
With much of the budget and many of the functions and prerogatives of the central government transferred to the federal states or regions, Malacañang will become much less of a political prize, with its clout to ensure party dominance in Congress and future polls also greatly diminished.
Instead of the Palace controlling the bulk of government resources and positions, regional governments will allocate most taxes raised. And national-level positions would be distributed among regions, slashing the thousands of officials and staff appointed by the President.
There’s more. Presidential elections give the illusion of the populace holding leaders to account, but with some 50 million voters, the value of every citizen to the leader with greatest impact on his or her welfare and future is minuscule.
Indeed, all presidents elected under the 1987 Constitution were minority leaders, with Fidel Ramos’s mandate at a quarter of the vote, and his successors garnering around 40 percent. That means the man or woman ruling the country was not the choice of most regions and voters.
Now, under federalism, regional leaders and governments wield the greatest clout over their constituents’ lives. The regional government would allocate most funds spent in its area, and provide most services needed by people, from schooling, law enforcement, and health care, to public parks and markets, roads and bridges, water and mass housing.
But rather than casting just one vote among 50 million in a presidential election, in electing the most impactful officials under federalism —regional leaders —every voter has the clout of one in 4 million, the average number of voters in a region. That’s 12 times the clout of those choosing the president.
Regional leaders can’t ignore that. And the most crucial issues and programs will be decided by the region’s chosen chief, instead of a president not preferred by most regions and voters.
For sure, federalism, like any system, has flaws, and will still depend hugely on the integrity, intelligence, and industry of chosen leaders. The new charter must address federal weaknesses.
But the game-changing difference is that the government with greatest impact on people will be in their regions, knowing firsthand the life of its people, who can raise issues and complaints without traveling across the archipelago, and make their leaders feel the power of their vote.