Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel 3rd is “alarmed” that 73 percent of those allegedly polled by one propaganda pollster know nothing or so little about the 1987 Constitution. He shouldn’t be. The late former President Cory Aquino did not know much about her own Constitution when she submitted it to the people for ratification. B. S. Aquino 3rd, who followed his mother as president 18 years later, showed not much better understanding of it either.
Koko should be more alarmed that the people do not seem to mind that President Duterte would like to change the state’s unitary structure, which they know so little about, into a federal system, which they know absolutely nothing about, and that he expects the nation to fall in line, just because he is proposing it. Indeed, Koko should be more alarmed that the President, without any constitutionally assigned role in the process, is threatening Congress with dire consequences if it fails to dance to his beat.
Last Friday’s headlines were sufficiently stressful. The Manila Times quoted PDU30 as telling Congress: “Do Cha-cha right or I will shut you down.” The Star echoed DU30’s warning to Congress, “Don’t mess with the Charter.” It was roughly the equivalent of the President’s repeated warning to suspected drug runners, “Surrender or get killed.” I have tried to point out repeatedly in this column that under Article XVII of the Constitution (Amendments or Revisions), the task of revising or amending the Constitution belongs solely to the Congress and the Filipino people, exclusive of any other authority or power.
Why can’t we respect the Constitution?
This cannot be said often enough until it is fully understood, or refuted authoritatively as completely false and wrong. But we find PDU30 acting as though he were fully in charge of the process instead of being a total stranger. This sometimes gives us the impression that the Constitution has already been set aside and is no longer there. But imperfect as it is, wantonly violated as it has been, the Constitution is still there. It can be abolished only by a revolutionary government, as in 1986; Section 18, paragraph 4 of Article VII of the Constitution provides that “a state of martial law does not suspend the operations of the Constitution.”
As we are neither under a revolutionary government nor in a state of martial law, PDU30 will have to defer to Congress not just the power of the purse, which Aquino had usurped, but the lawful exercise of all its constitutional powers, even though its leaders may be his most docile followers. On their part, Pimentel and House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez must have the courage to assert their own powers, if ever so gingerly, as their way of supporting the President. They will have to make sure that their docility to their patron does not degenerate into sycophancy to the point of rendering them blind to his most obvious errors. Sound discretion is essential.
Unfortunately, Alvarez may have failed his first test when he publicly declared that a constituent assembly (con-ass), instead of a constitutional convention (Concon), will propose a revision of the Constitution because it is what DU30 wants. In trying to pay homage to his master, the Speaker succeeded in painting him as someone with whom you cannot reason, and from whose word there is no appeal. Alvarez could have invoked and sought sanctuary in Article XVII, but he didn’t.
As a layman and friend, I find it sad and painful to have to point this out to our highest officials, who are all outstanding lawyers, and who should know more than anybody else what the Constitution or the law says. This is so plainly stated in the law that it cannot be said to be one of those things which the good Lord has hidden from the learned and revealed only to the simple.
In the last six years, B. S. Aquino 3rd wantonly violated the Constitution. The strength of the law was sapped by the power of the strong; the Judiciary destabilized; the Congress corrupted through the pork barrel and the constitutionally outlawed DAP to impeach and remove an uncompromising Chief Justice; and the three coequal and coordinate branches of government debased under Malacanang’s virtual control. Only B.S. Aquino’s inability to walk and chew gum at the same time saved the nation from falling under a full-blown dictatorship.
What people expect of DU30
People expected DU30 to end all of Aquino’s constitutional excesses. They held their breath, waiting for the promised change. But they never thought change would come in the form of daily headlines quoting the President’s order to the police to shoot certain targets on sight, or to suspects to surrender or get killed, and assuring the gunmen that none of them would ever go to jail for “doing their duty,” or that in case they were convicted in any court, they would be pardoned by the President.
No human being could possibly be exposed to these occurrences as the nation has been exposed since July 1 without being brutalized and dehumanized. No expert may be able to measure their cumulative effects upon our people, but our own individual responses will show that we have been wounded to the core. A post from the Archbishop Socrates Villegas, Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, seems to illustrate this only too well.
“I do not have to be a bishop to say this,” writes the Archbishop. “I do not have to be a Catholic to be disturbed by the killings that jar us every time we hear or watch or read the news. Lay aside the bishop’s robes and the CBCP position. I am only a human being. My humanity is in grief. I am in utter disbelief. If this is a nightmare, wake me up and assure me this is not true.”
How many others share the same grief but do not have the words or the courage to express it? Nobody knows. But a young broadcaster fears the worst is yet to come, that the shoot-to-kill orders and extra-judicial killings will not stop at drug suspects. Next will probably be the jueteng lords, who seem to have been exempted from the present purge for now. The broadcaster recalls the famous Protestant Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892-1984) who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps and whose words are inscribed in every Holocaust Museum in various places around the world:
“First, they came for the socialists and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionist, but I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
“It could be like this,” he said. “First, they came for the drug pusher, but I did not speak out—because I was not a drug pusher. Then they came for the drug user, but I did not speak out because I was not a drug user. Then they came for those who knew any drug pushers and drug users, but I did not speak out—because I did not know any. Then they came for me, but there was no one left to speak for me.”
People are afraid to speak out
The fear generated by the killings could spill over into the issue of constitutional change, the broadcaster said, and none but the bravest would dare to oppose the killings or point out the flaws in DU30’s federalist move. That could be happening right now. But while I taste the same nausea in my mouth, as the good Archbishop does, each time I read about the latest killing or shoot-to-kill order in the name of the swiftest justice, I do not believe PDU30 is such an unreasonable man that he will not listen to the most sincere appeal to reason on a matter that affects the nation’s highest public interest and the common good. I will, therefore, attempt to address myself directly to the President.
I believe we can agree that our Constitution is far from perfect, and that we need to make it as nearly perfect as possible. At the end of the 1935 Constitution, the great Claro M. Recto, chairman, described its handiwork as nearly perfect as any human document could be made perfect. However, Wenceslao Vinzons, the brilliant orator and patriot from Bicol, said it contained the seeds of its own destruction. Not many understood what Vinzons meant, but in 1972, upon the declaration of martial law, constitutional scholars finally understood what he said 37 years ago.
Presidential system has problems, not unitary structure of gov’t
Neither Recto’s nor Vinzons’s words could be said of the 1987 Constitution. It is full of defects, although not enough to imperil its very existence. But can we say that it suffers from a major flaw because it adopts the unitary structure of government instead of the federal, or the presidential instead of the parliamentary form of government? By no means. None of its flaws arise from the fact that it adopts a unitary or presidential system; rather they arise from the fact that it was begun as the draft constitution of a unicameral parliamentary government, but ended as the Constitution of a presidential government with a bicameral Congress. In other words, a square peg in a round hole.
This is why it contains provisions meant for a unicameral parliament rather than for a bicameral Congress. For instance, it provides that Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its Members, may propose amendments to, or a revision of the Constitution, or by a vote of two-thirds of all its Members, call a concon, or by a majority vote of all its Members, submit to the electorate the question of calling such a concon. But it fails to mention whether in these instances the two Houses shall sit together and vote as one or separately.
We modelled our presidential system after the US. But instead of copying faithfully its successful features, we adopted certain features which have since given us needless problems. In addition, our Supreme Court has been free to misinterpret the clearest constitutional provisions that need no interpretation, thereby killing those provisions and creating systemic dysfunctions. These I shall discuss in the second part of this article.
An inverted federalism
For now, we need to see that our main problem has nothing to do with the unitary character of our Republic, but simply how to make the presidential system work better. We would have needed to federalize if we were a group of independent states that wanted to become a united whole, like the first 13 states of the American union; but we are already a united whole, and the federalism PDU30 and PDP-Laban want would first subdivide the nation into several parts so that they could federalize later.
It is an inverted federalism—federalism in reverse—a perversion of the concept, which unavoidably raises strong suspicions of pre-planned secessionism. With its vast resources, and the number of foreign governments, international banks and corporations raring to exploit those resources, Mindanao could easily become stronger than any other unit of the proposed federal union, if not the entire union itself. A unilateral declaration of independence, which Speaker Alvarez had advocated not too long ago, might not be long in coming.
Inverted federalism carries, in Vinzons’s words, “the seeds of its own destruction.” I would urge you, Mr. President, not to stake your presidency on it; it would be costly and ruinous for the nation. (More later)