In my Monday column, I expressed concern that by doing what he is doing now, President Rodrigo Duterte could unwittingly knock down the very process by means of which he would like to see changes in the Constitution. This could result from a well-intentioned, but unnecessary outburst of presidential activism. This should not happen. The only way to make sure is by being faithful to the Constitution, which is the only operating manual on how the fundamental law is to be changed.
Under Article XVII, any amendment to, or revision of, this Constitution may be proposed by:
1) The Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its Members (presumably with the two Houses voting separately); or
2) A constitutional convention, which Congress may call by a vote of two-thirds of all its Members, or which the electorate may call, at the instance of a majority of all the Members of Congress; or
3) Direct people’s initiative, upon a petition of at least 12 percent of the total number of registered voters, of which every legislative district must be represented by at least three percent of the registered voters therein. This may be done after the fifth year of this Constitution, but not oftener than once every five years thereafter.
Any such amendment or revision shall be valid when ratified by a majority of the votes cast in a plebiscite held not earlier than 60 days nor later than 90 days after its approval, or, in the case of direct initiative, after the Commission on Elections has certified the sufficiency of the petition.
Notice that nowhere is the President mentioned. He cannot openly lead in this effort; he can only lead, if he must, discreetly, invisibly—-from behind.
This is not a revolutionary govt
In 1986, after the “people power” uprising ousted President Ferdinand Marcos, the military installed Mrs. Corazon Aquino who declared a revolutionary government. She abolished the 1973 Constitution and adopted a so-called “Freedom Constitution” under which she ruled as “revolutionary president.” She did not trust the people to write their own Constitution, so she created a 49-member Constitutional Commission to draft one. Article XVII having gone, she did as she pleased. She did not even have to follow the criteria she herself had prescribed in choosing her commissioners.
PDU30 has not been as privileged. Unlike Cory, he is not a “revolutionary president.” During the last campaign, he threatened to abolish Congress and establish a revolutionary government, and was warmly applauded in Mindanao. But that would have abolished the government he had been elected to lead, and probably provoked a counter-coup from the armed forces. So on June 30 he took the President’s oath to “preserve and defend” the Constitution, which grants him no role in any constitutional revision or amendment.
Alvarez lets cat out of the bag
Since his SONA, however, he has been talking about constitutional change, and by what means he would like to see it carried out. Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez (PDP-Laban, Davao del Norte) has unfortunately spread it on the record, before the Management Association of the Philippines, that the proposed charter change (Cha-cha) is PDU30’s “advocacy.” He wants a shift to federalism. At first, DU30 wanted a constitutional convention (Concon) to propose the shift, Alvarez said, but last week he changed his mind in favor of a constitutional assembly (con-ass) after listening to Budget Secretary Ben Diokno in Malacanang.
Diokno had told the President, according to Alvarez, that a Concon would cost so much more than a con-ass (at least P7 billion); and that caused him to have “second thoughts.” The Speaker left no doubt that the President, rather than Congress, is calling the shots on the projected Cha-cha, and that the latest critical input is coming from the Budget chief. It’s one for the books.
When Cory Aquino decided to appoint, rather than elect, delegates to draft the 1987 Constitution, she said she could not imagine the people choosing Commander Dante as one of their delegates, so she decided to appoint them instead. But she ultimately decided not to appoint the NPA chief.
It was plain and simple hypocrisy, pardon the language. But what we are hearing today is unacceptably inept. It is most unfortunate.
Not a question of money
Diokno is a no-nonsense technocrat. You could trust him with the Budget much better than we could trust his predecessor Butch Abad, the architect of the constitutionally outlawed DAP. He is a good friend, and the last person I would like to offend. But he has neither the authority nor the competence to tell us whether or not, and how or not, Cha-cha should proceed. This isn’t all balance sheet.
The government did not mind squandering P10 billion or so on Smartmatic in the last elections, and does not mind allocating P3 billion or so for the next barangay elections. It did not mind blowing $30 million (P1.4 billion) —even though the money may not have been ours—-on lawyers’ fees alone just to win an arbitral proceeding, which the other party did not want and still does not want to recognize. Why then do we want to scrimp on the cost of constitutional change?
If the government seriously believes it needs a Cha-cha, why does it want to penny-pinch on it? Isn’t it misplaced thrift, misplaced prudence? If saving money was the only issue involved here, the Congress could probably imitate what Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo did when he asked Felipe G. Calderon to draft the Malolos Constitution, which the revolutionary government adopted, or it could honor the late perennial presidential candidate Pascual Racuyal’s standing offer to write a new Philippine Constitution for only a few hundred pesos.
But the Constitution is the only law authored by the sovereign Filipino people; it must be written by the people themselves through their chosen delegates. And the people must be prepared to spend whatever money is needed for it. We cannot treat this matter in the same way the interim Batasang Pambansa treated the first Freedom of Information bill I filed in 1978; they shot it down because nobody could say how much money would be spent on clerical staff and paper and ink alone just to produce the documents needed by the public. They never suspected FOI would become such a major political issue in the next 30 years.
Not this Congress
If Congress is to be the vehicle for constitutional change, it should be used not because a con-ass is much cheaper than a Concon, but only because it offers the best chances of producing the best possible results. Can this be said of the present Congress? Sadly, not. Although this is a new Congress, most of its members are parts of the old system that flourished under Aquino, in which every vote on any issue could be bought by the President.
Of course PDU30 is not Aquino, and did not have to buy anybody’s allegiance. They simply swam to his ship on their own, in pursuit of their selfish interests; they are not likely to act on any constitutional issue, without DU30’s prior instruction, concurrence or consent. They are mouthing federalism today because they have heard PDU30 propose it; they are even talking of the French presidential system under President Charles de Gaulle, which they hardly understand, also because DU30 had spoken of it.
But let PDU30 reverse course, and they will try to outdo each other in turning 180 degrees. By no means can we describe this as an independent or principled Congress. How then can the people charge it with the important duty of proposing serious constitutional change? Alvarez and Senate President Koko Pimentel should relieve PDU30 of his self-imposed duty to lead the present Cha-cha and federalism campaign, and relieve themselves of any illusion that the people will support a con-ass to railroad the proposed shift to federalism.
Objections to federalism
In my last column, I raised the first fundamental objection to the proposal to turn our unitary republic into a federal union. I pointed out that federalism works as an organizing and unifying principle when independent or autonomous or semi-autonomous units come together to become a federal union. But federalism becomes a balkanizing principle when a solid and unitary nation-state subdivides itself into several independent or autonomous or semi-autonomous regions or states, then turns around to become a federal union.
What is the logic behind it? What are the risks as against the possible gains? Are you not creating fault-lines where none exists? Where the threat of separatism already exists, how do you obviate the possibility of secession and disintegration? No unitary nation-state has done it before; the Philippines would be the first one to do so, if ever nothing restrains our misguided enthusiasm from following this course.
This question is elaborated upon in a two-part commentary which The Manila Times started running yesterday under the title, “Federalism is not the Solution,” by Ben R. Punongbayan. It is a clear and coherent analysis, which treats the economic and administrative issues as well. I will defer to that discussion for now.
Real problems, wrong solution
But although federalism may not be the correct response, the problems and grievances that have produced this response are real. The problem of “imperial Manila,” which “imperial Davao” now threatens to supplant, is the first among these; the distribution of political and economic power and resources must become much more even and equitable between and among the center and the peripheries and outer regions.
This can be done by strengthening our laws on devolution and decentralization, making sure that local government units benefit more from the wealth they themselves produce or create, and that whatever monies belong to them are automatically remitted to them without any red tape; and establishing massive and modern transport and communication systems that connect the country from one end to the other, and all parts thereof one to another. Only a fully integrated economic development program can give full meaning to the political and social unity of the nation.
Limit the amendments
This is not to say that we should abandon political and constitutional reform altogether. The debate between the presidential and the parliamentary systems should continue, and reason, not political prejudice or emotion, should prevail. But even if we may not be able to institute drastic or dramatic change at once, we should, at the very least, be able to correct the most obvious defects of our presidential system. And there are several.
We cannot continue electing a president from one party and a vice president from another, and we cannot continue having a minority president, who fails to gain 50 plus 1 percent of the votes of the electorate, but claims a “landslide” victory. We cannot continue having two or more candidates from whom to elect a president in just one balloting; if no candidate gets 50 plus 1 percent of the votes, we must have a second balloting (a run-off) between the first two strongest candidates to ensure the election of a “majority” president.
Nor can we continue having a 24-member Senate elected nationwide by voters who know nothing about their candidates. They are either popular incompetents, moneyed individuals who merely buy their votes in Mindanao, or dynastic politicians who confuse their personal interests with the public interest. It is time to allow the regions to elect their own regional senators.
And we cannot continue having a Commission on Elections against whom the political parties, the candidates and the general public must first and always protect themselves.
These are issues where the President has not expressed any strong position or interest. We will not need a Concon for these. We could allow the Congress, such as it is, to propose the appropriate corrective amendments.