Setting the agenda for constitutional reform

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(First of four parts)
Constitutional reforms should always address in large measure two fundamental and interrelated goals: nation building and socio-economic progress.

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Nation building is the deliberate fashioning of an integrated political community within the fixed geographic boundaries in which the nation-state is the dominant political institution. Socio-economic progress is the sustained and widely diffused improvement in material and social welfare. These goals can be achieved from a wide choice of options and varying methods and strategies that should be the subject of discussion whether in constitutional assemblies or constitutional convention.

Oftentimes, these goals are obscured by politicians who are motivated by other competing goals, explicit or latent, such as survival or enrichment in office, or the protection of vested social and economic interests. Indeed, these objectives oftentimes take precedence over and constrain the goals.

Assuming nation building and socio-economic development are major political goals, what patterns of organization and action are most likely to move societies efficiently toward these twin goals? Only a constitution forum could answer this question.

To deal with these overriding goals, a modern and reformed constitution must cope with a series of major tasks, among which the following seem highly significant: integrating diverse ethnic, religious, communal and regional elements into a national political community.

This is the essence of nation building, the process by which groups with strong and even hostile particularistic interests antedating the idea and the fact of nationhood agree to coexist and identify with a newer and larger entity, the nation. In this process, individuals originating these groups transfer a portion of their loyalty to the symbols and institutions of the new national entity. This is an acute problem in many developing nations which are attempting to fuse diverse particularistic interests in a national policy.

Indeed a new constitution must be devoted to close the gap between groups divided by ideology, religion or regional loyalties, be these the New People’s Army, the Muslim separatists, and some tribes who are seeking autonomy as in the Cordilleras. The creation of real political parties can go some way in mainstreaming these alienated at marginalized elements who can only voice their demands and air their discontent in the parliament of the streets or in their jungle lairs through the barrel of a gun.

Organizing and distributing formal powers and functions among organs of central, regional, and local governments and between public authority and the private sector should also be another major concern. This can be implemented through a system of devolution, decentralization, and even federalism to stop the cry for the abolition of “Imperial Manila” and its centrifugal power of governance.

Constitution-making is not only a formal authoritative act. It is also a continuing adjustment and re-interpretation of legal norms in response to changing needs originating in such areas as technological and social developments, international pressures, ideological commitments, and shifts in relative power among organized interests. Especially in developing societies, our institutions and arrangements relating to the distribution of power are likely to be in flux and under pressure for frequent modification especially in this age of multilateralism and globalization. To guide and manage these adjustments place a major claim on the attention of constitutionalists.

It is not surprising that there is the continuing and periodic clamor for changes in the form of government – from national assemblies and to bicameralism to parliamentarism and federalism.

Since socio-economic developments require shifts in centers of power in order that new technologies may be successfully introduced and institutionalized, resource may be mobilized and allocated to development functions. The population may be brought into an effective pattern of communication with national political and administrative authorities.

Managing the affairs of a modern nation requires a wide range of complex and sophisticated skills. Certainly localized governance can make the effort more manageable.

Equally essential is the fact that model physical and social techniques must be carried out through specialized institutions which either did not exist in traditional societies or require radical restructuring in order to discharge the function associated with nation building and development. In effect, the building of new institutions is as deliberate a process in developing nations as the fostering of modernizing skills. This is particularly important in the rural, agricultural societies which will require development of modernizing skills and institutions. Devolutions of power from the center will surely accelerate rural mobilization and usher the industrial revolution.

If we cannot draft a new constitution that can attend to all these, cannot we at least under the present system pass the necessary executive fiat and congressional enactments to do the same?

Constitutional experts in the countries I visited have advised me against copying wholesale their form of government which to this late date continue to evolve. For example, in Italy, because the disaffection of some with their Prime Minister, they now want a directly elected head of government. In the United Kingdom (UK), there is an attempt to abolish the House of Lords, its second chamber. I must confess that I came back perhaps less enlightened than when I left. I have, therefore, prepared this paper which perhaps reflects my ambivalent feelings towards such weighty issues as Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism; Unicameralism vs. Bicameralism and Unitarism vs. Federalism.

We have learned from the past that under a strong leadership backed up by parties with a philosophy of government, a presidential bicameral form of government is not a hindrance to the process of development. Moreover, a presidential system can even speed up the process of development if this is equated with strong leadership as in the tenure of President Quezon, Magsaysay, and even Marcos. This is not a brief for perpetuating a system that obviously depends on authoritarianism or backed up by a strong party system as in the case of the US and France.

What we are simply saying is that the reason for amending our constitution should not be based on false dilemmas or unsupported political hypotheses but rather on more cogent arguments such as the need to amend certain articles such as the elimination of “bumiputra” provision which has successfully impeded the flow of foreign direct investment into the country.

You may recall that the last administration was bent on implementing constitutional amendments that would eliminate the restrictive economic provisions from the Saligang Batas.

(To be continued)

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