The more I try to understand the so-called Philippine charter change debate, the more I realize that it is not a debate at all. The two sides are not talking about the same things, so there is no way of really weighing one side against the other. According to the pro charter change side, the shift to the unicameral-parliamentary system would streamline government, spur development, and make the country overcome corruption. The opponents of charter change point out to the so-called transitory provisions which provide for a concentration of power in the present president, the automatic extension of the terms of elected officials till 2010 (when many terms would have expired in 2007), and the concentration of power on the present legislators from the Senate and the House of Representatives.
On what, at first glance, is a side issue, there seems to at least be two sides. This is the issue of the national patrimony provisions. The charter change proposals of the House of Representatives and that of the Consultative Commission (ConCom) clearly want to open up ownership of land, natural resources, public utilities and mass media to foreigners, because according to them, this will result in national development etc. And of course, the opponents of charter change are saying that this will complete the sell-off of our national patrimony to foreigners, and that these steps will not result in economic gains for the country.
This clash on the issue of national patrimony is, in a sense, overblown. After all, hasn’t the present government already found ways to circumvent constitutional restrictions in order to get foreigners to operate and lease utilities and mining concessions? The thing that is now limiting the entry of foreign mining companies in the Philippines is the opposition from the Catholic church hierarchy, and not the Constitution. And I very much doubt whether opening up what little is still closed to foreign investment would spur economic development.
Thus, we are now saddled with a charter change non-debate.
And then, there is the more interesting (from the spectator’s point of view, that is) struggle regarding the technicalities of how to change the constitution. The House of Representatives is trying to push the point of a 2/3 vote as meaning 2/3 of the total members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, even if these legislators are all from the House of Representatives. This is a creative interpretation, and will be unique in the world – anywhere where the legislature has two chambers, they are required to get the required majority votes separately, unless the law specifically says that they should sit jointly for certain decisions. The House is trying to do everything to push their creative interpretation of the 2/3 vote requirement; but this will clearly get nowhere.
And the so-called peoples initiative is also getting stranded in a lot of legalese. It seems like it is anything but a peoples initiative, with all the government bodies tinkering with the process. It will indeed be a surprise if the Supreme Court accepts the Sigaw ng Bayan etc initiative as valid.
The charter change issue is clearly getting nowhere. But what can we conclude from all this?
First of all, it really seems like the whole charter change issue or debate is one giant smokescreen (or red herring, if one prefers that analogy). With both the content and the procedure going nowhere, why on earth is the government still pushing it? As long as all eyes are on the charter change issue, other issues including that of the Garci-tapes scandal become less prominent in the public eye. Also, legislators are less prone to be anti-charter change or anti-GMA because they have everything to gain if charter change “transitory provisions” are implemented.
The second conclusion that one could draw from the current charter change issue is that there seems to be a consensus that there is something wrong with the Philippine political system, and that it needs some radical changes. While many people don’t agree with the currently proposed set of amendments to the Constitution; a lot of these people are in favor of some changes, at least if these would help get rid of the corrupt and inept politicians currently running the country.
It is a pity that this underlying base of support for fundamental political change is being used by both sides in order to push their various short-term aims. What we need now is a call for genuine discussions on how best to design a political system that fits the Philippines today.
What we need now is a real debate on charter change.