What you need to know
Proposed constitutional changes could pave the way for a return to dictatorship in the Philippines and remove provisions aimed at safeguarding the country's integrity
In Philippine politics, every president after Ferdinand Marcos (the dictator ousted in 1986) has wanted to cha-cha.
But I'm not talking about the Cuban dance, I mean “charter change” – amending the 1987 constitution ratified after the end of the Martial Law period.
But why has each president been intent on rewriting the constitution? More importantly, what is Rodrigo Duterte’s government trying to do with it this time around?
To be fair, Duterte has advocated a cha-cha since the beginning, and has always made clear that his proposed amendments would entail a shift from the current unitary form of government to a federal one.
Duterte and his camp say that federalism will make the delivery of services faster by empowering smaller units of government to do their jobs more efficiently.
Many are split on the topic of federalism. Lawyers, and constitutionalists around the country have been diving into the details of this constitutional surgery. Some say that the structural alignment of government needs to be fleshed out more in discussion. Others claim that the Philippines is unsuited to federalism and that the current constitution, however imperfect, already allows for the basic democratic freedoms and processes required for a nation to function.
Beyond these surface-level changes, what could Duterte’s cha-cha do? Past presidents aggressively floated policy changes that would come as a result of their proposed cha-chas. Some of the more controversial provisions would allow foreign entities unbridled access to land, property and various institutions. Others entailed that term limits for those in office be reviewed.
Unsurprisingly, this caused a major uproar among the public, who waged campaigns to end these cha-chas, which they viewed as moves towards potential dictatorship. Despite such predictable opposition, each succeeding president has tried and failed to wiggle their way towards constitutional change.
The worst 'cha cha' ever
What Duterte wants now has been called “the worst cha-cha ever” by former lawmaker and attorney Neri Colmenares, who has been monitoring the various versions for some time. The human rights lawyer told The News Lens that the ramifications are bleak.
The amendments are less about a shift to federalism and more about bastardizing constitutional safeguards. In a nutshell, Colmenares says that the proposal entails, “the centralization of repressive powers in Duterte, a self-serving agendas of politicians, dismantling of protectionist provisions of the constitution which may exacerbate poverty [and] control of the judiciary.”
The worst thing about the ongoing approval process is the railroading by administration allies in Congress.
House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, a die-hard Duterte ally, has threatened that members of congress who do not vote in favor of cha-cha would receive “zero budget.” This is a threat he has acted on before – he de-funded of the Commission of Human Rights in a political move to silence administration critics.
The prospect of a revamped constitution under a president whose bloody trail has left so many victims in its wake is a terrifying scenario. But the devil is in the details of Duterte’s dance.
So much is wrong with what the administration believes the country’s essential document and principles should look like.
Philippine presidents are currently bound to serve a single, fixed term of six years, without possibility of re-election. The proposed amendments suggest that Duterte be allowed to run for a second time as president, that the office of the vice-president – the only other nationally elected post and one currently held by one of Duterte’s political opponents – be abolished, and that Congress itself be abolished until a federal congress is convened.
Until such time, the president would absorb all legislative powers, all top elected officials would be exempt from income tax, and their terms in office would be doubled.
Some key provisions involving the economic and territorial sovereignty of the country are also at stake. Clauses cut from the new constitution include: disallowing the entry of foreign troops, bases and facilities; prohibiting multinational corporations from acquiring domestic land and prohibiting foreign entities from wholly operating domestic industries, institutions (mass media and education) and utilities; and the promotion of Filipino labor, housing, investment and land reform.
These are some exceptionally sound facets of the current constitution, though as the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a military alliance that allows American troops to visit the Philippines for extended visits suggests, they are not well enforced. Still, removing them eases the way for all sorts of violations of sovereignty. It is putting up the entire country for sale. And this, remember, from the man who said to China "if you want, just make us a province like Fujian."
The Catholics Bishop Conference of the Philippines has rightly branded the entire affair as “self-serving”, particularly for the insertions that will leave elected officials in prolonged power without any fiscal accountability.
On the other hand, lawmakers assured the public that they would not be self-serving as a review committee has been appointed, albeit by the office of the president, to ensure democratic fairness. They gloss over the fact that the planned revisions are inherently detrimental to the people while bloating the political power of local elites.
The smaller picture
At the moment, the biggest conundrum for lawmakers is not whether to reject cha-cha or not, but how to go about it. Alvarez maintains that a Constituent Assembly (con-ass) is the most direct and cost-effective approach, whereby both the Senate (the upper chamber) and the House of Representatives (the lower one) vote jointly.
Senator Francis Pangilinan and his colleagues have rejected this idea, as it would significantly reduce the role of the upper chamber in comparison with the current process. But as far as Alvarez is concerned, cha-cha is already underway. Hardly any of the talk from the country’s representatives reflects the problems all this entails for public welfare.
Wrong side of history
Cha-cha is a term I’ve been hearing since I was a child in the 90s. Every time it has been foiled by widespread opposition. This newest iteration is undoubtedly the worst, and it is doubtful that even the fanatics of the current regime can push it to fruition.
The constitution is not perfect and it does need some work. It bears a colonial history with even its preamble needlessly patterned after that of American colonizers. The inclination towards a federal system akin to the U.S., coupled with opening up the floodgates to those who would literally buy up the country, speaks to how the entire political scene still aspires to accommodate Western standards and influences.
More urgently, all this represents another attempt at establishing a dictatorial government. Extending and expanding the powers of a mass murderer and economic hit man do not bode well for ordinary Filipinos. I suspect that is exactly why the details of cha-cha are so infrequently mentioned by those in power, apart from the argument that federalism speeds up social equity for the masses.
Cha-cha still has a long way to go. It is bound to encounter public opposition once more of its features reach the light of day. The proposals, along with the purveyors of this legislative mutilation, may find themselves on the wrong side of history, with the worst cha-cha proposal ever.
Editor: Morley J Weston