A Bad (Constitutional) Joke in the Philippines

Although Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is peddling charter change as the cure-all for the ills of the Philippines, it is a false promise.


I have been in favor of a parliamentary system of government for the Philippines since the time of President Corazon Aquino, but I am against the current drive to change the constitution and make the shift away from our presidential system.

Charter Change, or ChaCha in local slang, is gathering momentum and being promoted as a cure-all for the ills of this unfortunate country. It is not. Under present circumstances, shifting to a parliamentary government without first overhauling the political system will not result in any meaningful change. Without real change, the predatory traditional politicians (trapos) who control the current presidential system will wind up controlling the future parliamentary system.

With this as the guiding principle, consider some of the country’s most nagging problems.

Will the parliamentary system dismantle political dynasties? Of course, not. Why would political dynasties, who have acquired their clout and fabulous wealth under the presidential system, do anything to diminish that clout and reduce that wealth under a parliamentary system? It would be counter-intuitive.

The Philippines’ current 1987 Constitution called for the abolition of political dynasties, and there have been God-knows-how-many bills filed in Congress to dismantle dynasties, in support of the constitutional mandate. But none of these bills have ever been passed into law. They are all languishing in some dank congressional archive.

Why would these political dynasts and their relatives cut themselves off from the cash cow of power just because we shift to a parliamentary system? Even under President Aquino, the principal inspiration for the 1987 Constitution, her relatives, the Cojuangco and Aquino dynasties, flourished. So did the Estrada dynasty during and after the presidency of Joseph “Erap” Estrada, and the Arroyo and Macapagal dynasties under current President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Politics in the Philippines is a family business and the fastest route to wealth. Papa is senator, Mama is congresswoman, Big Brother is governor, Big Sister is mayor, and the family idiot in show business is on the town council, with everyone aspiring to be president. It beats operating a commercial or industrial enterprise, or practicing an honorable profession.

Communist ideologues never tire of reminding us that the Philippines is a neo-colony of the United States and that neocolonialism is the root cause of our underdevelopment. It would be more accurate to say that this country is in the grip of neo-feudalism, a form of feudalism in which political power emanates not from the ownership of vast tracts of land, as in traditional feudalism, but from the control of rent-seeking political offices, from the village all the way up to the presidency.

The only way to break up these political dynasties is to disqualify all present office-holders and their relatives from running for any office in the next elections. But that is not likely to happen.

Will the parliamentary system eliminate, or even reduce, corruption? Of course, not. The present administration has had all the chances to pursue a serious anti-corruption campaign at the highest level, involving the biggest fish. But the trapos have chosen not to. It is inconceivable that they would suddenly do so under a parliamentary system.

More than 100 graft cases filed against the family of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos have been pending for almost 20 years, and there has not been a single conviction. The plunder case against Estrada has been dragging on for more than four years, occasionally punctuated with offers of “reconciliation” if he would only accept exile abroad.

This reluctance to resolve these cases seriously suggests fear of political backlash from rabid followers of the indicted in the case of guilty verdicts, hence the marked preference to dribble the ball indefinitely while searching for a softer solution, such as exile or sharing the loot.

In a more judicially civilized country, for example, the 300-million peso plunder case against former military comptroller Gen. Carlos Garcia would be an open-and-shut matter that would have been heard and resolved in a matter of weeks, not months or years. Garcia has already been dishonorably discharged by a court martial but the plunder case, filed in March 2005, drags on and on.

Because the case came to light when the general’s son was intercepted at an American airport trying to bring an undeclared US$100,000 into the US in 2003, the US embassy here even proposed publicly that the case against Garcia be heard in a speedy and continuous trial. The US Ambassador offered to supply documentary evidence that was in the hands of the US government. That offer has been ignored.

One can only conclude that a softer solution is being sought by the Arroyo government because a guilty verdict might tempt the well-connected officer to threaten to drag into the open accomplices and partners-in-crime from the higher echelons of the military and civilian leadership. The same consideration seems to apply in other high-profile corruption cases.

There is no reason to believe that this will change under a parliamentary system.

Will the parliamentary system create more jobs? Only marginally. There are not enough jobs in the Philippine economy because of wrong choices in economic policies and strategy. The minimum-wage law in the 1950s and 1960s, our failure to join the manufacturing-for-export boom in the 1970s and 1980s, our failure to ride the tourism boom in the 1990s, our foolishly premature embrace of free trade and globalization in the 1990s (under President Fidel Ramos), our failure to significantly curb runaway population growth since the 1950s etc. etc. etc. These factors combined to retard our economic development, compared to our more successful neighbors. This is not because we had and have a dysfunctional presidential system.

And, despite a perceptible boom in the call center and tourism sectors, we will not experience the rapid economic growth (8% or more per annum) of the Asian tigers if we do not industrialize. Indeed, the word ‘industrialization’ is not even mentioned in President Arroyo’s mid-term development plan, since it is incompatible with her embrace of free trade and globalization.

Industrialization for the global and domestic markets was how South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore grew into mature economies. In the 1980s, Malaysia set 2020 as the year it expects to become a fully industrialized country, and it is on target for becoming so. Thailand has become the Detroit of Asia, a regional center for car-manufacturing built on a widening industrial base. The fastest-growing economies in the region, China and Vietnam, bank on their expanding manufacturing capability for continued growth. All these countries have grown without changing their political system, from presidential to parliamentary, or from parliamentary to presidential.

In fact, I do not know of a single country in the past 50 years that changed its system from presidential to parliamentary or from parliamentary to presidential. Do you? Only from capitalist to communist, then back to capitalist, in the cases of Vietnam and China. About 20 years ago, India toyed with idea of changing from parliamentary to presidential, but the idea did not prosper. I do not know of any other case, aside from Marcos adopting the French parliamentary model in the 1970s, but that was solely to allow him to remain in power after his presidential term expired.

So why are we Filipinos being stampeded into changing from presidential to parliamentary? Simple. To allow President Arroyo to remain in power beyond 2010, legally and constitutionally, as prime minister in a Westminster model, or as president in a French parliamentary model. Just Like Ferdinand Marcos before her. It is all one big hoax.

Will it happen? Probably. The Arroyo government may not be very popular but it has the money, the numbers in Congress, and the support of many local government units. ChaCha is as good as passed, in some form or another. The only way to stop Arroyo is, unfortunately, through a people power uprising but in the absence of a credible opposition leader, this is unlikely.

Reprinted with permission from an earlier version in the Standard Today newspaper in Manila. The author’s website is www.tapatt.org.

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