Why Can’t the Philippines Cha-Cha?

The Philippines, where fevered political rhetoric is almost an art form, is in the midst of another round of dire fears, appeals to the past and dark mutterings about dictatorship lurking in the shadows. All this when there is no apparent crisis, the country is more peaceful than it has been in years and the economy is growing at over 6 per cent a year. None of that seems to matter, however, when “Cha-Cha” comes into view.

For the uninitiated, Cha-Cha is the local acronym for “charter-change” and is shorthand for any effort to amend the 1987 constitution. Whenever the possibility arises, the political classes, from the far right to the Catholic Church and the Communist left, leap into action as if pirates were boarding the ship of state and must be repelled. The reactions make a rational discussion of constitutional change almost impossible.

It started about a month or so ago, when President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III and others began suggesting that a second six-year term might be a good idea and would allow the administration some continuity. Aquino said he would “listen to the people” on the issue, but he was clearly signaling he was in favor of the idea. Only one problem: in the Philippine Constitution, the president is limited to just one six-year term.

As a result, Aquino has been attacked for harboring dictatorial tendencies, betraying the nation and soiling the memory of his late mother, President Cory Aquino. Leftists have begun carrying signs at rallies comparing Aquino to Adolf Hitler, and the political opposition is using Cha-Cha as a campaign issue fully two years before the next election.

The last time the issue of changing term limits was seriously raised was in 1997 by then President Fidel V. Ramos. Many people, me included, consider Ramos to have been the country’s most effective post-Marcos president. After the drift and turmoil of the Cory Aquino presidency, Ramos sparked a time of significant growth, investor confidence and renewed hope. Unfortunately, after failing to gather momentum to amend the constitution, he spent the rest of his term being attacked from all sides as a wannabe dictator. His term was followed by the buffoonery of President Joseph Estrada, who served as his vice president, and then the apparent thievery of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is now under indictment. It wasn’t until Noynoy came along a dozen years later, in 2010, that the country began to right itself.

The nail in Ramos’ coffin was a speech given by Cory Aquino, who was seen as a saint by virtue of her role in overthrowing Ferdinand Marcos and taking power in 1986. Her words are now being thrown back at her son’s dalliance with Cha-Cha.

A widely reposted editorial on the popular news website Interaksyon was headlined “Cha-cha? 2nd Term? Cory Aquino has a message for Noynoy.” The editorial reprinted a speech Cory gave in 1997 during a massive rally against Cha-Cha and urged Noynoy Aquino to heed these words his mother directed at Ramos:

“Today, there is a dark wind blowing across our country again… the wind of ambition, a gathering storm of tyranny. We are here to shield that flame so that the light of democracy will not go out in our country again.”

It is stirring rhetoric, but the difficulty is that the single six-year term is probably the greatest flaw in the so-called Cory Constitution. It turns every president into a lame duck from the day he or she takes office and renders governance extremely difficult. This was obvious from the time it was first drafted, and it is almost impossible to change because of the high-wire politics involved.

Ratified on Feb. 11, 1987, the constitution was rushed into existence less than a year after the dramatic military-backed “People Power” uprising booted out Marcos and installed Cory Aquino in his stead. A reluctant president, Cory was a kind and decent woman who served only because her husband Ninoy, an anti-Marcos politician, had been murdered in 1983, presumably on orders from Marcos or other senior government officials; she was indifferent to government and wanted only to see that electoral democracy was restored.

Had a second term been possible, she almost certainly would have been pressured into running again. That, plus a true abhorrence of dictatorship caused the drafters of the charter to settle on the single six-year term and other dubious clauses. But so contentious is the amendment process that every effort since then to change a constitution that was the product of a unique political moment has failed.

The single term is the most unwieldy part of the charter, but a further provision that allows the vice president to come from a different political party than the president is also a problem and leads the country’s No. 2 frequently to try to undermine its No. 1. This was the case when Estrada was jockeying to succeed Ramos, and is the case now with Vice President Jejomar Binay essentially using his office as a launching pad to run for president in 2016.

The Philippines might want to look south to Indonesia’s presidential system. The reforms put in place after the Suharto dictatorship was ousted in 1998 have often been confusing and sometimes contradictory, but on the term of office for the leader, the country got it right. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who will step down in October, had two five-year terms. Nobody mistook him for a dictator. He was simply the most popular politician of his time and he has presided over 10 years of reasonable economic growth and political stability.

Back in Manila, unfortunately, Aquino’s term has reached the stage where the knives are out in many directions. He has stumbled, certainly, on many issues including his relations with the Supreme Court, but that is not the issue. The Philippines would be well served by a presidency that could last long enough to provide the country with a period of stability – say two five year terms – free from the overheated fears of another generation about a budding dictatorship. If the voters don’t like the president, they can always vote him out of office after one term.

If passions could cool, Cha-Cha is a dance the country might learn to enjoy.

This story originally appeared in Edge Review, a weekly digital magazine about Southeast Asia.