Philippine Politicians Still Dancing over Charter Change

On Wednesday, galvanized by the baldness of a parliamentary maneuver to restart a long-stalled move to amend the Philippines' unwieldy 1987 Constitution, protesters will again take to the streets of Manila, led by Catholic bishops. So what else is new?

After months of jockeying, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's allies in the Philippine House of Representatives on June 2 defied public opinion and approved after only six hours of deliberations a procedural resolution that could lead to amending the 1987 Constitution. Critics fear the move, which allows the House to vote itself into a Constituent Assembly to change the Constitution and ignore the protests of the Senate, could lead to scrapping a provision of the current charter that restricts a president to one elected term of six years, which could allow her to stay in power, perhaps in a parliamentary system, even after her term expires in 2010.

The move is an attempt to bypass the Senate, which consistently votes against Arroyo on almost anything, by claiming that the pro-administration House can go it alone when it comes to amending the constitution. That point is ambiguous in the charter and the next stop for the legislation will be the Supreme Court.

Arroyo's popularity ratings have never been high. She was installed in office in 2001 in what supporters said was People Power II but was more akin to a military coup backed by the church and middle class when she was vice president and Joseph Estrada was driven from power. She later won the 2004 presidential election under dubious circumstances when large numbers of provincial votes in her favor were thought to be fraudulent. Nonetheless, she has been in power for eight years, longer than any president since the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos was ousted by People Power in 1986 after 20 years in power.

Speculation has been rife almost since she first came into power that she would try to amend the Constitution, so that the 2010 election would not be a presidential race but a parliamentary one – which would give her the chance to eventually become prime minister.

Of course, people have been speculating about Charter Change – or cha cha as the acronym-happy Filipinos call it – almost since the day the 1987 Constitution became law. Former President Fidel V. Ramos was criticized in the 1990s for allegedly plotting to stay in power by changing the charter. Arroyo herself was the target of big demonstrations in 2006 when critics felt she was engineering a constitutional change in her favor following allegations that she cheated in the 2004 elections.

There are good arguments in favor of a change. From the time the Constitution was written in the wake of the ignominious departure of Marcos on a US jet for Hawaii following the uprising against his rule, the six-year term has been regarded by many observers as a mistake. Designed to prevent a president from remaining overlong in office, it has the effect of creating a lame duck presidency from Day One and an atmosphere of almost perpetual campaigning the top job.

Backers of former President Fidel Ramos, whose reform agenda was muted by political jockeying from future presidential aspirants, repeatedly raised the idea of a constitutional convention, and the idea was just as repeatedly quashed.

Indeed, should the House succeed in this maneuver, it could do almost anything it wanted with the Constitution, a prospect that is chilling to many critics. "A constituent assembly is very dangerous. Before we know it, it would already be pushing for the extension of the term of the president because it can already have its own agenda and discuss anything it chooses," warned Senator Manuel Roxas II, who is among the presidential aspirants in 2010.

Public outrage was immediate. The morning after the approval of House Resolution 1109 ‑ convening Congress into a constituent assembly to amend the constitution ‑ militant groups, civil society, businessmen, students and local churches mounted separate protests nationwide to oppose it.

The Philippines is a bicameral system. But the move was the sole initiative of the House of Representatives, which is dominated by administration allies. The House of Representatives has 265 members while the Senate has 24. Senators are elected on a national basis, while House members represent districts.

A three-fourths vote of Congress is required to approve an amendment to the constitution. The resolution rather outrageously argued that "joint voting" – the total vote of the two houses ‑ is the proper way to convene the assembly. This way the House of Representatives can bypass the Senate and meet the three-fourths vote (217 votes) without any help from a senator.

Amid charter change talks last year, the Senate signed a unanimous resolution opposing any amendment to the Constitution before the 2010 elections.

After repeated attempts to generate a People Power III movement, Arroyo's critics know her government is largely immune to patches of street protests – partly because protests are losing steam since her administration is winding down and the voters expect her to be gone anyway next year.

But on Wednesday, shocked by the baldness of the cha-cha maneuver, protest groups will try to muster a big enough crowd of protesters to make the government reconsider the idea.

The influential Roman Catholic Church, a long-standing Arroyo critic, has called on its believers to join the protests.

"The people should really show their opposition now before time runs out," said Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the head of the National Secretariat for Social Action of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines. The conference has volunteers in all 81 Philippine provinces.

It is yet to be seen if this latest government move will trigger anything beyond the ritual shouting associated with much of Philippine politics. In previous controversies, Arroyo's allies interpreted the relatively small protests as signs of a weak opposition. Despite a long succession of scandals, the opposition has failed to muster the crowds that ousted two Philippine presidents.

So far, the biggest scandal to shake the administration was the "Hello, Garci" controversy, which broke out in 2005. A wiretapped conversation was exposed in which Arroyo, then a candidate for re-election, violated the law by talking to an election commissioner, Virgilio Garcillano during the 2004 presidential elections. She was accused of cheating to win the elections.

One by one her allies withdrew support, including former President Corazon Aquino – whose leadership of the People Power revolt against Marcos installed her as a kind of Mother Mary figure for the country in contrast to the venality of Marcos. It was a close call, but President Arroyo's administration survived it. Aquino, who is suffering from cancer, has remained a staunch critic of Arroyo.

Clarita Carlos, University of the Philippines political science professor and former President of the National Defense College of the Philippines, doubts there is enough outrage to bring down the administration.

"The gasoline for a People Power is there. There is more than enough gasoline. But I don't know if this is the match that will make it explode," she said. "There is a monolithic public. If you are so poor and if you're worrying about your next meal, you wouldn't notice what is going on politically. The people who notice are those who have time on their hands ‑ the middle class."

The approval of House Resolution 1109 doesn't mean anything yet, said Joaquin Bernas, former dean of the Ateneo Law School and member of the Constituent Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution.

"How real is the threat of term extension? It is real only if the Supreme Court will cooperate and, more significantly, if the military will cooperate," Bernas said.

As of this writing, the House leadership's next move is unclear. Some administration allies have said they have no intention of convening the assembly or extending Arroyo's term. They say they only want the Supreme Court to rule if "joint voting" is the proper way to convene it so that the next Congress would know what to do.

Critics are not convinced.

Influential Makati Business Club president Alberto Lim believes the time is ripe to take to the streets.

"We believe there is a lot of resentment against charter change at this time. House Resolution 1109 is a spark that could drive people into the streets like no other issue has," he said.

The Makati Business Club, which consists of the biggest corporations in the Philippines, backed Estrada's ouster in 2001 and also called for President Arroyo's resignation in 2005 at the height of the "Hello, Garci" controversy.

Senator Rodolfo Biazon, a retired general, also warned the government that the protests could get the support of some "restless" members of the military.

"We are beginning to detect some reactions from the soldiers. As a matter of fact, retired generals have asked me, 'What can we do?' Soldiers might bring this [about] on their own," Biazon said.

The military's support was crucial to the moves in 1986 and in 2001 that drove Marcos and Estrada from power. President Arroyo has been successful in thwarting moves from disgruntled sectors of the military to join protesters. Some generals are now in jail, following the last somewhat serious attempt at a coup when soldiers occupied a luxury hotel in Makati. Alas, room service never arrived and the plotters were soon carted away.