Should the Philippines Cha Cha?

Lawmakers allied to beleaguered Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo are attempting to use sheer political muscle to change the constitution — Cha-Cha or charter change in local parlance—in record time. Arroyo loyalists said Monday they would press ahead with a “marathon” session of Congress this week to pass an administration-backed proposal to give the Philippines a unicameral parliamentary system.

Brushing aside an October Supreme Court ruling that threw out a bid for a quickie referendum to change the constitution, ruling-party leaders in the House of Representatives are now trying to get the job done in record time in the legislature.

Leaders promise to gather the required 194 signatures, or three-fourths of both houses of Congress, to get their plan through, convince the largely hostile Senate to go along with it and argue all this before the Supreme Court before adjourning for their Christmas break on Dec 22. Their goal is a plebiscite by February and a new parliamentary government and constitution by the end of 2007.

Administration lawmakers led by Speaker Jose de Venecia have released a resolution calling on Congress—including the Senate—to convene as a Constituent Assembly, or Con-Ass, the rather unfortunate acronym inevitably attached to the maneuver, in which they could deliberate changes to the country’s foundation document. At least a few of the 23 senators will have to go along to give Arroyo the necessary votes.

The traditional way of amending the constitutional in the Philippines is to hold a national election for members of a Constitutional Convention. The body then deliberates the changes and puts the results of their effort to a national vote. This was done in 1971 and again in 1987, when the current charter was drawn up after the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos.

Critics say Arroyo is manipulating the rules by using the Congress to change the charter.

She has the numbers and has used them before. Under De Venecia’s leadership, Arroyo has survived two impeachments attempts and in February she also stared down a coup attempt by military rebels, declaring a state of national emergency and forcefully going after opponents of the left and right. If the current plan goes through despite opposition from moderate business groups, opposition politicians and leftist activists, Arroyo will be converted into a prime minister, scheduled national elections will be postponed from May 2007 until November at the earliest and existing term limits will be abolished, meaning Arroyo could stay in office beyond her currently mandated closing date of 2010.

Other proposals floated by the government have suggested that the 2007 polls will be scrapped altogether, a plan that would likely create voter fury if it were to go through.

House Majority Floor Leader Prospero Nograles told reporters Monday that the House will stay in session all week to approve resolutions to change the constitution and delay elections. The overwhelming administration majority will also try to amend the House rules to bypass the normal process of conducting committee hearings on legislation. “We ought to be able to finish this [approval of the resolutions] including the physical voting,” Nograles said.

Over the weekend, however, opposition Representative Roilo Golez urged the House leadership to postpone deliberations, citing last week’s devastating typhoon that left as many as 1000 people dead from mudslides. “It would be the height of insensitivity and callousness to discuss [Charter change] while hundreds of thousands have been dislocated and mourn their dead, or [are] looking for their missing loved ones amidst the debris and mudflow,” Golez said. “It would be in very poor, terrible taste to discuss [Charter change] while a huge fraction of the nation are in pain and anguish.”

The administration and its allies in the House rebuffed the call.

The move is certain to draw fierce criticism from politicians who see Arroyo’s bid to change the Philippines into a parliamentary hybrid as little more than an excuse for her to continue past the end of her current, non-renewable term.

Critics say they will stop the plan in its tracks. “No chance at all,” Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, the Senate minority leader, said in summing up the administration’s odds. Pro-administration lawmakers are “driven by lust for power and a desire for a mechanism as defense from charges later on (because) they had violated so many laws in the country including corruption and extra-judicial killings,” Pimentel said.

He also challenged Arroyo to account for her six years in office by allowing the polls to go forward in May and letting the public judge the fate of her allies in the coming congressional and local elections.

Then-Vice President Arroyo was ushered into office following the military-backed ouster of President Joseph Estrada in 2001. That uprising was backed by urban middle class protesters and the church but has left a stain of illegitimacy on her government. She was elected to her own term in 2004 amid allegations of cheating that were later to gain credence when a tape recording surfaced that seemed to show her discussing the vote count with a senior election official.

She has been dogged by impeachment charges since the tape surfaced last year but has managed to withstand the onslaught, largely through the skillful use of her party’s large majority in the House of Representatives.

Her majority in the House has held firm through her many crises but with their own political survival at stake, the numbers may be harder to gather for a constitutional change that was already shot back by the Supreme Court. In October the court ruled that the bid to force a nationwide referendum was marred by fraud in gathering signatures on petitions calling for the change.

In the 23-seat Senate, Arroyo faces some of her toughest critics. Elected by popular nationwide vote, the senators are political stars in their own right and not beholden to Arroyo’s machine for their seats. It is unlikely they will go along with a move that would put them out of business in favor of a parliament.

Some administration senators have also criticized the move, aware of the potential for their own demise in the proposed new system. Senate President Manny Villar has said that a few senators who might attend the planned Con-Ass would not represent the Senate and warned that the Senate would challenge the move before the Supreme Court—should the Lower House force the assembly into existence.

The influential Makati Business Club (MBC) has also called on Arroyo to drop the idea. The group, whose actions helped swing business leaders against both Estrada in 2001 and Marcos in 1986, carries considerable influence with the nation’s elite.

“To continue their efforts now, whether through a reconsideration of the Supreme Court’s decision on the people’s initiative or by forcing a constituent assembly with a reluctant Senate, is to prolong the political uncertainty and division that have hampered our country’s efforts to uplift the welfare of its citizens, particularly the poor and the disadvantaged,” the MBC said in a statement.

Some senators have expressed a willingness to discuss charter change after the May elections in an atmosphere that is relatively free from the appearance that constitutional adjustments are being made to accommodate politicians who are trying to extend their terms in office.

The current constitution imposes strict term limits at all levels and provincial governors and other officials also have been promised that the limits will be removed in the new system. “That ensured our support,” said Josie de la Cruz, the three-term governor of Bulacan, a large politically potent province near Manila. She cannot run for reelection unless the constitution is changed and she was frank in saying that she wants to stay in office. “Term limits have not worked,” she said.

Both de Venecia and former President Fidel Ramos have been trying to get the nation to dance to the cha-cha since the mid-90s. Ramos was widely criticized for trying to extend his one six-year term by changing the constitution and the effort stalled.

There are good reasons to argue for a change. The sole six-year presidential term has the built in limitation of turning the chief executive into an instant lame duck. In effect, the country’s politicians never stop running for president since the sitting president cannot run again (Arroyo gets a longer term because she succeeded Estrada and could stand once on her own.)

But over the years, the idea of changing the term or allowing for a parliamentary shift has been met with stiff public resistance each time it surfaced since many Filipinos are still wary of a repeat of the dictatorial, 20-year rule of former President Ferdinand Marcos.

While Arroyo claims the change in the constitution is essentially aimed at opening up the economy and fostering stability, she has been repeatedly accused of caring less about the country and more about her own political survival in proposing the change.

In October, street protests led by her former vice president Teofisto Guingona and some Roman Catholic Church leaders against the Cha-Cha initiative also called for her ouster and protests are sure to accelerate if she uses her numbers in Congress to force the move. Opposition politicians have said that Cha-Cha is prompted by the administration’s fear of being pummeled in the May elections as corruption scandals and human rights controversies swirl around the Arroyo government.

The respected Social Weather Stations polling organization said in its latest survey that 67 percent of Filipinos would vote “No” to amending the Constitution if a plebiscite were to be held today. Seven of 10 people surveyed don’t want President Arroyo, who has failed to shake off cheating allegations, to be the head of government after her term expires in 2010.

Transparency International, which monitors corruption worldwide, ranks the Philippines among the most corrupt countries in the world, in the same bracket as Rwanda and Honduras. Amnesty International, on the other hand, has sounded the alarm bell over extrajudicial political killings in the country, often targeting leftists. It recorded 51 political killings in the first half of 2006 alone, compare to 66 for the whole of 2005. Local rights group have put the number of such killings at nearly 800 since Arroyo took office in 2001.

The charges add up to a government that may not have the political credibility to change the constitution. Perhaps Cha-Cha is a dance Arroyo should just sit out but at the moment there appears little chance of that.