Con job in the Philippines – Asia Times


DILI — Since the 14th Philippine Congress opened in July 2007, over 30 measures aimed at revising the post-revolutionary 1987 Constitution have been proposed, the dry legality often offset by catchy acronym nicknames such as ‘CON-ASS’, ‘CON-CON’ and ‘CHA-CHA’.

These have provided rich pickings for tabloid headline writers and online rabble rousers, with one such item now doing the cyber-rounds listing the “CON-ASS-HOLES” who backed the latest move to change the constitution.

The item refers to those in Congress who on June 2 voted in favor of Resolution 1109, which would allow the lower house of representatives to vote itself into a so-called constituent assembly (CON-ASS) — without the support of the upper house, or Senate.

CON-ASS, it is believed, will pave the way for constitutional or charter change (CHA-CHA), a move that could enable President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to extend her term in office beyond the six years mandated by the current constitution.

If the president gets her way, the change would raise questions over whether 2010 presidential elections will go ahead as planned.

Ava Patricia Avila, a research analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that the Philippine Constitution states that a constituent assembly may be formed by a vote of three-quarters of all members of congress, but does not state whether the vote must be held separately in the House of Representatives and Senate.

“The way this resolution was approved has been questioned by many as unconstitutional,” said Avila. “It does not follow the process written out to form a constituent assembly…only the Supreme Court can now decide whether this is constitutional or not.”

But irrespective of what the Supreme Court decides, the Filipino people could also want a say in the process.

So-called “people power” public protests were born in the Philippines, bringing down the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and the corruption-ridden Joseph Estrada administration in 2001.

The latter uprising, which installed Arroyo as president “as much a quasi-constitutional coup as anything else,” according to Hal Hill, professor of Southeast Asian Economies at Australian National University.

Still, this is not the first time that a sitting President has sought to change the 1987 charter. Fidel Ramos gave it a shot before his six-year term ended in 1998. Dictator Marcos subverted the previous charter in 1972, when his second and final four year term in office was due to expire.

In the country that gave the world the term ‘crony capitalism,’ it is significant that parts of the Filipino business community have come out strongly against CON-ASS. Corporate moguls are thought to be running the rule over and quietly backing various candidates ahead of the 2010 elections. Such machinations are likely to affect how the business community reacts to CON-ASS and whatever ensues.

A press statement released by the Makati Business Club (MBC) pulled no punches, saying, “we are appalled at the indecency and blatant disregard of the Filipino people’s will displayed by the House of Representatives…that allows itself to convene as a Constituent Assembly to amend the Constitution, without the necessary participation of the Senate. “

The MBC, which includes as board members many of the country’s major corporate movers and shakers, is “against charter change at this time and by the method of converting Congress into a Constituent Assembly.”

“We prefer that it be done after the 2010 election and that a Constitutional Convention (CON-CON) be called for the purpose,” said Alberto Lim, the group’s executive director.

But it seems that some business owners are in Arroyo’s camp. The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) asked that the government focus on economic need, as the foreign remittance-dependent country grapples with the global downturn.

A statement from PCCI president Edgardo Lacson said vaguely, “If the proposed amendments to the Constitution are premised on specific provisions that aim to enhance the country’s competitive position globally, business will be willing to support it.”

Madam prime minister

CON-CON is a procedural alternative to CON-ASS, where a two-thirds congressional majority can call for the formation of a convention to amend the constitution. Alternatively, a majority vote in congress can pass the question to the electorate on whether to call for CON-CON. The third option would be for the electorate to directly propose CHA-CHA through a petition of at least 12% of all registered voters – of which each legislative district must be represented by at least 3% of registered voters.

Arroyo’s political allies are not polling well enough to win the upcoming election. Some – notably current vice-president and ex-broadcast journalist Noli de Castro – may even defect or form separate parties.

Local media is buzzing with speculation that Arroyo is planning to stand as a parliamentary candidate in 2010, coinciding with the end of her tenure as president.

This would fit with a CON-ASS scheme that aims to amend the constitution to replace the current presidential system with of a Westminster-style parliamentary one.

Arroyo could then focus on being voted in as prime minister, the executive authority under a parliamentary government.

Some of Arroyo’s backers in the House of Representatives believe there is enough time to amend the constitution and secure a Supreme Court ruling before the 2010 polls. Representatives Jose Solis and Rodolfo Antonino of the pro-Arroyo Lakas-Kampi-CMD party were recently quoted saying that the House would convene a CON-ASS even without the Senate’s approval, most likely after the President’s July 27 State of the Nation Address.

The last time the Supreme Court ruled on something as significant as CON-ASS was last year, when it shot down the constitutionality of the proposed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain [MOA-AD], a latest attempt to pacify the southern Philippines and bring an end to a long running Muslim insurgency against the Catholic-dominated government.

The MOA-AD would have given control of around 700 additional towns and villages on Mindanao to Muslim authorities, extending the autonomy granted under earlier peace deals aiming to end a long-running rebellion in the south.

Jun Muntawil, a member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace team, said  that “there are no official comments yet from the MILF on the move to amend the Philippine Constitution. But the general view here, from both the public and government officials, especially from the oppositions, is it is a move to extend the term of the president.”

Though the southern peace process may seem a completely separate issue to CON-ASS, last year’s decision may have set relevant legal and social precedents. The MOA-AD was deemed contrary to the constitution, prompting the Supreme Court shoot down the Malaysian-brokered deal with the stinging assessment that “the furtive process by which the [deal] was designed and crafted runs contrary to and in excess of the legal authority, and amounts to a whimsical, capricious, oppressive, arbitrary and despotic exercise thereof.”

Whether the Supreme Court will come to a similar conclusion about CON-ASS remains to be seen. Given the violence that took place on Mindanao after the MOA-AD was legally blocked last year, some wonder whether a ruling against CON-ASS – with the right mix of political, clerical and military backing – could sway sufficient numbers of protestors into taking to the streets.

“What unfolded in the House was not charter change,” said Avila. “It was a proclamation of intent to embark on a path leading straight to a constitutional crisis.”

There have been protests already against attempts to change the constitution. But if the court rules against Arroyo, it seems unlikely that tens of thousands people will get worked up enough to help the president to extend her term of office.

Nor, even if the court vindicates the passing of resolution 1109, does it seem likely that people will protest in their droves, even if Arroyo gets her way.

“I think its stretching credulity to see [People’s Power III] coming from this,” said Hal Hill.

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