On Charter Change
Volume 20 Number 2
Thursday, 29 June 2006 00:00
Position Paper on Charter Change
Task Force Detainees of the Philippines
Amidst the continuing political crisis and the worsening human rights situation in the Philippines, the government of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo remains steadfast in its efforts to push for charter change. Mrs. Arroyo is hell bent in trying to sway the people to the tune of Cha-Cha.
History repeats itself
Charter change is not something new to the Philippines. During the time of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, through the anomalous Constitutional Convention (ConCon), Marcos changed the 1935 Constitution to give reason and legitimacy to his dictatorship.

During the administration of former President Fidel V. Ramos, he wanted to do something similar. He proposed Cha-Cha and people’s initiative in the form of PIRMA. Ramos did this to extend his term in office which the current Constitution does not permit. The moves to change the charter was just derailed when the Supreme Court junked the petitions PIRMA gathered, and when different sectors, headed by the Church, united to oppose these efforts.

During the time of former President Joseph Estrada, Cha-Cha came to be known as the Constitutional Corrections for Development or Concord. Unlike Ramos who wanted to change the political provisions of the Constitution, it was clear that Estrada wanted to focus on economic changes in the Constitution, particularly on providing foreigners access and the right to own the country’s natural resources.

The Arroyo administration’s Cha-Cha
Today, the Cha-Cha of the Arroyo administration proposes changes in both the political and economic provisions of our Constitution.

There are two major changes proposed by the Cha-Cha of the Arroyo administration. First, it seeks to change the form of government from “bicameral-presidential” to “unicameral-parliamentary”. Second, it aims to change the current Constitution’s economic provisions, specifically on the ownership and control of foreigners of the country’s natural resources.

In the early phase of the administration of Mrs. Arroyo, Cha-Cha was already in her agenda. But because of the various issues that confronted her government (impeachment, “Hello Garci” controversy, fertilizer scam, etc.), Mrs. Arroyo was forced to set Cha-Cha aside. The issue of Cha-Cha only resurfaced when former President Ramos proposed this to Mrs. Arroyo during the height of the political crisis, which almost toppled her administration in June 2005.

In Mrs. Arroyo’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2005, she reiterated the need for Cha-Cha for simultaneous economic and political progress. It was clear to Mrs. Arroyo and her allies that it is Cha-Cha that will save her government from its downfall.

Mrs. Arroyo then formed a Constitutional Commission (ConCom) headed by Jose Abueva, a delegate of ConCon during the time of Marcos and a known advocate for constitutional change. Mrs. Arroyo tasked the ConCom to propose amendments to the current Constitution. In December 2005, ConCom came out with its proposals to be studied by Congress.

Based on the proposals drafted by the ConCom, the first thing to do is to change the form of government. When the parliament has been set up, its members will deliberate on the changes to be made in the Constitution’s economic provisions.

The ConCom also proposed a transitional phase from the presidential to the parliamentary systems of government. This transition entails the suspension of the 2007 elections and the delegation of Mrs. Arroyo as the transitional president until 2010. At the same time, there will be a parliamentary system with a Prime Minister.

What Mrs. Arroyo's government is trying to project is that charter change is the answer to our country's problems. Thus, there is a need to inform the people of what charter change really is and what implications it will bring.

So that the people may know
If the government will succeed in its efforts to push for charter change, there will be a shift in the form of government from “bicameral-presidential” to “unicameral-parliamentary”. The people will no longer exercise their right to vote for the President or the head of state. Only members of the Parliament will choose the Prime Minister.

There will be a powerful Interim Parliament composed of all currently elected government officials. They will be the ones to decide whether elections in 2007 will push through or not.

In the proposed amendments to the 1987 Constitution, the Prime Minister, who is supposed to head the nation like other countries that have a parliamentary form of government, will only have a “ceremonial” post. The authority will still belong to the President, who will also be the one to choose the Prime Minister.

Interim Prime Minister will only perform functions delegated by the President. He or she will be chosen by the President: “The incumbent President, who is the Chief Executive, shall nominate, from among the members of the interim Parliament, an interim Prime Minister, who shall be elected by a majority vote of the members thereof. The interim Prime Minister shall oversee the various ministries and shall perform such powers and responsibilities as may be delegated to him by the incumbent President.(Draft Petition of the people’s initiative, Art. 18, Sec. 5(1); House Resolution 1230, Art. 18, Sec. 6; report of the Consultative Commission on Charter Change, Art. 20, Secs. 12 & 13)
Unlike in the current Constitution where there is a limit in the terms of those in power, charter change will open the door for those in authority to stay on indefinitely.

There is no prohibition in any of the proposals against incumbents, including the President, from running in any parliamentary elections to be held in 2010. Moreover, there is no limit in the number of terms: “Each Member of Parliament…shall be elected by the qualified voters of his district for a term of five years without limitation as to the number thereof…” (Draft Petition of the people’s initiative, Art. 6, Sec. 1(2); House Resolution 1230, Art. 6, Sec. 1(2); report of the Consultative Commission on Charter Change, Art. 7, Sec. 4(1))

Charter change will reduce the system of check and balance. Proposed amendments weaken the Supreme Court’s authority to check against martial law. On the other hand, the amendment gives more power to the President to declare it.

A proposed amendment from the report of the Consultative Commission on Charter Change deletes the following section:
The Supreme Court may review, in an appropriate proceeding filed by any citizen, the sufficiency of the factual basis of the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ or the extension thereof, and must promulgate its decision thereon within thirty days from its filing.
(Art. 9, Sec. 2)

Another proposed amendment from the same report states:
And restores to the President the power to declare martial law in “imminent danger…” of rebellion, which was used by President Marcos to declare martial law but which was removed in the 1987 Constitution.
(Art. A, Sec. 12)

The changes needed
The Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) agrees that there are changes that need to be made in the 1987 Constitution. But now is not the time. This should not be the priority of Mrs. Arroyo’s administration. Her government needs to pay attention to a number of things, and charter change is not included in this list.

Firstly, there is still the question of massive fraud during the 2004 elections and Mrs. Arroyo’s unaccountability for all the issues she is facing. Cha-Cha is not only being used to divert people’s attention. Moreover, if Cha-Cha will succeed, Mrs. Arroyo and her supporters will continue to remain in power, when she should be facing the charges against her.

Aside from this, the continuing increase in the cases of human rights violations during the Arroyo administration is truly alarming. The surge of involuntary disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings of journalists, lawyers, members of militant groups, activists, and human rights defenders are more than enough for the government not to take action. The government has formed task forces to investigate these cases, but what is the assurance that the investigations being made will resolve the cases of human rights violations, and not further bury the truth?

It is recognized that there are problems in our Constitution and reforms have to be done, but now is not the time to do this. If amendments are to be made, there is a need to ensure that the current problems our country is facing, most of which are caused by those currently in power, are first resolved. And it should be emphasized that whatever reform is to be made, it should be consistent with the concepts and principles of human rights.

The government has the obligation to ensure that at all times, people’s human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. Whatever power or authority the government has came from the people, therefore any reform or change that will take place should be for and according to their interest.
In the end, the reform that people should push for should serve to give power to the people themselves towards the strengthening and broadening of their democratic participation in the country’s political and economic aspects.

True reform can only happen when there is an end to the unequal distribution of wealth and power does not rest in the hands of a few.

Genuine Cha-Cha will not start from Malacañang or Congress, but will be a result of the people’s struggle towards social change. And this change will bring forth the new form of institution and laws that will represent the interest of the people and will pave the way for the establishment of a system that will promote all human rights for all.

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