As fact-resistant as some Filipinos are, there is at least one issue about which they have been consistent. In one survey after another, 75 to 80% of them have repeatedly opposed amending the 1987 “People Power” Constitution. Many are unfamiliar with that document. But others are against amending it because they believe proponents for its change will use it to keep themselves in power.
The initial attempt at amendments alerted them to that possibility. It was hatched during the Fidel Ramos administration (1992-1998), which argued that a parliamentary system and extending the term limits of incumbent government officials would be more responsive to the demands of development and provide continuity in State policies. It was soundly rejected as self-serving — as a shortcut to its advocates’ staying in power beyond 1998.
It was revived during the short-lived Joseph Estrada administration (1998-2001), but its adherents limited their proposed changes to the economic provisions of the Charter, which, they claimed, were “too nationalistic” and discouraged foreign investments. It was again rejected on the argument that removing or amending the protectionist economic provisions of the Constitution would make the country more vulnerable to foreign exploitation.
During the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime (2001-2010), the basic argument for amending the Constitution echoed the economic liberalization focus of the Estrada administration and favored a shift to the parliamentary system. But it was again opposed by various sectors, including much of the business community.
It was Corazon Aquino who, upon ascending to the Presidency after the overthrow of the Marcos kleptocracy at EDSA, created and convened in 1986 the commission that drafted the present Constitution. Elected to the same office in 2010, her son Benigno Aquino III’s opposition to any attempt at amending that document was assailed by his critics as solely due to its being part of his late mother’s legacy. His views were nevertheless supported by most Filipinos.
During the 2016 campaign, then candidate for president Rodrigo Duterte proposed the adoption of a federal form of government, and upon his election convened a consultative committee to study the 1987 Constitution. That body produced a draft mandating the shift to federalism. There were fears that a federal form of government would further strengthen the warlordism that already reigns in many regions. But the regime itself seemed to have lost interest in it.
Despite that history — and despite the need to quickly put in place a safe and reliable mass vaccination program to hasten the revival of the economy ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to provide the millions made jobless by the contagion the continuing aid they and their families need to survive — despite these urgent issues, the allies of Mr. Duterte in the House of Representatives have revived the proposal to amend the Constitution. It is an idea whose claims to life have long gone, a decedent that should have been buried years ago but whose backers still insist on raising from the dead.
Amending the 1987 Constitution is the House version of The Undead not only because it has been widely opposed and consigned to the graveyard of history since the 1990s, it is also because most of the amendments that have been proposed are fraught with danger for the democracy Filipinos think their country to be.
Its current leading initiators say that what they’re after is amending “only” the economic provisions of the Constitution. Most of those articles limit to Filipinos the ownership of land and the media and the practice of the professions, as well as require State partnerships in economic enterprises only with corporations that are 60% owned by Filipino citizens.
The provision on professionals, on land ownership and State partnership, among others, are meant to protect and encourage Filipino businesses and such practitioners as doctors and lawyers. The media, meanwhile, are not only commercial undertakings but also vehicles of information and shapers of opinion. The drafters of the Constitution were well aware of their essential role in the shaping of Filipino mass culture and the democratization of Philippine society. These are responsibilities that cannot be left to foreign-owned media enterprises, which, once operating as Philippine-based businesses, would first and last protect and nurture the interests of the corporations behind them.
The above provisions were included in the Charter for the purposes of national and social development. Yet those who want to amend, or even remove those provisions altogether, belittle their worth.
There is another sense in which amending the Constitution is akin to exposing the country to the walking dead. Despite the proponents’ claim that they intend to have “only” the economic provisions amended, or to amend them themselves via a constituent assembly, once the process starts it will very likely ravage every other provision the oligarchy despises, among them the Charter’s Article II Section 26 mandating the prohibition of political dynasties, and its Bill of Rights.
Despite the Constitutional mandate against political dynasties, Congress has repeatedly balked at passing the enabling law or laws that will implement that provision. Its members have instead either denied the existence of those very real dynasties, or, being themselves part of the families that have monopolized political power in this country for decades, defended them as leaders the country cannot do without.
They have also rejected the thesis that dynastic dominance in Philippine politics and governance is contrary to the democratic imperative of allowing anyone qualified to run for office. And yet the reality is that access to political power is so limited to a handful of families that it prevents others who may be more competent to be in government and to introduce the political, economic and social changes these isles sorely need.
Among the atrocities that have also been proposed are changes to the Bill of Rights by either limiting its application, eliminating parts of it, or adding to Article III Section 4 the phrase “the responsible exercise of,” which would transform its declaration that “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for redress of grievances” into “No law shall be passed abridging the responsible exercise of the freedom of speech…” The insertion of such a phrase would enable any regime to abridge those freedoms on the argument that they are not being responsibly exercised. Proposed some three years ago, nothing can stop it and its variants’ being reintroduced should Congress convene as the constituent assembly the majority prefers.
Any of these and even worse could happen. One need only recall how, even with the provisions the dynasts are likely to target still as intact as when they were first drafted, this country’s political class has managed to go around them and to violate such other Constitutional mandates as those on the right to information and due process when and if it suits them.
The power elite after all know no law. Protected by the culture of impunity they themselves fostered, they are even now ravaging this land and its people at will, unchecked and without accountability. But they need a constitution legitimizing what they have been doing — and whatever else will be to their personal, familial and class interests. They won’t necessarily amend “only” the 1987 Charter’s economic provisions. They could also transform its Bill of Rights into a sham and a mockery of its name, cancel the 2022 elections so they can remain in power indefinitely, and thus complete the country’s rapid descent into barbarism and tyranny.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).