The inflation rate remains sky-high. Low productivity is putting the country’s food security at risk. Filipino fisherfolk are unable to fish in much of the Philippines’ own waters. Poverty and hunger are devastating millions. Entire regions are flooded and reeling from the onslaught of climate change. The pandemic is still a problem, and the economy yet to recover.
But to some of the allies of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., none of these seems as urgent as amending the 1987 Constitution so they can correct its supposed “imperfections.”
The House of Representatives Committee on Constitutional Amendments will begin hearings by Jan. 26 on proposed resolutions calling for constitutional amendments through a constituent assembly of both houses of Congress.
Senator Robin Padilla, the only non-lawyer to chair the Senate counterpart of the House Committee, has repeatedly stressed the “urgency” of amendments that would enable the Constitution to “keep up with the times,” although he has not been clear on the specifics of doing that.
Even Presidential Legal Counsel Juan Ponce Enrile has echoed the call for a constituent assembly, although apparently not to amend, but to totally do away with the 1987 Constitution and to draft a new one.
Many Filipinos are unfamiliar with the particulars of their country’s Constitution, but every opinion poll has found that they oppose amending it because they fear that its proponents will use the opportunity to keep themselves in power.
The behavior of past regimes suggests that it can indeed happen.
Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., for example, initiated the drafting of a new Constitution during his last years in office so he could run for a third term, which, under the provisions of the 1936 Constitution, was not possible. He proclaimed it in force in January 1973, and based his staying in office beyond that year on its provisions.
Amendments to the 1987 Constitution could indeed include extending the terms of office of incumbent officials. But equally possible and as dangerous is that among the possible changes could be the weakening of the Bill of Rights, and the repeal of the limits on the President’s power to declare martial law.
The first proposal to amend the 1987 Constitution was made 10 years after it went into effect. In 1997, the outgoing Ramos administration argued that a parliamentary system and extending the terms of incumbent officials would be more responsive to the demands of development and ensure the continuity of an administration’s policies, beginning with those of Ramos’ own. Because many thought it a shortcut to its advocates’ staying in power beyond 1998, the citizenry rejected the idea.
During the Joseph Estrada administration, its adherents limited their proposed changes to the economic provisions of the Charter that they said discouraged foreign investments. It was again rejected, but the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime, which favored a shift to the parliamentary system, echoed its focus on economic “liberalization.” It was again opposed by various sectors, including much of the business community.
Elected President in 2010, Benigno Aquino III opposed any attempt at amending that document, which, after all, was among his late mother’s legacies. Upon ascending the Presidency in 1986, Corazon Aquino convened the commission that drafted the most liberal Constitution in Philippine history.
Then candidate Rodrigo Duterte proposed during the 2016 presidential campaign the adoption of a federal form of government, and upon his election created a consultative committee to study the 1987 Constitution. That body produced a draft mandating a shift to federalism. But the regime seemed to lose interest in it in the face of its problems with the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the economy, and with its failing “war on drugs,” the human costs of which had called the attention of the International Criminal Court.
No constitution is so perfect as to remain unchanged, but once begun by the illiberal wing of the oligarchy currently in power, amending the present one could further endanger whatever remains of Philippine democracy.
Most of its advocates say that they want “only” the economic provisions of the Constitution amended, such as those limiting to Filipinos ownership of land and the mass media and the practice of the professions, as well as those requiring State partnerships in economic enterprises only with corporations that are 60% owned by Filipino citizens.
The provision on professionals, land ownership, and State partnerships are meant to protect and encourage Filipino businesses and such practitioners as doctors and lawyers. The mass media, meanwhile, are not only commercial undertakings; they are also vehicles of information and shapers of opinion. Those responsibilities cannot be left to foreign-owned media enterprises, which, once operating as Philippine-based businesses, would first and last protect the interests of the corporations behind them.
The consequences of amending the economic provisions of the Constitution may not be as purely beneficial as they seem to be — and the process could also open the gates to the amendment or even the abolition of those provisions the ruling oligarchy despises, among them the Charter’s Article II Section 26 mandating a ban on political dynasties, and Article III, the Bill of Rights.
Congress has repeatedly refused to pass the enabling law that will implement the anti-dynasty provision of the Constitution. Its members have instead either denied the existence of those very real dynasties, or, themselves being part of such families, defended their continuing dominance in politics and governance.
They also reject the thesis that dynastic dominance in politics and governance prevents those who may not be as privileged but who are better qualified to run for public office. Access to political power is so limited to a handful of families that it denies the Philippines the services in government of the more competent who can introduce the political, economic, and social changes that are needed for the country to move forward.
Among the atrocities that have been proposed in the past are changes to the Bill of Rights by 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….”
Those were obvious attempts to enable any regime to diminish the freedoms protected by Article III. Nothing can stop their or their variations’ being reintroduced should Congress convene as the constituent assembly the majority — and Juan Ponce Enrile — prefer as the means of amending the Constitution.
Any or all of the above, 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 drafted, they have succeeded in violating such rights as those of free expression, press freedom, and due process.
The proposals for a constituent assembly to amend the Constitution suggest that the power elite still needs one that would legitimize what they have been doing and whatever else will redound to their personal, familial, and class interests. Not necessarily would they amend “only” the 1987 Charter’s economic provisions. They could also transform its Bill of Rights into a mockery of its own name, forego the next elections, and complete the country’s ongoing descent into another tyranny.
The 1987 Constitution may not be perfect, but as things stand today, it is all we have.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).