Philippines Inc. supports Cha-cha, but not now

The House leadership is pushing to amend restrictive economic provisions in the Charter, but business groups are cautious. “PCCI is cautious at the timing and manner by which the Constitution is being proposed to be amended,” Benedicto Yujuico, president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said in a statement.
The STAR/Felicer Santos

MANILA, Philippines — A legislator said over the weekend that business groups support amending the charter’s economic provisions. He was right, except that some of those groups do not want amendments to be introduced now.

Businesspeople, who have time and again asked that foreign restrictions in the Constitution be lifted, are repulsive to the sudden revival of such effort at the House of Representatives 15 months before Filipinos select a new set of leaders.

“PCCI is cautious at the timing and manner by which the Constitution is being proposed to be amended,” Benedicto Yujuico, president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said in a statement.

The country’s largest business group was likewise backed by the Makati Business Club, another industry group, which said revisiting the 33-year-old charter with the May 2022 presidential polls fast approaching “will only raise fears that other constitutional changes…may be introduced and passed.”

“Thus, any attempt at Charter Change now will be highly divisive at a time when our country still needs to be totally united in our efforts to overcome the ill effects of the pandemic,” MBC said in a statement.

PCCI was included in the “matrix” of business groups released by Ako Bicol party-list Rep. Alfredo Garbin Jr., chair of the House committee on constitutional amendments, who last week abruptly revived the Cha-cha train upon instructions from no less than House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco.

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Apart from PCCI, Garbin also mentioned the American Chamber of Commerce, Management Association of the Philippines, Philippine Mining and Exploration Association, and Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines. AmCham executive director Ebb Hinchcliffe said he is supportive of the Lower’s House’s move now, while MAP has not responded to request for comment.

Cha-cha has always been a tough sell to the Filipino wary that tinkering with the charter would usher a power grab from public officials currently in power. Velasco, in trying to sell Cha-cha, did not only say that only restrictive economic provisions will be touched, he also said that the plebiscite to ratify the changes would be simultaneously held with the May 2022 polls.

The plan, pending at the Lower House, is to insert the phrase “otherwise provided by law” in Article XII (National Patrimony and Economy), Article XIV (Education, Science and Technology, Arts, Culture, and Sports), and Article XVI (General Provisions). Easing these prohibitions, Velasco said, would help the Philippines attract foreign investments.

But Sergio Ortiz-Luis, president of the Employers Confederation of the Philippines, another industry group, is unconvinced. “I don’t think anybody can guarantee that since once you open it all bets are off,” he said in a phone interview.

“I don’t think it’s the right time to bring this up now, especially it’s not very clear what is needed at this moment,” said Ortiz-Luis, also president of the Philippine Exporters Confederation Inc.

Indeed, at the Senate, Senate President Vicente Sotto III is speaking a slightly different tone with regards to Cha-cha. Apart from economic provisions, he said President Rodrigo Duterte wanted to amend provisions on party-list representation in Congress supposedly to quell the communist rebellion.

The Communist Party of the Philippines is not a member of the legislature, but the government had been “red-tagging” leftist and opposition groups, without evidence. 

For PCCI, the simplistic approach to charter change is quite worrisome. “While it may be the fastest option, inserting the provision ‘unless otherwise provided by law’ in sections of the Constitution that limit foreign equity to 40% in business ventures that are considered of critical interest to the Filipino people, could potentially weaken the country’s highest law by making it easier for ordinary legislation to amend the Constitution,” Yujuico said.

For its part, MBC said any constitutional change should wait until new leaders had been elected, adding that charter amendments should be introduced “within the first 12 months of their term.”

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