Changing a nation’s constitution

CHASING THE WIND - Felipe B. Miranda -
Changing the Philippine Constitution has become a popular topic again. Many people identified with the Arroyo administration are brokering a change from the present presidential system to a parliamentary one. Other partisans, some of also favoring parliamentary change, are lobbying to have the current unitary government replaced with a federal system.

Several detailed constitutional amendments are also being proposed. Current constraints on alien access to the nation’s natural resources and its public utilities are perceived by some quarters to be chauvinistic impediments to national development. Their replacement by less nationalistic, allegedly more pragmatic provisions are deemed vitally needed if the ailing economy is to recover and its sustainable development to proceed.

The current discussion also includes the modality for effecting constitutional change. There are people who believe that a constitutional convention rather than a constituent assembly of legislators is the proper body to undertake this critical task. The first alternative makes the public elect delegates to the constitutional convention while the second empowers Congress to select from its members those who would act as a constituent assembly.

There is much animated discussion regarding these various proposals. Proponents of these changes and those in opposition occasionally may become emotional and cross the boundaries of civil discourse. Personalistic remarks and innuendos have unfortunately become part of the vitriolic debate on constitutional change.

Like so many national debates, this one often misses the point. A poet once acidly remarked: "As to forms of government, let fools contend; what is best administered is best." Nominal changes in governmental forms often fail to bring about desired changes in popular governance. Whether the Philippines goes parliamentary or presidential in its form of government, whether it remains unitary or federal in its political administration, the welfare of most Filipinos can remain abysmally ignored.

The proposals being considered now seek to change a paper constitution. Ultimately, like other changes in the past, they will change little in the effective governance of this country. One needs to address the organic political constitution of the Philippines, not the much trumpeted documents that have little connection with the political realities of this nation. One has to consider constitutional change as political scientists over two thousand years ago properly understood it to mean – a change in the fundamental character of a nation’s political regime. Who rule for whose benefit in what way is the central concern of this kind of constitutional change.

In the particular case of the Philippines, the issue of constitutional change is properly focused on replacing an enduring oligarchy with an operational democracy. This issue is not amenable to solution by formal changes that divert attention from the reality of ruling elites – often veritable political dynasties – with little accountability to their people. At best, these changes in forms delude the naive into romanticizing an oligarchic political regime as a functional democracy or at least a democratizing one. They also facilitate the ruling authorities’ fiction of serving the nation even as they systematically beggar the people and plunder the resources of Filipinos yet to be born.

Nominal constitutional change would have people believe that a change in political labels is the full equivalent of a substantive political change, that a nominal change in the country’s political structures leads to a radical alteration in the organic constitution of the political regime itself. Nothing could be more wrong. Without a fundamental regime change, parliaments and federations could proliferate and nothing would change much in this country.

Even the modality of change that figures prominently in current discussions of constitutional change promises to be a red herring. Most of the country’s legislators – much like their counterpart authorities in other branches of government – have repeatedly proven themselves undeserving of public trust. The test is not in their brilliant rhetoric about pursuing the national interest but in their demonstrated performance that regularly leaves the nation impoverished, in ever-deepening debt and ever-increasing desperation.

A particularly revealing indicator of their constitutional loyalty is the extent to which they would facilitate political dynasties – an explicit abomination of the 1987 paper constitution. To date, those tasked with enabling the anti-dynastic constitutional provision have proven feckless in discharging their responsibilities. A constituent assembly of such legislators cannot be expected to do well by the nation, whether they go parliamentary or federal in foisting a most superficial change in constitutional politics.

As for the proposed constitutional convention, the candidates from whom the people will elect their delegates must come largely from political parties and other groups that traditionally had dominated Philippine politics and shown themselves unable or unwilling to serve the nation well. How can Filipinos expect from such delegates the kind of constitutional change that affects the fundamental character of their political regime? Until such time as a much more enlightened and politically empowered people learn to demand better candidates than their political stakeholders so far have provided, constitutional change via a constitutional convention will be no more than a naïve hope, another consuelo de bobo. It may make many people feel good, but it will not do them or their nation much good.

Serious constitutional change cannot be plotted within the time frame of the present administration. It is a political task that requires educating the citizenry, organizing them and finally getting them to exact accountability from their authorities. Rising to this challenge and mastering it, it will hardly matter whether this nation’s government remained presidential and unitary or became parliamentary and/or federal. Whatever form it takes, governance will be democratic and will reliably be good for Filipinos – a most radical, substantive transformation of the nation’s political constitution.

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