A Pandora’s Box?
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - July 19, 2018 - 12:00am

Even for certain persons who favor federalism, there are three questions being debated. First, is this the proper time and the right environment to propose radical changes in our Constitution? Second, is Congress sitting as a constituent assembly the right body to  prepare a draft constitution for submission to a national plebiscite? Third, is the process of constitutional change a  Pandora’s Box ? Please note that I said the “process,” not the proposed draft charter. 

Pandora’s Box is a tale from Greek mythology. Today, this story has become figurative language that means: “Any source of great and unexpected troubles” or “A present which seems valuable but is in reality a curse.”

I believe that the draft charter prepared by the constitutional committee deserves to be taken seriously as the basis for further debates. Unfortunately, this debate is now being overshadowed by comments from politicians that are overshadowing any substantial discussion on the merits of federalism. 

Serious doubts on the process for constitutional change have arisen because of all the talk about suspending or cancelling the 2019 elections. There is the growing suspicion that politicians will use this process as an excuse to extend their term of office without the electoral process. The chair of the ConCom, former Chief Justice Puno has said that a shift to federalism must be accompanied by a ban on political dynasties. Almost 80 percent of Congress is composed of political dynasties. There will be an obvious conflict of interest for a constituent assembly composed of Congress. 

This vital issue on banning political dynasties is being muddled by calls for removal of term limits which give rise to the perception that congressmen will seek to advance their personal interests in the drafting of a proposed constitution. 

It would be a different story if the draft charter prepared by the ConCom will be presented to the Filipino people without any further amendments. But it is beginning to look like this will not be the case. It has been pointed out that Congress has prepared a different draft charter and no one is sure, at this moment, what the contents of the final draft charter that will be submitted for voting in a national plebiscite will be.

A recent statement, by a group of academicians, on the process of reviewing and possibly amending the Constitution is worth taking into consideration, because it includes prominent academicians who are for federalism and against federalism. 

The academicians said: “We do not support calls to channel this reform through a constituent assembly. Almost 80 percent of Congress is comprised of political dynasties and the empirical evidence suggests that a majority of them may face a deep conflict if a new constitution aims for reforms that level the political  playing field. The risk of capture by vested interests affecting our present politics is too great.”

My personal concern is that the proposed process may lead to further division and political instability. The priority now is to address the current economic issues that are confronting the country at present. This was highlighted by the academicians in their statement: “A constitution is supposed to bind our nation in common values and shared vision. It is the very glue that should unite us all in common purpose...If we are to amend the Constitution, we must invest  not just in the outcome but in the very process...This is a broad discussion that must bring together our citizens from all walks of life, professions and political leanings. It is a national discourse that must allay fears, clarify concerns and bring us all toward common ground.”

In a recent interview I recall that Dean Mendoza, who is in favor of federalism, also wondered whether now is the “federalist moment.” That statement seems to imply that this may not be the right time to introduce federalism to our country. The present government is publicly espousing federalism; but its own NEDA head, Ernesto Pernia has warned that the regions may not be ready for a shift to federalism. Also, he says that any shift may have a negative effect on the nation’s balance sheet. 

All these doubts and statements are evidence that the process for constitutional change should not be rushed. There should be sufficient time to conduct a real national debate and education on the merits of federalism. The dialogue should also include a closer look at other proposals in the draft.  It seems that the public has become consumed with the federalism debate and has overlooked other major provisions that are being recommended. 

I also have some reservations on the Transitory Provisions. The powers of the Transition Commission need further clarifications. My own question is what will happen to Congress during the transition period? What happens if there is disagreement between the Senate and the Transition Commission? 

I am seriously concerned that the proposed process on constitutional change through a constituent assembly will not lead to a real national discourse that will include all sectors of society. The recent surveys show that the public needs to be educated about the proposed shift to federalism. 

I can understand the apprehension among even those who favor federalism that the proposed process of vesting the powers to change the Constitution in the hands of Congress is a potential “ Pandora’s Box.” I suggest that even before we start the debates on the proposed changes in the Constitution, we first debate and resolve the issue on choosing a process that will allay the fears of exploitation by vested interests. 

The Filipino people deserve a process that will lead to a national consensus on a constitution that will reflect the shared vision of the people and not just the political and economic elite. 

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on July 21, August 4 and 18 (1:30pm-3pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC.  For details and registration contact 0945-2273216 or writethingsph@gmail.com.

 Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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