FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

There is fresh talk among our congressmen about Charter change. The subject revives the exasperation I have nursed for over three decades.

During the campaign to ratify the 1987 Constitution, I wrote a lengthy essay titled “Ratifying a Yellow Charter.” I remember it because this was probably the most exasperated essay I ever wrote.

In this essay, I went through all the items in the draft charter I felt were wrong and would eventually compromise the nation’s future. That listing missed out what eventually turns out to be the document’s biggest flaw: It made itself almost impermeable to constitutional renovation.

We are stuck with a constitutional framework that saps the vitality of our nation’s progress and yet there was never enough of a constituency to drive charter change. The extent to which this constitutional framework disables us seems far too complex for most people to readily understand.

I disagreed with the manner the draft charter constitutionalized our economic policies. That preempts policy-making and enshrines an economic nationalist orthodoxy that failed everywhere it was attempted.

Our worst fears about constitutionalizing economic policy was borne out over the past three decades. We received the lowest share of investment flows among the core ASEAN economies. We are back to our old role as the Sick Man of Asia with a protectionist economy that discouraged trade as a driver of growth.

I have always felt that a parliamentary system will serve our democratic consolidation better. It would encourage a healthy political party system and foster public consideration of contending policy positions. This will be more healthful for building a deliberative democracy for our people.

My friends in the Cory Aquino establishment mostly agreed the parliamentary option will serve the nation better. But during our discussions, one question constantly cropped up: What to do about Cory Aquino?

They felt it was too dangerous to displace her. That would open too many wild possibilities. In the end, the presidential form of government was adopted (by a single swing vote) by the Constitutional Commission handpicked by Cory. The choice was dictated by the most shortsighted pragmatism.

I disagreed with restoring the first-past-the-pole system of district representation. It would only encourage reviving the political dynasties. That it did quite effectively.

In response to criticism the system of representation that dynasts will be revived, the framers of the Charter we now have introduced term limits. That was a harebrained idea. Term limits prevented our voters from retaining good leaders. The dynasts simply maneuvered around term limits to maintain their stranglehold over political power.

Term limits did not reward good performers and did not at all foster constant transfusion of the political class. We have the current political elite as testimony to that failing.

I disagreed with restoring a Senate, elected at large. This was a ploy by Quezon to strengthen his party’s dominance during the Commonwealth period. Post-1987, this system favored celebrity politicians. With a weak political party system, actors and athletes who already enjoyed name-recall dominated senatorial elections.

The bicameral legislature was an expensive institution to maintain, consuming hundreds of billions from the national coffers. It is a costly duplication of functions and resulted in a long and tedious legislative process.

Today, the Senate is building a P15-billion edifice to itself. Each time the possibility of constitutional reform is raised, the senators oppose change. They fear charter change will install a saner unicameral assembly and deny them their perks.

The Senate will obstruct constitutional reform in the future as it did in the past. The chamber’s institutional interest has become deeply embedded.

Despite my long list of objections, I campaigned for ratification of the Cory Constitution with all its imperfections. The political group I belonged to supported ratification – for the most pragmatic reasons. Ratification of the flawed document will help stabilize the situation. The sooner we institutionalize the new constitutional order, the lesser the chance of military coups and insurrections happening.

Responding to my misgivings, colleagues in this political group assured that we could introduce reforms further down the road after we have consolidated democratic restoration.

The 1987 Constitution resurrects the 1935 Constitution – but adds more flaws such as term limits, the constitutionalization of economic policies and this nebulous concept of party-list representation. All those added flaws impaired our national progress as the past three decades bear out. We might have done better simply resurrecting the 1935 Charter.

In 1997, I joined the group Pirma which tried to introduce constitutional reforms on the basis of the people’s initiative – a novel mechanism introduced in the 1987 Charter. That mechanism proved to be quixotic.

When Joseph Estrada was president, I consulted with the technocrats working to amend the economic provisions of the charter. Nothing happened.

In 2005, I sat as commissioner at the Consultative Commission for Charter Change. We worked long days and nights fashioning a new draft charter. But without the support of the Senate, the effort was doomed.

I had given up investing time and effort trying to reform the flawed constitutional order that continues to drag us down.

I am not yet jumping into this new bandwagon for Charter change, sensing it to be another futile charge. I will hold out to see if a constituency for constitutional renovation had formed in the meantime.

The 1987 Constitution is a curse that keeps us bound to obsolete economic orthodoxies and condemns us to underdevelopment. But there has to be something akin to revolutionary ferment to make change possible.

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