TURNING POINT Rethinking Charter Change

NAWAAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews/24 Aug) — The Philippine Constitution has not been amended since its adoption in 1987. There had been several attempts to tinker with it for some noble or selfish purpose: all failed for one reason or another, foremost of which was massive public opposition.

I like to believe, however, that most Filipinos are in favor and not actually against charter change. The opposition in the past and at present is not so much on the proposed amendments, which would be still subject to national debate and scrutiny, but on the underlying political agenda of the proponents. This is particularly true of cha-cha proposals coming from Malacañang where proposed change has always been waged alongside the purpose of extending the term of the tenant of the palace.

Attempts to amend or revise the Constitution are directed generally to (1) creating an economic atmosphere favourable to equitable and sustainable growth and development; and (2) establishing a political structure that responds to cultural and geographic realities, assures political equity, participation and accountability, and effective delivery of services.

On the economic side, advocates of amendments or revision want to remove the patriotic provisions in the Constitution that prohibit foreign ownership of our national patrimony, particularly land. The restrictive provisions are perceived to discourage foreign investments to which our weak economy and underdevelopment is attributed. Proponents of economic liberalization want to open our land and our national resources to exploitation by those who have the dough regardless where they may come from. Doing this would attract more investors and would lead, accordingly, to our economic prosperity.

But what really is the situation on the ground on this issue? It should be known that many of our lands, many of our national resources are, for all intents and purposes, already in the hands of foreign nationals. You go to the famous tourist destinations in this country in such places as Boracay and Panglao and the locals will tell you that the prime lots there are already owned by the Swiss, Belgians, Germans, Americans, Koreans, Japanese, and what have you. The strategy of land acquisition and use is for foreign nationals to marry locals or hire dummy partners and, presto, these aliens may now do business in our blighted shores.

The truth, however, is that foreign investors are not interested in owning lands but in using them to serve their business interests. Land titles remain in the names of their Filipino mistresses, second or third wives, or gambling and drinking buddies but the profits derived from their economic activities remain intact in foreign hands.

Ownership is not the issue. Allowing foreign investors to lease or rent lands in terms that are reasonable and beneficial to both the leasee and the leasor might be sufficient. The arrangement of Del Monte pineapple plantation and the small landowners and agrarian reform beneficiaries in Bukidnon is one good template to look into in land utilization by a multi-national corporation.

If we train our sight to mining, fishing, and other resource extractive enterprises, the scenario is similar but is worsened by corruption. I witnessed a coastal community in Cagayan Valley that was physically shrinking because a Chinese mining firm had been sucking its shores for blacksand 24 hours a day. I don’t think this could occur without the knowledge, arrangement and de facto approval of the local government and DENR officials in the area. Indeed, if there is one need to amend our Constitution it is to come up with stringent provisions to stop aliens from hoodwinking us and to impose severe punishments to public officials who betray their mandate to protect our national patrimony.

The other primary argument for Charter change is the perception that our current government structure does not usher the country to national development. Our presidential form of government, with its bicameral legislative body, is not, accordingly, politically efficient and effective and economically responsive. There is so much delay in the passage of laws, especially if the executive and the legislative departments are of different opposing parties. The executive and the legislative departments may lock horns and forfeit cooperation and unity for holistic governance.

The Senate and the House of Representatives may also clash on many agenda, economic and otherwise, that would only derail important legislative interventions to improve the quality of life of the people. On the other hand, if the lower and upper houses are in good terms, a let-alone policy operates where the energies of the lawmakers are channeled in developing and protecting their own turfs rather than in pursuing development with a national perspective.

Consider, for instance, the irrational proliferation of state universities and colleges in the home turfs of politicians. This practice spreads out unnecessarily thin the resources of the government and does not warrant delivery of quality education. Many SUCs amount to nothing but disgraceful monuments of their authors. And when you factor the huge resources in pork barrel spent on meaningless patronage projects or ghost projects as in the Napoles scam, you start to question the sanity of the entire system.

It is contended that to become more efficient and effective and to stop or curb corruption to the minimum the solution is to shift from presidential to a unicameral parliamentary form of government.

Well, in theory, a parliamentary form of government appears to be an efficient and effective governance structure. The executive and the legislative bodies blend and become one integrated working machine. The parliament elects the head of state, the prime minister, from among the members themselves, and also appoints heads of ministries (departments) from the same membership to implement legislations or programs of government.

This system avoids the proverbial delays in legislation and execution of government laws and programs which seems to characterize the presidential form of government. This is only true, however, if the members of government are dominated by a single party. But if the parliament is multi-party in composition, then it is all hell for everyone. There would be stalemates and paralyses in the operations of government as interests and directions of governance differ and clash. There would be constant abolition of government (ministries, the entire parliament, the removal of the head of government) for loss of confidence, operational paralysis, and for other reasons.

Considering the political mentality of Filipino politicians, the parliamentary system won’t likely work for us.

It is commonly observed that if a politician is not accommodated as a candidate of his party, he moves to the other party. If he could not be entertained there, he would form his own political party. The multiparty situation in our current political arena results from this political immaturity.

On the other hand, how is corruption eliminated or curbed in a parliamentary form of government?

Corruption is not spawned or stopped by the structure of government but by the people who run it. In fact, a parliamentary form of government run by a single party with members of corrupt tendencies may yet become an apparatus for grand scale corruption as they can easily connive, agree and unite to pursue their selfish interest. Come to think of it, the government is only as good and honest as the people who run it.

Now the sitting President, Benigno C. Aquino III, is sizzling to amend the fundamental law of the land after his raging conflict with the Supreme Court on his economic initiatives. The President is quite transparent and specific on his purpose: to clip the over-reaching power of the Supreme Court and stop it as an obstacle to economic development. This jerky reaction of the President to the decision of the highest tribunal which was not in his favor is so un-presidential, a childish political tantrum to say the least. His political dependents, of course, want more than what he is aiming at: to go for constitutional reforms to allow the President an opportunity for another term and for them to remain in his grace. The other specifics of charter change and how it would be done remains unclear at the moment.

If ever cha-cha would be pursued to correct the deformities and weaknesses of our government system, it may be worth considering the past proposals of Mindanao political leaders Atty Reuben Canoy and Senator Nene Pimentel: to shift from a presidential to a parliamentary federal republic. This may be timely and helpful in the advent of the proposed Bangsamoro autonomy.

In a parliamentary federal government, the role of the central or federal government is more focused on national defense, foreign relations, monetary system, and in providing general direction and coordination to the components federal units.

More power is allocated to the autonomous local governments or component states to charter their own progress and development. It is now the call of the political and economic leaders of each autonomous state. There would be no more imperial Manila to blame, so to speak, for their inefficiency, backwardness and stagnation, in case.

An empowered local government may be able to work closer to the people; and responsibility and accountability in governance would be easier to locate and identify. It is more expedient therefore to monitor and curb corruption and other illegal activities in the system.

Moreover, the localization of economic activities would disperse infrastructure development to different parts of the archipelago away from the congested and over-invested Metropolitan Manila. In this set up, development may be more rapid and equitable throughout the country.

From the look of it, there is more hope for Mindanao under a parliamentary federal system of government than in any other forms. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., was a research and extension worker, professor and the first chancellor of the Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental. Upon retirement, he served as national consultant to the ADB-DENR project on integrated coastal resource management. He is the immediate past president of the MSU Alumni Association)