COMMENTARY: How important is the Constitution to us?

MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews/26 January) — I wonder how many Filipinos are still aware of the significance of February 2. To remember this particular date is extremely important because it is said that a nation’s relationship to its constitution plays a huge part in its socio-economic development. A country that genuinely values its constitution would be more orientated towards the rule of law than one that does not. Indeed, a society that truly believes in constitutional values will be most likely more cohesive than one that does not. Therefore, a nation which treats its constitution both as a foundational document and as an existential guide to political life will have a much better shot at socio-economic progress than one that does not.

Pertinently, both our former colonizers celebrate a Constitution Day. Americans celebrate this occasion on September 17. Curiously, this holiday is not observed by giving the day off to workers. The significance of this day is commemorated by (re)educating the populace about the United States Constitution. Government institutions are required to hold programs that highlight the history of the American Constitution. Schools and universities are likewise obliged to conduct activities that promote the values and principles enshrined in the constitution.

One the other hand, Spain celebrates its Constitution Day on December 6. Not surprisingly, this day means no work for all people. Nonetheless, this time is also used to enhance the community’s understanding and appreciation of the national constitution.

Constitution Day in the Philippines is on February 2 by virtue of Proclamation No. 211 series of 1988 issued by the late President Cory Aquino. The purpose of establishing this special day is as follows—

“WHEREAS, in order to instill in the hearts and minds of the Filipino people the democratic principles and the noble and lofty ideals enshrined in the Constitution, it is but fitting that a day be set aside as CONSTITUTION DAY to give the Filipino people the opportunity to consecrate and dedicate themselves to the Constitution and ponder on the significance thereof.”

I conducted an informal survey in my immediate community to determine the level of awareness about our nation’s Constitution Day. Sadly, the results reveal that we may have forgotten what February 2 should be all about. An uncle of mine said it quite well—“The meaning of Constitution Day to many of our people is as murky as the polluted Pasig River.”

Relatives who work in government have told me that they do not do anything special to commemorate Constitution Day. Colleagues and friends employed in top universities in the country told me exactly the same story. Surprisingly, it seems that even law schools do not even recognize the significance of this day. And it is deeply unfortunate that primary and secondary schools do not use this occasion to improve our youth’s knowledge and comprehension of our Constitution. However, the most disappointing result is that practically all of the people I asked were not even aware that February 2 is designated as Constitution Day.

The 1987 Constitution is the utmost symbol of Philippine statehood. It is the central institution in our political system. However, given the ignorance and indifference to our Constitution Day unraveled by my informal survey, it appears that the “democratic principles” and the “noble and lofty ideals” enshrined in this sublime document are not yet properly instilled in our hearts and minds. Of course, there are other more telling proofs which actually show that the constitutional spirit has yet to be infused in our political consciousness. And the most disheartening of these examples is the unrelenting hold of political dynasties in our political life.

Section 26 of Article II provides—“The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” The prevailing belief is that to enforce the clear prohibition in this constitutional provision, Congress must first enact a law precisely providing for such a proscription. However, the argument to wait for the legislation of an Anti-Political Dynasty Law only benefits politicians who are standing members of political dynasties. In the meantime, the rest of us continue to suffer incompetent and corrupt governance.

But if we fervently believe in the spirit behind this constitutional provision—i.e. maintaining a premium quality public sector—then we can give life to its proscription by not voting for candidates who belong or who are allied to political dynasties. We can even go a step further by passionately convincing others to do the same. And just imagine if a large majority of us overtly and persistently do not vote for dynastic politicians, then Section 26 of Article II could evolve into a constitutional norm which does not need legislation for enforcement. It could then become a standard political practice that is proudly adhered to by everybody in the polity.

To have this deep awareness and insight of constitutional principles is ultimately the hope in commemorating Constitution Day. The fact is a nation’s constitution still has to make sense to the people who live under its dictates. Hence, the need to actually bother to “consecrate and dedicate” ourselves to the Constitution and ponder on its relevance in our own lives. For it is precisely this shared understanding which leads to habitual obedience to constitutional tenets. Indeed, the Constitution should not be the exclusive domain of those who can file petitions before the Supreme Court. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer. He is the author of the book, Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective. He researches on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism)