COMMENTARY: Pope Francis, Mamasapano and civic constitutionalism

MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews/14 February) — February 2 came and went. Nothing special happened to commemorate Constitution Day. I suppose for this year this oversight is to be expected. Between the grand elation generated by the visit of Pope Francis and the deep sorrow caused by the loss of lives in Mamasapano, Maguindanao it is understandably difficult to pencil in a day just to contemplate the 1987 Constitution.

Pertinently, these very significant events themselves can be good precipitants for reflecting on the country’s constitutional order. For going through this process involves both the academic examination of constitutional text and pondering on momentous events occurring within the polity itself. In fact, the ruminations of political commentators on the impact of the Pope’s visit and on the ramifications of the most recent tragedy in Maguindanao have unravelled valuable questions about the state of Filipino constitutionalism.

Constitutionalism refers to the commitment to be governed by constitutional rules and principles. Therefore, the term civic constitutionalism used here means the capacity of citizens to live in the community according to constitutional tenets such as the rule of law, respect for human rights, the democratic process, judicial independence, to name a few.

In the context of the two recent events mentioned above, the constitutional principle most profoundly tested is the one articulated by the first sentence of Section 1 of Article XI on Accountability of Public Officers—“Public office is a public trust.” Notably, the second sentence of this provision provides a baseline meaning of this principle—“Public officers and employees must, at all times, be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency; act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.”

A friend of mine who works for the Philippine Consulate in Sydney, Consul Marford Angeles, has an interesting take on the scope of this constitutional principle. He said, “When a person holding a public office behaves in a certain manner that cannot be justifiable, as the old folks say, “in Plaza Miranda”, or if they do something that will not hold up in public scrutiny, then you disappoint the people you are indebted to.” Indeed, the message behind this constitutional standard is pretty straightforward and demands no further explanation. Hence, the question to ask is this—Is this constitutional edict discernible in the Filipino’s socio-political conduct?

From some of the government actions we have witnessed during the visit of Pope Francis and heard from the testimonies of those directly involved in the Mamasapano tragedy, it would appear that by and large, those who hold public office have a very low regard for the demands of public trust.

For instance, the move to give temporary shelter to street children and their families in a holiday resort during Pope Francis’ visit is reminiscent of the Manila face-lift ordered by then First Lady Imelda Marcos to hide the city’s poor during the visit of Pope John Paul II. So should we really consider this act as public service “with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency”?

Or how about the suspended police chief influencing operational matters on the sly? Or how about the commander-in-chief tolerating such an irregularity on account of his close relationship with the said police officer? Are these the acts of public officials who fervently believe in being “accountable to the people”?

Sadly, the electorate’s comprehension of this constitutional principle also leaves a whole lot to be desired. The people we put in Malacañang, the Senate and Congress, and every kapitolyo and munispyo in the country are all painful reminders that Filipinos have little to no regard to public office as a public trust.

In light of this disconcerting realization about the Filipino’s political mentality, our traditional lukewarm approach to Constitution Day now seems more detrimental to us than we think. The fact that we do not celebrate our Constitution with the reverence it deserves could be the reason why our civic constitutionalism is particularly at a disappointing state. Unfortunately, this is precisely the condition that sustains many of the political ills we are suffering today as proven by the observations we have extrapolated from recent events.

Constitutional scholars would suggest that to reverse the untenable state of our civic constitutionalism we must deliberately engage in a purposeful discussion about constitutional principles. Because doing this actually generate the awareness and attachment to constitutional rules and principles that are essential for self-enforcement. Simply put, talking about the Constitution with the appropriate seriousness and intent can help Filipinos become socially and politically responsible citizens.

Section 1 of Article XI would certainly make the repartee over dinner tables more interesting than usual. Obviously, it would be an exciting theme to debate on for our youths in our high schools and universities. However, I believe the best venue to hold the lively discourse on the notion of public office as a public trust, or any constitutional principle for that matter, is the local government mechanism persistently championed by the author behind The Worm’s Eyeview—the barangay assembly. Just imagine friends and neighbors exchanging views on what public trust means and together gauging if public officials can still justify themselves “in Plaza Miranda”. This is bayanihan at its best!

A town hall meeting is indeed the most plausible method to instil constitutional principles in the frame of mind of Filipinos. And regularly engaging the barangay assembly mechanism could eventually empower the polity to undertake the fundamental reforms the political system badly needs. Come to think of it, organizing a community gathering for such a purpose would be the most meaningful way to celebrate people power on February 25. (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)