RIVERMAN’S VISTA: Charter change and Mindanao

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 30 January) — Charter Change is now an all too familiar refrain. The pattern is eerily recognizable: Proponents, usually with the tacit or explicit support of the current dispensation, would float the idea and test its acceptability and take initial steps to prosecute a plan of action. The political opposition and citizen organizations, emboldened by a supportive public opinion, would then mount countermoves to oppose the initiative, causing enough political heat to force the proponents to backtrack, and wait for the next opportune time to reintroduce the issue. We saw this in the Ramos and Arroyo administrations and we are seeing some of that now in the age of Duterte.

The difference is that we have a popular President who made federalism a centerpiece, alongside the war against drugs, of his campaign. And from a timing point of view, the proposal for charter change is being pursued early enough for issues to be worked out. There is of course the 2019 elections to worry about but that in my view is actually good. As I have written elsewhere, I think a new Constitution should take effect after the 2022 elections under a new President.

We should hold the 2019 elections as scheduled and governed under the 1987 Constitution. By that time, the Consultative Committee appointed by President Duterte would have a draft text already.  We could elect at that time a limited constitutional convention who can then compete a new Constitution by 2020 to be sent to the people for approval in a plebiscite shortly after.

For Mindanao, charter change is critical. Although I take the position that the current draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is a good text and needs only a few more revisions to pass constitutional scrutiny, the aspirations of our Bangsamoro brothers and sisters can never be fully realized except in a federal context. It is still however good policy to move forward on the BBL now and not wait for federalism so that the peace agreements with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) can be completed. But if in fact federalism is adopted for the whole country, which to me is really nothing but regional governance, amendments to the BBL may be required.

For Mindanao also, once the debate on federalism is launched, we must be sure that this is really what we want and we are willing to pay the costs of an additional layer of government and whether we can bear the costs of regional and local governance even if we keep the bulk of our revenue.

There are a couple of regions in Mindanao that may not require infusion from the national budget if they get to keep most of its revenue but many of our regions will not be able to survive without national support. One should not assume that the richer regions of Luzon, Visayas and our very own island would be willing to share their revenue with our poorer regions. I hope that our academic institutions will pay attention and do the necessary cost-benefit analysis of the various options being proposed for federalism.

Last week, President Duterte finally appointed the members of the Consultative Committee that he has tasked to review the 1987 Constitution and propose constitutional amendments or even a new constitution if warranted. It’s a good committee, led by retired Chief Justice Reynato Puno, although it needs more women and representatives from the basic sectors.

Mindanao is well represented in the Committee. In fact, the members from our island could be the most influential.

There are the political giants of my hometown Cagayan de Oro, people I trust and admire – Reuben Canoy and Nene Pimentel. I have known both all my life, as both were colleagues, political allies, and friends of my parents. I have been listening to Canoy’s Perspective radio program since the 1970s and I remember listening, enthralled by its eloquence, to his inaugural speech as mayor in 1972. Likewise, I remember Pimentel campaigning for the Constitutional Convention in 1972 and remembered his passion and idealism. They were only in their late 30s or early 40s then and I was 11 – 12 years old. Pimentel and Canoy made me proud to be a Mindanawon and showed to me that politics could be a vocation and a force of good. Nearly fifty years later, I still look up to these giants, as I do their contemporary Bono Adaza.

I also know and look up to Roan Libarios, former UP Collegian editor and Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) president, and Antonio Arellano, famous for his being part of the Davao Three (he is the only survivor now of the magnificent Davao lawyers that Marcos detained illegally in the waning years of the dicatorship, as Larry Ilagan and Marcos Risonar have already passed to eternal life) but also a stand out regional prosecutor and peace advocate.

Roan and Tony are progressive individuals, with a solid understanding of both national and Mindanao issues.

I welcome of course the three individuals in the Consultative Committee that represent the Bangsamoro people. One wished there was also a Lumad representative also.

My proposal is for the Committee to do its job deliberately and independently. But as Chief Justice Puno has proposed, it might be good to later still have a hybrid Constitutional Convention established to finalize and adopt for approval of the people a new Constitution.

From my standpoint, the root of the continuing political friction is the universal distrust over a dysfunctional system and over politicians in general.  More than the concerns for the costs, there is therefore a need to restore credibility. Constitution-making is simply too important an exercise to be hostaged by financial concerns. Besides as Senator Loren Legarda, Senate Finance Committee, has pointed out, we do have money in our budget, a lot of which is not spent.

The credibility of the constitutional process and the resultant systems it will create, will determine not only the here and now, but the direction of this country for years to come.  If untold billions of pesos are dissipated because of corruption and official profligacy, why not spare a few billions to craft a Constitution that will eradicate this scourge in the first place? The benefits that the country will derive from a responsive and credible constitution are immense compared to the disadvantages that will accrue from a half-baked, hastily written Constitution that does not inspire confidence. In this respect, a Constitutional Convention, even a hybrid one, is better than a Constituent Assembly.

The ultimate objective of constitutional change is not to gratify the political ambitions of the few and perpetuate an oppressive system but to address and rectify once and for all the structural problems of the society. The goal is to bring about prosperity and justice. Indeed, the political struggle over Charter Change should be seen in its broader context; not to dwell so much on a myopic view of the whole drama, that is, treating it solely as a challenge to the present government but rather on its more important aspect – the proposed changes.

Governments come and go but the imperfect structures and systems will outlive them to wreck more havoc on our lives for years to come, unless we, as a people, make a supreme effort to change the systems currently in place.  The primordial issues then are: whether to shift from presidential to parliamentary (abandoning the imperial presidency we now have), unitary or federal or something in between (greater local autonomy in a system where power is truly decentralized), to open up the economy to foreign investments by removing the restrictive economic provisions of the Constitution (which I think is not a yes/no proposition but something that should be addressed strategically given the challenges of globalization), and to expand the Bill of Rights given new technologies and challenges.. All of these issues have to be resolved if Mindanao, if the Philippines is to move forward and Charter Change, done properly, could lead us to a better island and country.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Tony La Viña of Cagayan de Oro City is former Dean and currently professor at Ateneo School of Government, as well as Constitutional Law professor of Xavier University, University of the Philippines College of Law, Polytechnic University of the Philippines College of Law, De La Salle University College of Law, San Beda Graduate School of Law, Lyceum College of Law and Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila Graduate School of Law. He was also a member of the government peace panel negotiating with the MILF from January to June 2010 following the aborted signing of the already initialed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain in 2008).