OPINION: Begging the question in constitutional reform

Edmund S. Tayao, UST Dep't of Political Science; LOGODEF*

Posted at Jan 21 2018 11:12 AM

The purpose of the Constitution is to constitute, one could say “to put together”, therefore consolidate. The assumption could only be that the idea is to put together otherwise separate and uncoordinated stakeholders, even institutions and possibly determine a common direction. This common direction is another way of looking at the constitution, hence at times called the “Charter”, to chart the direction of the country. If there’s an agreement that this is what the constitution is for then we have a good measure what makes it a good one.

A country can have the longest most detailed constitution, with a litany of all ideals but the ultimate question is if any and all of which can in fact be implemented. The measure of a good constitution is if it is able to set up the right political framework for the country that it leads to an effective mechanism needed to effectively implement what is prescribed by it. It is the right political framework that it fits the unique conditions of the country. This means a political system is in place accommodating the various interests in that not one particular entity dominates and subsequently limits the possibilities in the country. This political system in a word results only to strong, that is, effective public institutions, the kind that we simply do not have at this time.

When a country’s government is able to not only come up with good policies but also to effectively implement without bias or favor to a particular interest, then there is strong public institutions. So much depends on public institutions that without, it there is simply nothing good that could be done in any country that a country fails. (There had been so many good books in this regard but the a popular read in recommended is Acemoglu and Robinson’s book “Why Nations Fail”. This book gives concrete cases, contrasting different countries with supposedly similar locations even situations but simply didn't turn out the same). To argue then that we have to first strengthen public institutions is a step in the right direction, as it will only lead us to looking at the mechanisms in place right now that it only strengthens the argument that we have to revise the constitution.

It is also right to say that we have pressing problems at this time, the most fundamental of which is poverty. The government under probably all presidencies has not been remiss in addressing this pestering problem, but it still remains the same. We can check from both the government’s official statistics and the poverty surveys conducted by private organizations and you’ll see that it barely changed after all these years. This despite the continuously increasing budget for a supposedly directly targeted program on poverty that is the 4Ps. Is the problem the policy and or program? Is it the implementation? Is the problem because of both?

There are a good many programs and reform initiatives propounded under different administrations. An assessment of how all these turned out will give us the idea whether anything can be effectively implemented under the present setup. We can always bewail the non-implementation of the social justice provisions in the constitution that supposedly cuts it above all our previous constitutions but the question remains why it has yet to be implemented. The argument that the current constitution should be fully implemented is right, but again it only brings us back to the question of how. It is an argument that calls for revising the constitution not in retaining it, as precisely the problem is that what is lacking is the capacity to implement that can only be addressed by a system change. It is not even a question of leaders. It might be interesting that there are leaders who are not popular as they seem to act differently in public, appearing empty and or callous, but talking to them in person could show an exact opposite. So one can only ask why? Is it a strategy that the public persona is different from the real person?

We always attribute things that don’t work or things we don't like that’s happening to culture. This argument however is arguably the most lackadaisical one could come up with. To cite culture to explain all the negative things we have is to simply say there’s simply nothing we can do about it, that we are cursed and therefore should just sit back and do nothing. Culture is different from behavior, perhaps we can ask experts to elucidate more on this. What is certain however is systems impact on people’s behavior.

Taking off from the foregoing, let’s take the example of political dynasties, probably the most used up reason used to explain why we are in this rut. A reason that takes off from all previously argued description of Philippine politics, that is patronage politics, clientelistic, bossism etc. Now, are all these the cause of the kind of governance we have today? Would it not be possible that it is an effect more because of the kind of governance we have today? In the first place, the better question to ask is why do we have the kind of political dynasties we have? The reason why this is the better question can be answered by comparing our political dynasties, at least the most number of them to political dynasties in other countries. In fact, we can even ask, why is it even possible to have so much political dynasties in this country?

Let’s start with the size of our local government units (LGUs), what has been explained better in a chapter in the book “The Quest for a Federal Republic”. We have very small LGUs, especially in the countryside that it is simply impossible to even just come up with good plans for development. We can compare the size of our political units with other countries and see the staggering difference. How can we then think of development in the countryside? If there’s no development, poverty will simply persist. If there’s continued poverty, it will simply be easy to dominate the local economy and thus local politics. It is not because voters can be bought, that it is culture that explains why they allow themselves to be bought. It is simply because any opportunity that they can have to allow them to buy what they need will be welcome. Moreover, there won’t be many families in the poverty stricken countryside that will likely have the capacity to contest elections. Precisely, the size of the political unit, the constituency itself is so small you can’t have more contenders. Then you have the perfect environment for the kind of political dynasties we have.

There is a need to further study reforms, specifically the ones we want to have institutionalized. This is the only way we can avoid begging the question in constitutional reform. We can’t continue to push or prevent charter change based only from where we sit and which group we belong and protect. If this continues, then perhaps there’s really nothing we can do.

* Local Government Development Foundation

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.