OPINION: Elite-driven charter change 1

OPINION: Elite-driven charter change

Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M

Posted at Jan 08 2020 02:44 AM

The most revered Filipino constitutionalist, Apolinario Mabini, had a dim view of elite-driven political movements. He wrote, “Any agitation promoted by a particular class for the benefit of its special interests does not deserve the name (of political revolution or evolution).”

The current effort to amend the 1987 Constitution is palpably an initiative pushed by the powers-that-be of our political class. This is not a bad thing per se. But past attempts at charter change makes Mabini’s suspicion of elite-driven political movements hard to ignore. 

Correspondingly, the strong view held by many Filipinos that the advocacy for charter change has always been for the benefit of the proponents’ “special interest” imposes upon the Duterte administration a great burden to demonstrate to the people that its constitutional reform initiative is genuinely for the benefit of all Filipinos. 

It must be noted though, that the population of the Philippines this year will reach 108 million. More critically, the school age population (0-19 years old) of the country will be around 44 million. By 2045, the same demographic will be around 41 million. This means that Filipinos who are currently in elementary and high school will be responsible for roughly the same number of citizens 25 years or so down the line. 

For Filipinos, charter change is very clearly an intergenerational undertaking. Worth mentioning as well that around 60% of the electorate are considered youth voters. It is therefore imperative that young Filipinos are actively involved in the entire constitutional reform process. They must have a significant role in the drafting of a constitution that will undoubtedly influence their future. 

Furthermore, Overseas Filipino Workers, who are presently estimated to number around 2.3 million and spread out all over the globe, is a segment of Philippine society that can no longer be excluded in any charter change initiative. Their substantial contribution to the national economy throughout the years warrants that they too must be acutely engaged from the very start. 

As the prime advocate for charter change, the administration must therefore undertake a more comprehensive approach to reach out to all Filipinos, with special attention to the youth and OFWs, and properly explain to them the proposed amendments as well as the urgent need to amend the 1987 Constitution. 

Provincial roadshows are a good way to raise the level of public awareness about constitutional reform. But no matter how big the audiences are or how frequently they are conducted, there is very minimal public engagement here. Clearly not enough to ensure the legitimacy of the people’s understanding and acceptance of the proposed amendments. Indeed, even the purported Congressional public consultations undertaken in select capital cities is not an accurate gauge of genuine public engagement. 

The most notable facet of the constitutional reform saga of the Philippines is that charter change initiatives are always perceived as political projects of incumbent high-ranking public officials. Apart from their supporters, there is generally a disconnect between the public-at-large and the charter reform effort. 

Therefore, the main talking-points accompanying these campaigns have always revolved around the personalities leading it and their motivations. The role of the people in constitutional reform has always been glossed over in the public discourse. Indeed, the essential requirement of genuine citizen participation in the process of arriving at the decision to amend or change the 1987 Constitution has largely been ignored, both by the proponents of charter change and sadly, by Filipinos themselves. 

Pertinently, according to the Guidance Note of the Secretary-General- United Nations Assistance to Constitution-making Processes: 

“A genuinely inclusive and participatory constitution-making process can be a transformational exercise. It can provide a means for the population to experience the basics of democratic governance and learn about relevant international principles and standards, thus raising expectations for future popular engagement and transparency in governance. Inclusive and participatory processes are more likely to engender consensus around a constitutional framework agreeable to all.” 

Clearly, the constitutional reform process ought to involve the ardent participation of the people themselves. The constitutional reform effort must not be the exclusive domain of political elites. On the contrary, the effort itself must be a paragon of civic engagement for it to deliver the desired outcomes. 

A deliberative process underpinning constitutional reform can potentially make the entire exercise more inclusive. Meaning, it can facilitate active participation within the polity. It can provide a chance for those voices, who can easily be marginalized in a government-led advocacy campaign, to be heard and be considered. 

It must be noted though that adopting the deliberative approach requires a high degree of openness and honesty from the participants. Therefore, the deliberations themselves must be a safe space. People who will participate must be prepared to make intelligent and coherent arguments, while at the same time be willing to understand and critically engage with the arguments of others. More critically, participants must not be averse to the possibility of being persuaded by the better argument. 

Concretely, these “deliberative” sessions can be undertaken via the Barangay Assembly apparatus. The barangay is the smallest political unit of the Philippine state but by statutory mandate, it is also a forum wherein the collective views of the people may be expressed, crystallized and considered. And the Barangay Assembly is really the most convenient way to gather ordinary citizens and give them the opportunity to speak out and be heard. 

The deliberative ethos as well as the avid participation of the people can bring the charter change initiative further than past attempts have done so far. Obviously, this proposed approach will afford the polity the opportunity to assert its right and responsibility to analyse and critique their constitution. Which at the very least, could finally unravel the true sentiment of Filipinos on whether there is truly a need to amend or change the 1987 Constitution. Harkening to Mabini’s corollary point that an initiative advancing transformative reforms for the country must answer a “need felt by the citizens in general” for the same to qualify as a true “people’s movement”. 

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