OPINION: Duterte's bid to change Constitution moving swiftly along several tracks

Raïssa Robles

Posted at Feb 02 2018 06:06 AM

The House of Representatives is rushing to meet next month’s deadline to bring the change in the Philippine Constitution to a vote by May 2018.

Because the barangay elections are set to be held this May 14, this means Congress may have only until March 15—give or take a few days—to pass a law or resolution directing the holding of a plebiscite on charter change alongside the barangay polls.

This is because the Constitution states that a plebiscite to amend or revise the Constitution “shall be held not earlier than sixty days nor later than ninety days after the approval of such amendments or revision.”

I don’t exactly know now how Congress is supposed to calculate the number of days—whether it is supposed to count even the weekends or just the work days.

In calculating March 15 as THE DAY when the entire Congress should approve its proposed amendments and the holding of a plebiscite, I counted the weekends and even Holy Week. Plus, I assumed that Congress would not break on March 23, as scheduled.

But if it does break, and weekends and Holy Week are not counted, this could give Congress an even shorter lead time to approve charter change—probably by the first week of March.

Has Congress given up trying to pass charter change in time for the May polls?

No, not at all, at least in the House of Representatives. And contrary to the Business Mirror headline that the House is “about to give up” on its original plan to piggyback constitutional amendments with the barangay polls this May.

House Deputy Speaker Gwendolyn Garcia was quoted by the Business Mirror the other day as saying:

“The leadership of the House of Representatives has set the initial deadline in submitting the proposed Charter amendments in a plebiscite for approval of the Filipino people for May 2018, but acknowledged that it may be extended if Congress cannot meet the requirements of the law. In that case, the plebiscite may be held simultaneously with the May 2019 elections. As such, the May 2019 elections will push through as scheduled,” she said.

“Our deliberations [on the proposed Cha-Cha] at the committee level might take longer period of time…so it [the May 2018 plebiscite target] might not be a realistic target to reach,” Garcia added.

This simply shows the House is intent on charter change. Don’t be fooled by what Garcia says. The House, in the past, has been able to do lightning approvals of bills and resolutions.

Remember, this is a Congress that has already shown it is capable of doing anything regardless of what the Constitution says.

Take the impeachment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. The House is in effect acting as a quasi impeachment court through its prolonged deliberations on the “substance” of the impeachment complaint. Some congressmen even have the effrontery to demand Sereno’s appearance and threaten arrest if Sereno − who heads a co-equal body − fails to appear.

Going back to Cha-Cha, if Congress fails to meet the March deadline, it can always postpone the barangay polls or approve a stand-alone plebiscite for later this year. Money is no object. It’s not theirs anyway.

Sereno impeachment is part of the game plan

Yesterday, House Justice Committee chair Reynaldo Umali signaled that his committee would put Sereno’s impeachment to a vote by this month.

Despite the absence of culpable violation of the Constitution, Sereno is likely to be impeached because the Duterte allies in the House have the numbers.

After she is impeached, she will be pressured to resign or at least take a leave of absence as chief justice.

Why does the Duterte government need Sereno out of the way?

During the Sereno impeachment hearings, one of the associate justices who appeared pointed out that it is the chief justice who sets the agenda as to which cases should be tackled by the court en banc.

With Sereno neutralized, an acting chief justice might be persuaded to give high priority to the constitutional question of whether the House or the Senate should vote separately or jointly on charter change.

I have been watching the Sereno impeachment hearings in fascination. I will write about it separately.

Too many cooks of charter change

Ever wonder what is wrong with the picture of House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Senate President Koko Pimentel meeting publicly to resolve the two chamber’s differences on charter change?

I can think of one. Both belong to the same PDP-Laban Party. At the very least, you would expect them to have JUST ONE DRAFT OF PROPOSED CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES.

But they don’t.

The proposed amendments that the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments is pushing has marked differences to what the Federal Institute of the PDP Laban Party has drafted and is pushing. And which Senate President Pimentel is backing.

I would just like to point out two key differences but there are others.

ONE. In the “Salient Features” of the proposed constitutional changes that the House Committee released, there is NO TERM OF OFFICE AND TERM LIMIT indicated for members of both the Federal Assembly and the Senate.

What does this mean? Once elected, their tenure could go on FOREVER.

The PDP-Laban version sets two five-year terms for an assemblyman and senator.

TWO. Another key difference is that the House Committee version is silent on political dynasties.

But the PDP-Laban version has a definite self-executing ban on political dynasties. It bans relatives up to the second degree from running together for national office, or for local (federal) office. This means you cannot have mother and daughter, father and son or sister and brother together in Parliament.

Neither the House of Representatives nor PDP-Laban has released an entire draft.

The House Committee has only released to the public “SALIENT FEATURES” of its proposed Parliament and Federal structure.

PDP Laban Party has put online its 67-page proposed Constitution, labeled “Version 1.7 as of 31 August 2017”. But it is not downloadable. You can read it below:

But this has one key section missing: Article XVIII or the Proposed Transitory Provisions. A footnote (135) on the last page (67) simply states that the section is still “under study”.

As I said in an earlier piece, the Transitory Provisions are very, very important because they spell out what will happen during the period when the 1987 Constitution is thrown to the wastebasket but the new Constitution is not yet fully in effect. You can read my piece by clicking on the link.

I called it “the twilight zone” when the incumbent President Duterte holds all the powers and can do anything. Anything, including delaying the opening of the planned interim legislature and abolishing it outright.

Which was what Ferdinand Marcos did.

Why did Duterte appoint a 25-member Constitutional Commission on top of what Congress is doing?
I’m guessing—for several reasons.

First, the Commission can embed certain changes that Duterte wants. Recall that two other presidents also formed a Con-Com to come up with a draft charter: Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

It was no surprise that both Estrada and Arroyo’s draft charters abolished term limits for the President and the legislators.

Second, Con-Com is meant to confuse the public into thinking that charter change won’t take place for some time. I believe Duterte wants cha-cha asap.

Third, Con-Com can help Congress flesh out a complete draft.

But cha-cha does not end even if Congress fails to approve charter change.

Two other options are still open and still in play—a nationwide declaration of martial law which Duterte can use to get the public to ratify a new charter in a plebiscite.

And last but not least, a revolutionary government.

We are not out of the woods yet.

In fact, we are neck deep in the woods.

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