OPINION: Charter change vs. legislative reform

Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M

Posted at Nov 07 2018 08:25 PM

The ideological battle confronting Filipinos today is charter change versus legislative reform. 

The contesting sides are: 1) Revise the 1987 Constitution in order to facilitate the transition to a federal system of government; or, 2) Leave the charter untouched and seek legal reforms instead. 

The former is a calculated but high-risk transformation process, whereas the latter is essentially a hopeful attempt to make drastic improvements with the same constitutional constraints. 

Filipinos, however, have always disliked charter change. And this aversion is shown by recent survey results from both Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations. 

Pertinently, this universal trepidation is not at all allayed by the patent disunity in the administration about federalism. 

Last month, the head of the National Economic and Development Authority, the Secretary of Finance, and the Secretary of Defense, separately expressed reservation on the readiness of the country for federalism. 

More troubling is that even the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), the very office tasked to lead the federalism initiative of President Rodrigo Duterte, is plagued by internal discord. 

The official administration stand is to follow the amendment procedure prescribed by the 1987 Constitution. But a very popular senior official of the DILG has defied this policy by openly advocating for the president to establish a revolutionary government and abrogate the current charter in order to make the transformation from unitary to federal.

It must be emphasized that the leaders of the Duterte administration, most especially senior officials in the DILG, will play a vital role in a transition to a federal setup. The fact that they are clearly not on the same page on the implementing roadmap is very alarming because how can the public be assured that they are offering an optimal federal design? 

More importantly, if there is some doubt coming from the administration itself, how can the public be expected to rally behind the call for constitutional reform? 

Indeed, a longstanding deep mistrust of members of Congress makes it very difficult for Filipinos to come on board the charter change bandwagon. The memory of the then President Ferdinand Marcos using his martial law powers to railroad the enactment of the 1973 Constitution, which then facilitated his 14-year dictatorship, is still very much fresh in their minds.
But if not charter change, how else can needed reforms such as further decentralizing government be instituted? The alternative option is through legislation. 

Notably, the nature and depth of local autonomy in the 1987 Constitution has been described as “a kind of maximum decentralization, short of federalization”. This means that our decentralization framework can approximate a federal setup. In fact, our current local autonomy framework already has federal features. This is evident in Article X (See Sections 5-7 on fiscal autonomy and Sections 13-14 on regional governance)

The legislative reform option can entail amending just the Local Government Code (LGC) or amending the Administrative Code and possibly other special laws as well. A bolder and more radical proposal is to enact a new Local Autonomy Law that will replace both the LGC and the Admin Code at once.

This new law can approximate a federal setup by incorporating these three core federal features in the new decentralization system:

1. Establishing a more responsive and effective regional governance framework;

2. Clear power sharing between the local government and the national government as well as amongst the different levels of local governments;

3. Instituting intergovernmental relations mechanisms.

And to complement the decentralized framework established by this omnibus local autonomy law, legislation regulating local dynasties and instituting political party reforms should also be enacted.
Crucially, however, the option of legislative reform is also burdened with the same trust deficit. If we cannot have faith in Congress regarding charter change, how can we depend on them with legislative reform? In fact, it is a fair question to ask, if they have not amended the LGC and the Admin Code for this long, what will make them do this now? 

Accordingly, Filipinos must now treat this “charter change versus legislative reform” debate as a serious midterm election issue. It is imperative for voters to take candidates to task. 

For those carrying the banner of the administration, which federal charter draft are they offering for consideration? The Consultative Committee’s Bayanihan Federalism? The PDP-Laban Model of Federalism? Or Resolution of Both Houses No. 15? Their choice will reveal their level of commitment to pursue genuine constitutional change. 

For the opposition team, it cannot be just about being against charter change and federalism. What is the alternative? If they cannot present clear and viable legislative proposals, then their fidelity to institute fundamental political reforms is highly suspect as well. 

Again, what the people want is to dismantle Imperial Manila. The aim is to diffuse political and economic power that are currently heavily concentrated at the central government. Filipinos deserve to know how these sides will accomplish this task.

The campaign period is about to officially begin. Hence, Filipinos should remember this passage in The Philippine Revolution:

“By political revolution I understand a people’s movement aimed at producing a violent change in the organization and operation of the three public powers: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. If the movement is slow, gradual or progressive, it is called evolution. I say people’s movement because I consider it essential that the proposed change answer a need felt by the citizens in general. Any agitation promoted by a particular class for the benefit of its special interests does not deserve the name (of political revolution or evolution).”

Apolinario Mabini’s prescription here is vital. Any reform initiative must be a people’s movement. Therefore, candidates that bring the polity together are the only ones worth considering. Those who relish in breaking the community apart with their campaign rhetoric will only wreak havoc if elected.

Levity and humor should not be prohibited in this electoral exercise. But crass and disrespectful modes of conveying messages and insights have no place in it either. And fear-mongering and alarmist campaigns do not help at all.

More importantly, current political leaders must rethink plans of “fast-tracking” charter change. Imposing their will on the people will only elicit strong resistance and can lead to chaos and violence, a dire situation Filipinos have known and left behind 32 years ago.


Author’s Bio-Note: Atty. Yusingco is law lecturer, legislative and policy consultant and a Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center.

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