Representational image: iStock
Representational image: iStock

One of the core commitments of President Rodrigo Duterte is to shepherd the transition of the Philippines to a federal form of government – an undertaking that requires a complete overhaul of the country’s constitution.

As part of his effort to fulfil this pledge, Duterte issued in December 2016 Executive Order No. 10 to organize the Consultative Committee on constitutional reform with the mandate to “study, conduct consultations, and review the provisions of the 1987 Constitution including but not limited to the provisions on the structure and powers of the government, local governance, and economic policies.”

However, this advisory committee is still just a plan on paper as the president has yet to formally announce its members. Consequently, his constitutional reform project has yet to gain any significant traction.

Without a definitive directive from the president, Filipinos have yet to be offered a clear and coherent path towards constitutional reform

It is certainly part of the public discourse these days but there is no palpable personality leading the discussion. And without a definitive directive from the president, Filipinos have yet to be offered a clear and coherent path towards constitutional reform.

This opacity is even made more precarious by two issues, the first of which is the lack of consensus amongst political elites on how to go about the process of revision itself.

There are two possible ways to proceed with constitutional reform under the circumstances: 1) By Congress acting as a constituent assembly; or, 2) By a duly elected constitutional convention. (See Article XVII of the 1987 Constitution). In both instances, any revision to the national charter shall only be valid when approved by the electorate in a plebiscite.

Duterte and his party favor the constituent assembly mode because they see it is the practical choice. However, the critics, comprised mainly of academics and civil society personalities, counter that given the gravity of this political exercise for all Filipinos, the tab for it should not matter at all.

Furthermore, those who push for the constitutional convention mode do so on the belief that such a body will be less beholden to Duterte as the current Congress seems to be. The memory of 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.

Expectedly, Duterte and his allies in the legislature oppose this option, highlighting the need to complete the revision process by 2019. Holding an election for delegates to the constitutional convention will not only be very expensive, but it will also delay their timetable.

The tension between the two sides has just been simmering so far simply because the president has not made any substantial strides towards constitutional revision. But this particular issue can be explosive once those who prefer the convention mode decide to be more assertive in their stance.

The second issue relates to the lack of solid understanding by the majority of Filipinos of the constitution itself. I conducted an informal survey to determine the level of awareness about the nation’s Constitution Day. The results are sad and revealing at the same time.

Relatives who work in government have told me that they do not do anything special to commemorate Constitution Day. Colleagues and friends employed in top universities in the country told exactly the same story. Surprisingly, even law schools do not recognize the significance of this day. And it is deeply unfortunate that primary and secondary schools do not use this occasion to improve the youth’s knowledge and comprehension of the Constitution. However, the most disappointing result is that practically all the people I asked were not even aware that February 2 is designated as Constitution Day.

Interestingly, surveys conducted by two of the most respected polling firms in the Philippines support my findings. In 2002, a Social Weather Station poll showed that three out of four Filipinos readily admitted that they needed to be better informed about the Constitution. Whereas in 2014, a Pulse Asia survey showed that 70% of Filipinos have “little or no knowledge” about the national charter. These stats do not inspire confidence at all in the polity’s readiness for constitutional reform.

Revising the constitution encompasses a broader political reform effort. The reality is pathologies in a constitution can emerge during its reign. These pertain to provisions in the constitutional text itself that may have been designed with good intentions but have eventually become debilitating to the political system it purports to govern. Therefore, constitutional reform should first and foremost entail identifying and analyzing what these pathologies are.

Accordingly, Duterte should begin his constitutional revision project with diagnosing pathologies in the 1987 Constitution. This can be carried out via a widespread and substantial public consultation process with the advisory committee of the president moderating.

Apart from shifting to a federal structure of government, perennial constitutional issues such as having a blanket prohibition on political dynasties, further economic liberalization, enhancing the powers of the Commission on Human Rights, and drastic electoral reforms must also be exhaustively threshed out by the people in this nationwide political exercise.

This is certainly a daunting challenge but as responsible citizens, Filipinos must actively participate in the hearings and consultation sessions initiated towards this end.

This organized comprehensive public dialogue can also serve as a refresher course of sorts on constitutional education for Filipinos. Hence, the president and his allies must fit this massive undertaking in their timetable. For otherwise, the legitimacy of the entire revision process will be highly questionable.

The new constitution must be more reflective of the times and responsive to their needs. Hence, any attempt at constitutional revision without meaningfully engaging the public must be rejected by Filipinos. Indeed, they must be prepared to present intelligent and coherent proposals as to what their new charter should contain regardless if the mode chosen is via constitutional convention or constituent assembly.

Michael Henry Yusingco is a legislative and policy consultant, author of Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective, lecturer at the School of Law and Governance of the University of Asia and the Pacific and a non-resident research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government in Manila. He is also a regular contributor in various public affairs and media outlets in the Philippines and Australia.

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