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Critics of the move to amend the constitution see it as an attempt by President Rodrigo Duterte to crack down on leftist party-list groups and eventually extend his term. Photo: AP

‘Cha-Cha’, anyone? Philippine Congress squares off with Duterte on constitutional changes

  • Proposed amendments would allow for more foreign investment in the country as it attempts to lift itself out of a coronavirus-induced slump
  • But some fear the charter changes are a pretext for strengthening the hand of President Rodrigo Duterte
A proposed constitutional revamp is dominating discussions in the Philippine Congress once again as allies of President Rodrigo Duterte make another attempt to barrel through charter changes – the so-called Cha-Cha the country regularly finds itself embroiled in – amid a worsening Covid-19 pandemic.

Members of the House of Representatives’ committee on constitutional amendments, who began deliberations on Wednesday, maintained that the proposed changes – allowing foreigners to own land and hold majority stakes in the sectors of oil and gas exploration, mining, mass media and education – are intended to lift the economy out of its coronavirus-induced slump.

But critics of the move see it as an attempt by Duterte to not only crack down on leftist party-list groups and the communist insurgency in the country, but to shift the Philippines to a federal system of government, which would be possible if Congress turns itself into a constituent assembly – one of three ways the constitution can be amended. The two other ways are via a constitutional convention composed of representatives outside Congress or a petition of 12 per cent of registered voters.

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In case of a constituent assembly, lawmakers could attempt to amend any provision of the constitution or the entirety of the charter, thus giving them a pathway to their ultimate aim: extending Duterte’s office term – and their own. Previous similar Cha-Cha attempts failed because of strong Senate opposition, but given the current make-up of the chamber the possibility of a constituent assembly has become a more realistic outcome.

Duterte’s allies in both chambers of Congress appear to be pushing the proposed charter changes forward. Congressman Alfredo Garbin Jnr, who chairs the House of Representatives’ committee on constitutional amendments, said Wednesday that the committee would approve a resolution, although it would be strictly confined to changing the charter’s “economic provisions”.

But he also raised the hackles of two veteran Philippine senators – Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Senator Panfilo Lacson – when he announced that the deliberations of his committee already meant that “We are sitting as a constituent assembly, exercising our constituent power.”

Senate President Vicente Sotto III, upper left, rebuked Congressman Alfredo Garbin Jnr for suggesting the House was already “sitting as a constituent assembly”. Photo: AP

The constitution requires the passage of a resolution by both the Senate and House of Representatives to trigger the formation of a constituent assembly, which would then formalise the proposed amendments.

In the Senate, a resolution for Congress to convene as a constituent assembly was filed by staunch Duterte allies Francis Tolentino and Ronaldo Dela Rosa on December 7, a week after they had met Duterte. The resolution states that constitutional changes would be “limited to the provisions on democratic representation and the economic provisions of the constitution” – which covers practically all the sections pertaining to Congress, the presidency and the form of government.

But Sotto, who has the power to decide on the Senate’s legislative agenda, rebuked Garbin on Twitter, calling his pronouncement “embarrassing” and saying “we should make sure our rules and procedures aren’t flawed” first.

Sotto belongs to the Nationalist People’s Coalition that is allied with the regional party of Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter.

Sotto said in an interview that he would call all the senators to a closed-door caucus to discuss the issue of charter change but only “if necessary” because “right now, based on the pulse I got from a majority of my colleagues, it’s a wait-and-see attitude on what the House will include” as part of its proposed constitutional amendments.

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Framers of the 1987 constitution made passage of constitutional changes difficult. Not only are the votes of three-quarters of lawmakers needed to pass amendments, but the constitution is ambiguous on whether the two chambers of Congress – the House and the Senate – should vote separately or as a whole while sitting as a constituent assembly.

The constitution mandated an independent bicameral legislature as a check on presidents, who can serve no more than a single, six-year term.

Despite the fact that the Philippine Senate is packed with Duterte allies, many senators remain suspicious that the Senate would be scrapped if charter change was accomplished through a constituent assembly. As House deputy majority leader Jesus Remulla said during deliberations on Wednesday, senators “will never, never allow a creation of a unicameral legislature because it will abolish them.”

Senator Francis Pangilinan, who chairs the Senate committee on constitutional amendments, said he preferred that all the senators meet first in a closed-door caucus – which only Sotto can convene – to decide “how to move forward” on the proposed charter changes.

“Among the issues that can be discussed in the caucus would be the timing of charter amendments, considering that the country is facing the worst economic and health crisis in recent memory,” said Pangilinan, whose committee would first have to endorse any resolution on charter change before it could be approved by the entire body. “In addition is the matter of Congress voting jointly or separately in proposing charter amendments.”

Members of the New People's Army during their 50th founding anniversary celebration in the Sierra Madre mountains in March 2019. The communist insurgency has long been a thorn in the side of President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: EPA-EFE

Pangilinan is one of the four senators belonging to the opposition Liberal Party. For the charter changes to pass the 24-member Senate, 18 votes are needed. However, getting 18 votes is not a sure thing, since some sitting senators who are friendly with the Duterte administration have still demonstrated a level of independence on certain issues or are nursing ambitions for higher political office.

Sotto previously stated during a Zoom media interview that amending the constitution – or convening a constituent assembly – would be “nearly impossible”, and also disclosed that Duterte had called a select group of senators and congressmen to a meeting on December 1 attended by “three or four” top military generals.

Sotto said in the Zoom interview that Duterte called the meeting to address the issue of the militant communist insurgency in the country, led by the New People’s Army, and its political arm, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Describing the president as “very hot” on the issue, Sotto quoted Duterte as saying that the best way to deal with the issue was to “remove the party-list system, or change it in the constitution so we can call for a Constituent Assembly and amend that” because members of left-wing party-list groups in Congress “are sympathisers and connected” to the CPP.

Sotto stressed that Duterte had made no mention of extending his term of office and that of the lawmakers or cancelling the 2022 presidential election.


Long queues for free meals as millions in the Philippines go hungry amid coronavirus pandemic

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Duterte is the fourth Philippine president – after Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – to attempt to make his office even more powerful and to sit indefinitely by turning himself into a prime minister who would have total control of a unicameral legislature. It was the formula that Ferdinand Marcos used to exceed his fixed term by 14 years – and which prompted the 1987 constitution.

This is also the fourth attempt by the Duterte administration to change the form of government. The first was in 2017 when a Department of Local Government official urged Duterte to form a “revolutionary” government that would transition into a federal set-up.

The second and third attempts took place in 2018 when a Duterte-appointed, 25-member Consultative Committee drafted a new charter for a federal-parliamentary set-up, but Duterte’s economic team said implementation would be too costly. Congress tabled the draft and came up with its own version, which failed to pass in the Senate because Duterte allies did not have the numbers.