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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Charting a Fresh Course

The Philippine Constitution needs revising

Antonio Lopez, the author of this article, is Asiaweek's Senior Correspondent in Manila


THE FEAR OF DICTATORSHIP is the adrenalin behind the vociferous, often emotional, campaign against the amendment of the Philippine Constitution. Supporters of President Fidel Ramos want to change the charter primarily to lift term limits. Currently, the president is restricted to a single six-year term, senators to two six-year terms, and congressmen, mayors, and other elected local officials to three three-year terms. Critics contend that if Ramos is allowed to run again, he will perpetuate himself in power, as his second cousin, Ferdinand Marcos, did.

It is unfortunate that the debate over charter change has degenerated to the level of the personal, for it obscures the real issue: that, after 10 years, the 1987 Constitution is in bad need of repair, if not a complete overhaul. The country would be better served by a charter that is more clearly and thoughtfully written by men and women elected by the people for that purpose.

The 1935 Constitution, in effect for nearly 40 years until it was suspended by martial law, remains the country's best charter. It was written by 202 popularly elected delegates and ratified by 99.9% of voters. The present charter, on the other hand, was drafted by 50 people, all handpicked by the then president, Corazon Aquino, and was ratified with a 76% "yes" vote.

The preamble talks of love, because "love is the antidote to man's inhumanity to man," as one of the drafters put it. According to another drafter, lawyer Christian Monsod, the underlying theme of the charter is social justice. Monsod defines social justice as diffusion of not only wealth but also political power. The document's aim has been to check political dynasties and to allow qualified people who lack guns, goons and gold to run for public office.

The Constitution's good intentions are undeniable. It has inspired landmark legislation, such as the introduction of free high-school education; the establishment of a central monetary authority; the dismantling of monopolies; the privatization of state enterprises; the devolution of government functions; and the professionalization of the military.

What is right with the Constitution, however, pales alongside what is wrong. First, the charter promotes a multiparty presidential system -- even though multiparty arrangements are more suited to a parliamentary form of government than a presidential one. (Under the 1935 Constitution, we had just two major groups, the Nacionalista Party and the Liberal Party.) As a result, seven candidates ran for president in 1992, each with his or her own party. (Ramos won by a plurality of less than 24% of the votes cast, making him a minority president.) For the 1998 election, we have 13 contenders -- so far.

Worse yet, the current Constitution removed poll inspectors to oversee the vote count during elections. One reason was probably because allocating inspectors to so many parties would have been too heavy a financial burden for the government. So we have the spectacle of candidates winning the election yet losing the count, and vice versa. The will of the people is subverted. Another flaw of the Constitution is that while it limits congressmen to just three terms, it does not ban their family members from seeking the same office.

The judiciary has become very powerful under the present charter. Supreme Court justices can only be removed through old age (they retire at 70) or impeachment by Congress, a very cumbersome process. The justices are selected by a Judicial and Bar Council behind closed doors. Previously, the candidates were screened by Congress, their personal and professional records laid bare before the public. Little public scrutiny takes place now. And despite popular clamor, there is no independent commission to investigate corruption in the judiciary.

One of the most controversial provisions in the Constitution concerns the Philippine National Police. The Constitution declares the PNP national in scope, meaning the force is not beholden to local officials; town and city mayors cannot hire or fire their policemen. The result of this lack of civilian supervision is an inefficient and corrupt police force that commits many of the crimes it is supposed to stop.

Some charter provisions are rooted in good intentions but are badly implemented. For example, the Agrarian Reform Law allows for corporate shares of stock, not land, to be distributed among "farmworkers" (as peasants have been classified). The shares are payable only over long periods of time. In the interim, the peasants have little say over the land. Because they do not own it, they cannot sell their share or pass it on to their children. And they can still be fired from their jobs. With this provision, the land-owning classes' huge estates have escaped being cut up.

The Constitution leaves much to be desired. Amid the uproar over Ramos and term limits, the real question is whether the charter should be re-examined and revamped. The answer is yes.


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