Commentary: The role of the political elite and the ordinary Filipino in constitutional reform

 In World

MANILA: One of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s key commitments since coming into power is the shepherding of the Philippines’ transition to a federal form of government for a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic country – an undertaking that requires a complete overhaul of the country’s constitution.

Duterte won on a pledge to break the political and economic hold the nation’s capital has over its provinces, a reality many Filipinos refer to as “Imperial Manila”.

It is a common belief that this is the root cause of economic inequality in the country.

Correspondingly, there is hope that decentralising government through federalism will correct this imbalance by spurring economic development in regions beyond metropolitan Manila.

As part of his effort to fulfil this pledge, Duterte issued an executive order in December 2016 to organise a consultative committee on constitutional reform.

The committee will be given 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 committee remains a plan on paper as Duterte has yet to formally announce its members.

Consequently, his constitutional reform project has yet to gain any significant traction.

While the Philippine public continues to discuss the need for reforms, there is no key public personality leading the discussion.

And with the absence of a definitive directive from the President, Filipinos have yet to be offered a clear and coherent path towards constitutional reform.

The war in Marawi has since become a key pre-occupation of Rodrigo Duterte’s government – a possible reason why constitutional reform is on the back-burner. (Photo: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)

LACK ON CONSENSUS ON REVISION PROCESS

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.

The Philippine Congress could act as a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, or they could enact a law calling for the election of a convention who will be mandated do this job.

In the latter choice, the number of delegates to the convention, the date of the election and other pertinent details will still need to be specified.

Duterte and his party have announced a decision for the former because they see it as the practical choice, to meet deadlines.

But critics, comprising academics and civil society personalities, counter that given the gravity of this political exercise for all Filipinos, deadlines should not matter at all.

Those who push for a constitutional convention also believe such a body will be less beholden to Duterte compared to the current Philippine Congress. 

Duterte and his allies in the legislature oppose this option, highlighting the need to complete the revision process by 2019 so that the second half of Duterte’s six-year term can focus on transition.

Their goal is to elect leaders for the new federal republic when Duterte’s term ends in 2022.

In addition to delaying their timetable, holding an election for delegates to the constitutional convention will be expensive.

Rodrigo Duterte is seen on a large screen as he delivers his state of the nation address in Congress one year since assuming office. (Photo: AFP/Noel Celis)

LACK OF UNDERSTANDING AMONG FILIPINOS

The second issue relates to the lack of understanding by the majority of Filipinos of the constitution itself.

A country that values its political system and believes that its constitution enshrines guiding principles for their way of life would naturally celebrate the day its constitution is enacted.

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