Charter Change timetable: Plebiscite in 2018 or May 2019, says Pimentel

Bea Cupin
Charter Change timetable: Plebiscite in 2018 or May 2019, says Pimentel
Senate and PDP Laban president Aquilino Pimentel III says the plebiscite does not necessarily have to piggyback on the 2018 barangay or the 2019 mid-term polls

MANILA, Philippines – Advocates of federalism in Congress won’t be rushing the drafting of a proposed new constitution, but if it they finish the work early, a plebiscite can be held ahead of scheduled elections, Senate President Aquiliino Pimentel III said. 

“Because of our practical mind and attitude, we look at the next scheduled election, May 2019,” said Pimentel, president of the ruling PDP-Laban, at the launch of the party think tank’s book on federalism on Thursday, February 1.

The party president, among the staunchest advocates for a shift from a unitary to federal system of government, said he hopes the 15 months or so before the scheduled May 2019 mid-term elections would be more than enough time for Congress to craft a new constitution ready for a plebiscite.

Should the draft be ready by “June or July [2018],” however, Pimentel said the government can “schedule a standalone plebiscite” that would entail a “special budget” of P7 billion or P8 billion.

House Speaker and party secretary general Pantaleon Alvarez had earlier pushed for a May 2018 plebiscite, to coincide with the scheduled barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections. That would leave Congress a mere 4 months to come up with amendments to the 1987 Constitution. 

Both chambers at work

The shift to a federal form of government is among President Rodrigo Duterte’s biggest advocacies.

During the 2016 campaign, Duterte promised he would push for this, saying this was the only way to equalize the distribution of wealth and power in the archipelago.

Both chambers of Congress are deliberating on suggestions to change the current 1987 Constitution. At the House, led by Alvarez, the committee on constitutional amendments is consolidating earlier proposals made by several sub-committees.

The House had also passed a resolution calling on the 17th Congress to convene as a Constituent Assembly for Charter Change, but this has since been sidelined as leaders of Congress first agreed to come up with the possible structure of government, among other things.

Meanwhile at the Senate, the committee on constitutional amendments and revision of codes is in the early stages of deliberations on Charter Change.

The committee is chaired by Senator Francis Pangilinan, party president of the once-ruling Liberal Party.

‘Bi-partisan’ effort

Pimentel said he had spoken to Pangilinan, who had promised not to be “obstructionist” in the process of proposing amendments to the Constitution. The Liberal Party belongs to the minority bloc in the Senate.

“It’s best that the minority heads the committee which will review the proposal of the ruling admin [so that it’s a] bipartisan effort,” added Pimentel.

The Senate President, a key ally of Duterte, expressed confidence that Charter Change would not be blocked in the upper chamber of Congress, despite Pangilinan being on top of the committee.

“The committee will have to discuss, it’s not just the chairman of the committee. [Then] the plenary will have to discuss. They belong to the minority so they are not supposed to be in control of the agenda,” said Pimentel.

If Pangilinan reneges on his promise not to be “obstructionist,” he can always be booted out as committee chairman, said Pimentel.

President Duterte has also formed a 19-member Constitutional Commission, which will come up with its own proposed draft. Pimentel, echoing other members of Congress, said the Con-Com’s role will be purely recommendatory since the power to propose amendments still belongs to the legislature under a Constituent Assembly. –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.