The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) turned over to a House panel signatures of 555,610 Filipinos who the government said are open to "surgical amendments" of the 1987 Constitution.
DILG Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya, who oversees the Duterte government’s federalism campaign, formally submitted the signatures to the House committee on constitutional amendments on Wednesday, January 13.
Malaya said the DILG was able to collect the signatures after conducting roadshows in 72 out of the 81 provinces nationwide just before the coronavirus pandemic hit the Philippines in 2020.
“I think there is strong public support for the surgical amendments to the Constitution. And we saw this, we did the campaign on the ground. We did activities down to the barangay level, Mr Chairman, that’s why we were able to raise all of these signatures,” said Malaya.
He said the DILG is confident legislators can easily verify for themselves the identities of Filipinos who gave their signatures.
Malaya said the DILG had to stop holding physical events for its push for federalism – a campaign promise by President Rodrigo Duterte – in February last year due to the pandemic.
Three months later, the department revived its campaign by gathering signatures from Filipinos online to press lawmakers to back Cha-Cha. At the time, Cha-Cha hearings in the House were stalled to give way to pandemic response efforts.
The Duterte government has lobbied to get support for various amendments to the Constitution in the past, including empowering regional development councils, banning turncoatism, limiting political dynasties, and opening up the national economy to foreign investments.
But in this latest push for Cha-Cha in the House, Speaker Lord Allan Velasco wants only the restrictive economic provisions amended. He told his allies not to touch any of the political provisions, but other lawmakers and observers have warned that once the Constitution is open to amendments, all provisions are fair game, including term limits.
Velasco’s Resolution of Both Houses No. 2 proposes to add the phrase “unless otherwise stated by law” to the Constitution’s economic provisions.
This would give Congress the power to pass laws that can relax the current restrictions on foreign investors. Velasco said doing so would help address the crippling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Philippine economy.
Still, critics are wary of lawmakers’ true intentions to amend the Constitution this close to the next presidential elections in 2022.
During the hearing, economists Gerardo Sicat and former National Economic and Development Authority chief Ernesto Pernia agreed that now is the time to pursue constitutional amendments to help cushion the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.
Pernia argued that the Philippines cannot compete with its ASEAN neighbors if the current restrictions on foreign investments are still in place.
“Because as you can see, although the economy has really been clobbered by the pandemic, the economy is recovering slowly – it is getting out of the hole little by little – and we need to accelerate that getting out of the hole,” Pernia said.
Sicat, professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines School of Economics, shared Pernia's sentiments. He believed the strict economic provisions in the charter is the “original sin making it difficult for our country to progress.”
“For so many decades, we have been trying to amend portions of our foreign investment laws. Although we have improved some, we have not really touched the constitutional amendments that dealt with the basic restrictions,” Sicat said.
“This is the time to do it because when will we do it? When we have a crisis that needs enormous effort by the government to organize itself?” he added.
National Scientist Raul Fabella, also professor emeritus at the UP School of Economics, agreed that lifting the constitutional limit on foreign ownership will make the Philippines more foreign investment-friendly but it's not enough to draw investors.
"By itself alone, it will not create a tsunami of inward foreign investment," said Fabella.
He cited several factors that have deterred foreign investment: the high cost of power and doing business, weakness of the judicial system, litigations that tie up projects, and the peace and order situation.
Fabella also cited the Philippine government's "mixed messaging" to foreign investors, and cited the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises (CREATE) bill.
"To create a true foreign investment-friendly ecology, you cannot afford mixed messages.... While we are trying to make ourselves look good on the issue of foreign ownership, we are increasing the tax bite on foreign investors," he said.
In a statement read during the hearing, Ibon Foundation said the country would benefit more from a fiscal stimulus over constitutional amendments and purshed for the retention in the economic provisions in the Constitution.
Professor Herman Kraft, chair of the political science department at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, earlier told Rappler that the problem with using the pandemic to justify Cha-Cha is that “charter change is a political response to what is effectively a technical problem.”
Kraft pointed out that current circumstances outside Congress indicate Cha-Cha will not just be about the economic provisions.
There’s the controversy involving the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines and Duterte himself wanting to change fundamental political issues on the party-list system.
“If they insist on including all these issues and then justify a limited discussion and debate on the basis of the pandemic, then this is little more than a political exercise and not one that is directed at responding to the effects of the pandemic,” Kraft said. – Rappler.com