charter change

‘Dead before it starts’: Senators oppose charter change

JC Gotinga

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Senators say amending the Constitution in the middle of a pandemic will worsen the situation, not help it, and it would be wrong to do it with the 2022 elections on the horizon

Three more senators expressed their opposition to charter change (Cha-Cha), saying it would be wrong to push for the proposal during the coronavirus pandemic or even in its aftermath.

In separate interviews with reporters, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, Senator Richard Gordon, and Senator Sherwin Gatchalian said the proposal to amend the 1987 Constitution taken up by a committee in the House of Representatives would be “divisive” and would not help the country deal with the pandemic, contrary its proponents’ claims.

The charter change proposal from the League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP) lifts restrictions on foreign investments and allows local governments to source funds from taxes besides those collected by the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The LMP said this would help the country fight and bounce back from the pandemic.

“I don’t see how charter change is connected to the pandemic. What’s important now is to give jobs and food, and charter change will not do that. In fact, charter change might do the opposite,” Gatchalian told reporters in a virtual briefing on Thursday, July 23.

Discussions on an earlier attempt at revising the charter to shift to federalism revealed it would leave a roughly P300 billion deficit in the national budget, Gatchalian said. (READ: What you need to know about Charter Change)

“So in my point of view, aside from it’s not the right time, this is going to be futile. It’s also a bill that I can say would be dead on arrival, too. In fact, it seems dead even before it started,” he added in a mix of English and Filipino.

An attempt at charter change in 2018 fizzled out largely due to opposition form the Senate. Even then, senators said the proposal was “dead on arrival” at the chamber. That proposal eased term limits of elected officials, and diminished the role of the Senate.

Changing the form of government from the current unitary to a federal form is a campaign promise of President Rodrigo Duterte. It requires revising the Constitution.

The new charter change proposal is backed by the Department of the Interior and Local Government. Would the Senate stand its ground against the Executive?

“The Senate will push back. I don’t even see a scenario wherein the Senate will tackle this, if it reaches the Senate,” Gatchalian said.

‘Power grab, like Marcos’

“Regardless of the merit, the issue on Cha-Cha is the timing. Should we debate on Cha-Cha now, which is a very divisive issue, or should we concentrate all our efforts and resources on economic recovery?” Drilon said in a separate statement.

The opposition lawmaker said charter change would be a “waste of time” if Duterte tackled it in his 5th State of the Nation Address on Monday, July 27. Drilon expects the President to spell out comprehensive plans on dealing with the pandemic.

In a virtual media briefing on Wednesday, July 22, Gordon said “it’s so suspicious” that a move to amend the charter is being broached now.

“All politicians will fall under suspicion that they’re just out to extend their term,” Gordon added.

Constitutional reform should be an election issue, properly explained to the electorate and made a decision point in voting politicians into power, he said. Political parties should include baseline or draft amendments in their campaigns. What exactly do they want to change in the Constitution?

“Dahil kung gagawin ‘yan at walang ganoon, at hindi open at transparent ‘yung kampanya, pagdududahan ‘yan (Because if it’s done without that, and the campaign is not open and transparent, it will be suspected) that it’s a grab for power, or an extension of power, like Marcos,” Gordon said, referring to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

After two consecutive 4-year terms as president, Marcos amended the Constitution in 1973 to extend his eligibility and consolidate power. He ended up ruling for another 13 years, until he was deposed in 1986.

Not even after the pandemic ends

Even if the stated reasons for the current charter change proposals are economic, the drafters can very easily sneak changes into every other aspect of the country’s foundational law.

“If you tinker with the Constitution, kahit na sabihin mo economic provision ’yan, pwede silang magsaksak ng iba pa – tanggalin ‘yung term limits, ano pang ibang political items na ilagay doon,” Gatchalian said. (READ: Term limits ‘created’ political dynasties, says Cayetano)

(If you tinker with the Constitution, even if you say it’s an economic provision, they can insert other things – remove term limits, put whatever political items in there.)

These issues are highly divisive, and may stoke political tensions among people running the government – turn allies into enemies and vice versa. Squabbling politicians are the last thing the country needs during a pandemic, Gatchalian said.

And even if a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 is found by the end of the year, charter change would still be unwelcome in 2021 and for the rest of the Duterte administration’s term, he added.

For one, restoring the economy will be a struggle even long after the pandemic is over. Government efforts should focus on recovery.

“Number two, 2021, for all intents and purposes, it’s already preliminary to the election year, which is 2022. Touching the Constitution before the election year does not send the right signals to our constituents,” Gatchalian said.

Politicians must avoid “self-serving” charter change, he added.

Besides Drilon, Gatchalian, and Gordon, opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan earlier voiced his disagreement with the proposal. Pangilinan, head of the Senate committee on constitutional amendments and president of the Liberal Party, earlier said the idea that charter change can solve the coronavirus crisis is “out of this world.” –

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.