Since the adoption of the 1987 Constitution of the Philippines, past administrations have attempted to change the nation’s foremost document. Critics and defenders of the Constitution know that it is not flawless, yet all attempts at changing it – in part or in whole have failed. (READ: What you need to know about Charter Change)
According to Dante Gatmaytan of the University of the Philippines College of Law, much of the skepticism towards Charter Change (Cha-Cha) is founded on the Marcos era. The 1987 Constitution was crafted as the country was emerging from the decades-long Martial Law period under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
“Our skepticism is rooted in the Marcos era where the dictator used constitutional change to duck term limits. Since that trust was betrayed, politicians have not earned our respect,” Gatmaytan said.
Retired Supreme Court (SC) Justice Vicente Mendoza added, “The reason the many attempts of Congress or groups to change the 1987 Constitution failed is not by reason of intrinsic merit. It is because the attempts were viewed as nothing but veiled attempts to extend the term of office of the President. That is the simple reason.”
Still, the issue of Cha-Cha has been brought up by almost every administration after Martial Law and the Marcos administration. What did the attempts seek to achieve and why did they fail?
File photo by Rappler
In 1997, the People’s Initiative for Reform, Modernization and Action (PIRMA), sought a parliamentary system of government and the amendment of Article 7, Section 4, of the 1987 Constitution, which states the the president is not eligible for re-election. According to previous Newsbreak reports, PIRMA was the brainchild of Jose Almonte, then President Fidel Ramos’ national security adviser.
The attempt was done by way of People’s Initiative where a signature campaign, which claimed to have gathered 11.5 million signatures was submitted to the Supreme Court for decision.
According to retired SC Justice Adolfo Azcuna, when the proposal reached the Court, it ruled that the people’s initiative was inadequate as it was asking for revision to the Constitution, rather than an amendment.
“We decided that the people's initiative then that reached the court was for a revision rather than an amendment, and therefore beyond the competence of a initiative to effect,” he said.
Charter Change by way of people’s initiative can only propose amendments, not revisions to the Constitution.
File photo by Rappler
In 1999, a second attempt to amend the constitution was floated by the administration of President Joseph Estrada. Despite being a critic of Cha-Cha under Ramos, Estrada formed the Constitutional Correction for Development (Concord), which pushed for the lifting of restrictions on the foreign ownership of business.
In a final report from the Philippine Commission on Constitutional Reform formed by the president, it was recommended that foreign ownership on land, public utilities, schools, mass media, mining firms, and advertising agencies be removed.
Though it was never clearly stated how Cha-Cha would be pursued, some experts say the movement was towards a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass).
From The 1987 Constitution: To change or not to change authored by lawyer Antonio La Viña and Joy Aceron, associate director for Social Policy of the Ateneo School of Government, “He (Estrada) affirmed that the lawmakers were themselves elected by the people, and thus they have the mandate to improve the Constitution. Hence, he hinted that he favored a Constituent Assembly.”
Estrada’s attempt received opposition from various sectors. According to previous reports, critics were wary of it as a move to extend term limits once more and introduce self serving provisions into the constitution.
“Every attempt to amend the 1987 Constitution was met with skepticism that they were mere ploys to eliminate term limits,” Gatmaytan said.
As cited in La Viña and Aceron’s book, Estrada, upon realizing Concord would not push through, said, “What I put forward in all good faith was shouted down in rallies and marches and condemned in pulpits.”
File photo by Rappler
Several attempts to make changes in the Constitution occurred under the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The consultative commission created by Arroyo and headed by Political Science and Public Administration expert Jose Abueva pushed for Federalism and liberalizing the economy among its major changes.
Despite this, Abueva, on his personal website later on said, “the president (Arroyo) decided to push for only one amendment: to change our presidential government with a bicameral congress to a parliamentary government that would be unicameral. She dropped our proposal to change our unitary republic into a federal republic and to liberalize the nationalistic provisions on foreign participation in our economy."
The administration attempted Charter Change by all three means available.
A people’s initiative, this time called Sigaw ng Bayan (The people’s cry), conducted a signature campaign to push for changes in the Constitution.
There were also moves for Congress to convene into a Con-Ass led by then-Speaker Jose de Venecia and later on, Prospero Nograles. Former Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr also drafted a resolution, which proposed that Congress convene into a Con-Ass.
In 2009, lawmakers also called for a Constitutional Convention (Con-Con).
Several factors contributed to the failure of the Arroyo administration’s push for Cha-Cha. First, the SC junked the people’s initiative of Sigaw ng Bayan citing it lacked merit.
Opposition on Cha-Cha also occurred with several congressmen at the time, including Luis Villafuerte and Monica Prieto-Teodoro, withdrawing support.
In addition to this, despite flipping from con-ass to con-con, Charter Change also lacked support from Senate. Various sectors such as the Catholic Church also strongly opposed the move.
The first attempts at Charter Change looked to revise the entire 1987 Constitution to make way for federalism. President Rodrigo Duterte pushed for a federal system of government as one of his campaign promises and, with Congress behind him, the process for doing so is taking place.
Aside from this, 2018 hearings in the House of Representatives gave a glimpse of some of the proposed changes to the 1987 Constitution: limited protection for free speech and the possible abolition of the Office of the Vice President, Office of the Ombudsman, and the Judicial and Bar Council. (READ: House Cha-Cha proposals: No more Ombudsman, JBC, OVP)
It also proposed that the Commission on Human Rights becomes a fiscally-autonomous constitutional commission. The CHR was criticized strongly by members of the House who earlier voted to reduce the CHR's 2018 budget to P1,000.
By end-2018, the House under Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo passed a resolution that would have shifted the country to a federal system. However, the Senate declared the initiative “dead on arrival.”
In 2020, even as the novel coronavirus broke out in the country, charter change was still on the table. The Duterte government migrated its signature gathering campaign online in May, where people could read amendments being pushed by the government. These included empowering regional development councils, banning turncoatism, limiting political dynasties, and opening up the national economy to foreign investments.
Duterte, meanwhile, wanted the new talks to change the party-list system. He claimed it was being “abused” by leftist groups linked to communist rebels.
In the several attempts at charter change, Congress has eyed convening as a constituent assembly, which would need a vote of three-fourths of all members. (READ: The problem with Con-Ass? Distrust of Congress)
The Senate and the House, however, differs on whether to sit and vote jointly or separately. The 1987 Philippine Constitution is silent on the manner by which Congress should sit and vote.
While there is no best way to amend the Constitution, Gatmaytan noted that Duterte allies dominate Congress.
“An assembly beholden to the President may not necessarily produce the best document. Any project that involves drafting the fundamental law of the land will benefit from serious deliberation founded on contending views, not a mere collection of 'yes' men,” he said.
In the revived January 2021 talks in both chambers of Congress, lawmakers again pushed for a Con-Ass.
Although “restrictive” economic provisions and the COVID-19 pandemic are cited as reasons for the revived talks, constitutional law professor Tony La Viña warned lawmakers can tinker with any provision – even the entirety of the Constitution – once a Con-Ass is convened. – with reports from Jodesz Gavilan and Michelle Abad/Rappler.com