Charter change, Ramos and Aquino
Fidel Ramos, the Philippines’ only effective post-EDSA president, allowed the last 18 months of his presidency to be dominated by a controversy over a proposed amendment to the 1987 Constitution (the so-called “cha-cha”) that would allow him to run for a second term. He eventually dropped the idea, but not before it had damaged his personal reputation, wasted a huge amount of executive time, and spoiled the record of an administration with numerous achievements, particularly on the economic front.
Ramos’s strategy for a second term was similar to Aquino’s. The initiative could not be seen as coming from the President, but from the people (the “bosses,” in Aquino’s much loved phrase). Ramos would only reluctantly accept the crown for a second time when the clamor became deafening. A “major financial backer of the President” reported Ramos’s hands-off attitude: "There are times when he raises his eyebrows, without speaking, when I tell him about the campaign [for a second term], which seems to be, 'yes, go ahead with it.' Though there are times though when he tells me to put the campaign aside."
Ramos was normally an excellent manager, but his unwillingness to take control of the movement for his re-election resulted in disarray. After a “People’s Initiative” for a second Ramos term with 4 million signatures was ruled by the Supreme Court in March 1997 to have no legal basis, time began to run out. Increasingly outlandish strategies were floated. The President would convene Congress as a constitutional assembly. He would seek not a second term, but a two-year extension to the year 2000. There would be a national referendum. He would serve as vice president in an administration headed by his sister Leticia Shahani.
Meanwhile, talk of a second term for Ramos caused a schism in the EDSA coalition. In her first major initiative since standing down as president, Cory Aquino joined with Jaime Cardinal Sin in vehemently opposing plans to amend the constitution to allow Ramos to run again. Protests and newspaper criticism built steadily throughout 1997, culminating in a huge prayer rally at Luneta on September 21, 1997 (the 25th anniversary of the imposition of martial law). Just as Ramos did not formally endorse the campaign, nor did he openly abandon it. Rather it was quietly shelved and in December the ruling LAKAS-led coalition selected the speaker of the house, Joe de Venecia Jr, as its candidate.
De Venecia would almost certainly not have beaten Joseph Estrada in May 1998 however long he had had to prepare, but the continued uncertainty over a possible second term for Ramos made his task impossible, as he rather bitterly observed in 2001: "[Ramos] wanted to amend the Constitution so that he could continue. Therefore I lost six to seven months, from May until December 1997. He only anointed me two weeks before Christmas. Whereas Estrada, incumbent vice president, was campaigning for four years."
No doubt this is a lesson from history that Mar Roxas is currently pondering.
Aquino's similar situation
One of the main drivers of the movement for a second term for Ramos was the virtual certainty that Vice President Joseph Estrada would win the presidential election in 1998 against any other candidate. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the foreboding that gripped the Philippine elite at this prospect, encapsulated in a comment by De Vencia during a campaign stop at a religious convention in May: “We shall defeat,” he said, “the forces of evil.”
The Aquino team faces the same situation with Aquino’s popular vice president. Jejomar Binay is apparently surfing to victory in 2016 with 40% of the population selecting him as their first-choice candidate in the most recent polls. Miriam Santiago, the second most popular candidate, was preferred by only 10%.
The parallels are striking: two staunchly yellow reformist governments faced by the virtual certainty that the next president will be from the populist wing and will, to their mind, undo much of their good work. In each case the response has been to try to extend the term of the incumbent president beyond that allowed by current constitutional provisions.
If President Aquino is to succeed where Ramos failed, he will need to face some difficult questions.
- Does he stand much chance of success? Both Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo were unsuccessful in similar attempts to amend the Constitution, why would it be different this time? Would Aquino have the votes in Congress (two-thirds of all members) to call a constitutional convention? And even if the Constitution is so amended, can he be confident he would beat Binay in an election in 2016?
- How much of a distraction would a move to amend the Constitution be? This one is easy: it would be a huge and overwhelming diversion from a pressing needs list that includes, in no particular order, pursuing the PDAF cases against Senators Enrile, Estrada, Revilla, and others; strengthening the long-term relief efforts for victims of Yolanda; ensuring justice is done for the human rights victims of Retired General Palparan and the Ampatuans; implementing the Philippine Development Plan that Aquino rolled out in February; defending the administration in the row over the DAP; the list goes on and on.
- When Aquino encounters opposition in Congress or from the courts, will he be able to go over their heads to the people? Noynoy’s mother had a particular genius for reaching the Filipino people directly. If he attempts to amend the Constitution that was adopted during her term, Aquino is certain to encounter significant opposition from Binay’s forces, and he will need to be rock solid that (i) he has the ability to reach the people in the way Cory Aquino did; (ii) the people are going to be with him; and (iii) he can mobilize his forces at least as effectively as Binay can. I don’t think he can be certain of any of these.
Finally, Ramos’s political support eroded sharply during the charter change controversy in 1997. So did GMA’s when she carried out her own campaign.
President Aquino will need to assess whether his own “moderate” +29 rating (satisfied 56%, dissatisfied 26%) this week, the lowest of his premiership, gives him a sufficient basis from which to launch a campaign on such a divisive issue. If not, he may be able to preserve his legacy more effectively by spending the last two years of his presidency focusing on strengthening the many important reforms that have been made in his first 4 years. - Rappler.com
Alastair Dingwall is the former senior editor of the Asian Development Bank and the Western Pacific Regional Office of the World Health Organization, both located in Manila. He was the author of the blog Torn and Frayed in Manila and the editor of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to Southeast Asia. He has worked in various editorial positions in Asia for 20 years.