Not even Cory’s son can resist the lure of cha-cha

Carmela Fonbuena

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Not even Cory’s son can resist the lure of cha-cha
President Aquino and the Liberal Party promised to be different from past presidents and ruling parties about pushing for charter change. Or so we thought.

President Aquino’s change of heart on charter change evokes memories of the political upheaval that always characterized previous attempts – ugly scenarios that should be familiar to him because he was in the frontlines opposing changes to the Constitution that was put in place by his mother’s administration after Martial Law.

Let’s go back to December 2008 of the tumultous 14th Congress, which, to me, was one of the best and the worst times to be a journalist covering the House of Representatives. 

The 2010 presidential elections was a little over a year away. The dominant political parties both headed by President Gloria Arroyo – Lakas-CMD and the now defunct Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi) – didn’t have a viable presidential candidate. Sounds familiar?

Many Filipinos (42%) were not sure if the May 2010 polls would push through. Lakas and Kampi congressmen were at it again, reviving charter change initiatives to realize their longtime obsession to make Congress unicameral and, effectively, keep their parties in power.

But all arguments in favor of a unicameral system were drowned by the singular fear that the unpopular Arroyo, no longer allowed to seek reelection as president, could still extend her term as prime minister. 

Already on their 3rd attempt to amend the 1987 Constitution, Arroyo’s allies, it seemed, were finally going to have their way. But the Catholic Church, various NGOs, and a small political party called the Liberal Party (LP) stood in the way. 

LP then was a party with less than 20 members in the House of Representatives. But it had a formidable presence in the Senate, the remaining institution that was counted on to thwart the plans of Lakas. The Supreme Court was already dominated by Arroyo appointees.

The LP and other anti-Arroyo groups – including Makati City Mayor Jejomar Binay – led the ouster calls following the “Hello, Garci” controversy that revealed the President talking to an election commissioner supposedly to cheat for her in the 2004 elections. Arroyo would survive these attempts to force her out of office – including military coups – but she would become so unpopular.

Defeated, her critics would set their eyes on the 2010 polls. But the fresh charter change initiativves brought them back to the streets. 

LP for con-con

LP was not exactly opposed to charter change. It just didn’t want it to happen under Arroyo. 

In a December 2008 newspaper advertisement, LP proposed a constitutional convention to amend the charter. It was signed by Senator Franklin Drilon, then Senator Manuel Roxas II, and then Cavite Representative Joseph Emilio Abaya. (READ: LP bats for con-con in 2010)

Titled “Stop the Gloria Forever Constitution,” the ad read: “Instead of pushing for charter change through a Constituent Assembly, the Liberal Party (LP) will sponsor a bill in Congress calling for a holding of a Constitutional Convention in 2010 with elections of delegates to be done simultaneously with the 2010 elections.”

It was a response to the draft “cha-cha” resolution that then Camarines Sur Representative Luis Villafuerte of Kampi was circulating for signatures. He wanted the 14th Congress to convene as a constituent assembly (CA) but his method would render the 23-member Senate powerless. He meant the 2 legislative chambers would vote jointly, instead of separately, which meant the numerically dominant House members (about 200 back then) could deliver by themselves the 3/4 vote requirement to convene the assembly.

Villafuerte’s cha-cha resolution was never filed. But the constant threat of Arroyo allies suddenly convening themselves into their a CA as they interpreted it (the Constitution is vague about this) meant everyone – critics, observers, journalists – had to closely watch the very hardworking congressmen toil, sometimes up to 3 am, in case they pulled a trick in the middle of deliberations in plenary. Among the hottest issues then were the reproductive health bill, the extension of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, and the notorious creation of new districts to accommodate allies.

It was political chaos going into Christmas break. But as some political fireworks would end up, Villafuerte’s proposal died down because of infighting. It seemed that the more dominant Lakas was not happy that Kampi, through Villafuerte, was calling the shots on the initiatives.

And so in April 2009, we witnessed 2 parties merge and declare Gilbert Teodoro its presidential candidate in an elaborate ceremony expected of Lakas. Its flair for US-styled political party proceedings was nothing that other parties could match and it made one forget, for a while, that the merger was a forced marriage that was never meant to last. 

Aquino’s position

In spite of all the odds – including issues with the country’s first automated polls – the 2010 elections pushed through. And when Aquino won the 2010 polls, it meant the rebirth of the dwindling LP to become the new dominant party.

Then LP’s stand in favor of charter change through a constitutional convention was forgotten. Aquino, for his part, had been unequivocal about his personal opposition to charter change and term extension in particular.

In the 15th Congress, Aquino’s allies devoted their energy to the impeachment of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, the removal of Chief Justice Renato Corona, and the passage of controversial measures, such as reproductive health law and the sin tax law. (READ: 2012 a banner year for Aquino Congress)

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr, who used to be with Lakas before he joined LP, would continue to push for charter change. He started in the current Congress hearings on measures to amend the economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution. It is perhaps the first objective discussion of charter change without the political circus. 

But the public has not been paying it much attention precisely because it was not expected to prosper. If there was one thing people could count on, it was that Aquino would not support charter amendments, especially if it’s meant to extend his term. Isn’t he supposed to be counting his remaining days in office?

But in a change of heart that suprised even his allies, Aquino’s exclusive interview with TV5  shows he is now open to charter change to allow him to seek re-election and, curiously, to curb the powers of the Supreme Court. (READ: Palace: Info from the ground led to Aquino change of heart)

Many were disappointed. Palace allies were quick to set things straight but instead confused people even more when they issued mixed statements. (READ: Palace: Aquino not aspiring for second term and LP has no stand on second term for Aquino – Drilon

A complete transcript of the interview shows that there was no categorial statement that charter change is going to be the President’s next obsession. But Aquino’s sudden openness to it – which followed the suggestion from Roxas himself – has opened a Pandora’s box. How will allies, who favor charter change, take advantage of this opening? 

The President is entitled to change his mind about issues, but he knows how divisive charter Change has always been, especially when you introduce the removal of term limits toward the end of your term. 

Lessons from Lakas

The history of the fall of Lakas must be scary for LP, whose presumptive presidential candidate is lagging behind in polls. 

When Lakas failed in its first attempt to have President Fidel Ramos allowed to get a second term, they watched members jump to the political party of his successor Joseph Estrada, who defeated Lakas candidate Jose De Venecia Jr – the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino.

Lakas was able to return to Malacañang when Estrada was ousted and its adoptive candidate Vice President Gloria Arroyo rose to power. They revived charter change in the 13th Congress and again in the 14th Congress, never mind that it repeatedly threw the country into a political chaos.

President Aquino and LP promised to be different. Or so we thought. Less than 2 years before his term ends, he joins all presidents after Cory Aquino in entertaining the idea of perpetuating themselves in power. Apparently, not even Cory’s son can resist the lure of it. –

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