[OPINION] Cha-Cha train is stuck at the station

It is unlikely the Cha-Cha train will leave the station anytime soon. The station is in a bit of a mess.  The station master who was most anxious for the train to get going has just gotten unceremoniously thrown out.  The replacement of Cong Pantaleon Alvarez by Cong Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) as Speaker of the House of Representatives is a setback for Duterte’s Cha-Cha plans.

Although GMA also tried to push Cha-Cha during her term as president, she is not likely to be as reckless as Alvarez was.  For many lawmakers, Alvarez’s proposal for postponing the May 2019 elections to make way for Cha-Cha was the last straw. No-Al(varez) instead of No-El. GMA will push Cha-Cha because that is what Duterte wants. But she has very little time to get things going. She has to reorganize, replace Alvarez diehards in the committees, and consolidate her control over a politically unwieldy legislative body. 

Once people file their candidacies in October, which is only two months from now, it will be impossible to stop the May 2019 elections. At stake in the 2019 elections are 80,000 positions. Even if only an average of 3 candidates run for each position, you are talking of almost 250,000 people, the whole political class in the provinces who will be invested in the elections pushing though. The Speaker is going to have difficulty just getting enough congressmen to attend plenary for a quorum. 

In the next few months, GMA could focus on uniting the House around a draft constitution, working with the 3 already submitted drafts, the PDP-Laban, the Gonzales-De Vera, and the Con-Com drafts. Alvarez assumed that he could easily ram through a compromise draft. But it was precisely Alvarez’s hard ball leadership style that turned many congressmen off. GMA cannot use the same tactics. 

In the new situation, Congress persons’ institutional bias against local governments getting more resources, as a result getting less dependent on their “fetching” skills, will come to the fore. Congress persons do not want more powerful mayors and governors. We cannot assume that their support for federalism is a foregone conclusion. 

Then there’s the Senate. The day after SONA, the Senate met and reaffirmed their position that under no condition would they agree to joint voting with the House in a Con-Ass. They would take their time studying Cha-Cha and federalism – the Senate committee on constitutional reform is already holding hearings. 

Senate Majority Floor Leader Migz Zubiri confirmed that with 6 senators in the minority they will be unable to get the 18 votes needed to get the three-fourths majority required. Even among the members of the majority, there are senators not in favor of amending the Constitution, Zubiri said. So far, he said, only 4 are in favor of a shift to federalism.

GMA’s ascension to the speakership adds a new wrinkle to prospects for Cha-Cha in the Senate. GMA is on her last term in the House so she has less than a year in power. Some say she wants a shift to a federal-parliamentary system so she can then become Prime Minister. There are many senators who, for a variety of reasons, are anti-GMA. This provides yet another reason to block Cha-Cha.

There is talk of taking advantage of the regime’s safe majority among justices of the Supreme Court and getting a judgment in favor of joint voting. Such a judgment would have a bit of respectability given the unclarity of the 1987 Constitution’s provision on Con-Ass. But the Senate, full of bright lawyers, has prepared for this by not even approving the joint resolution for a Con-Ass submitted by the House. The SC cannot order the Senate to approve a Con-Ass joint resolution, a clear cut “political question,” without provoking a constitutional crisis when the Senate refuses.

A lot can still happen in the 10 months till the May 2019 elections. If there’s no No-El, the regime can try to break the deadlock in the Senate by sweeping the Senate races. But all the Senate opposition has to do is win 3 seats – not an impossible task. They need to re-elect Bam Aquino, a replacement for Sonny Trillanes and for Alan Peter Cayetano to keep the majority from a three-fourths vote. Assuming, of course, that everyone in the majority will vote for Cha-Cha.   

The Duterte regime is certainly not giving up on Cha-Cha. Some P40 million has just been budgeted for popular education for Cha-Cha. This in an attempt to get around a recent SWS survey showing that only 37% of Filipinos support the shift to a federal system of government while only one out of 4 Filipinos are even aware of what it is. This is not directly relevant until a plebiscite, but it is already strengthening the opposition. 

Those who support some rearrangement of local-central government relations but are opposed to Cha-Cha point to a recent SC decision saying that the IRA should include all other sources of revenue apart from BIR collections. Some P575.5 billion is budgeted for IRA for 2019; this will increase to P732 billion if the SC makes a final judgment that its decision should be implemented in 2019. 

After the 2019 elections, the Duterte regime will be in the second half of its term. Duterte will not become a “lame duck” president until 2020 or 2021 unless his survey numbers plummet. But politicians will already be thinking about the 2022 presidential elections and looking for a strong presidential candidate to latch on to. It does not help that the farce in the House during SONA and the continuing impasse in the Senate makes the President look weak. 

The only way for Cha-Cha to be saved is if Duterte goes back to his old position that Cha-Cha should be done through a constitutional convention. Duterte’s people pushed Con-Ass assuming they would have greater control – as it turned out, an incorrect assumption. The Senate would probably agree. If the regime moves fast enough, in theory, electing a Con-Com can still be piggy backed onto the 2019 midterm election. 

There must be people in the Duterte camp who are serious about political reform, not just about restructuring government to assure continued power for Duterte and his people beyond 2022. Who knows, successful political reform supported by the people through a Con-Con might just be the ticket that will launch Inday Sara to the presidency. I doubt it. – Rappler.com

Joel Rocamora is a political analyst and a seasoned civil society leader. An activist-scholar, he finished his PhD in Politics, Asian Studies, and International Relations in Cornell University, and had been the head of the Institute for Popular Democracy, the Transnational Institute, the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party, and member to a number of non-governmental organizations.