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[OPINION ] Flogging a dead horse: Charter change in 2021?

Not likely. There is no way proponents can get the three-fourths votes of the Senate. The question is why it is being pushed now in the middle of a pandemic, and 7 months before the filing of candidacies for the 2022 elections in early October.

The most determined push is from the House of Representatives. Introduced by Speaker Lord Allan Velasco himself, Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 2 easily passed at the committee level. It is also likely to pass the plenary at the end of February. Anticipating opposition, Velasco said they would only touch the economic provisions of the Constitution, that the two houses would vote separately, and it would only be implemented after the 2022 elections so its proponents would not benefit from the changes.

RBH 2 proposes to add the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law” to provisions that say only Filipino citizens can control, own, and/or lease alienable lands, public utilities, educational institutions, mass media companies, and advertising companies in the Philippines. If this passes it would give congress persons vast new powers. Christian Monsod, member of the 1987 constitutional body, put it strongly: “Given our experience with corrupt legislators and greedy business on transactional legislation, are we willing to entrust our legislators with that kind of power, especially since there’s so much more money from rich foreign investors?”

Another source of pressure comes from Duterte who wants the party-list system abolished in order to remove the 6 Makabayan representatives he accuses of being Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) cadre. This initiative forms part of the military’s drive against legal national democratic organizations. The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) is mobilizing support from local governments. Provided with a large budget, the DILG started out with a campaign to generate enough signatures for getting constitutional amendments through a “peoples initiative.” Failing badly, it reconciled itself to only supporting the House of Representatives.

The campaign’s problem is that it has not been able to generate support even from groups that have supported changing the Constitution’s national patrimony provisions in the past. Business groups including the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industries (PCCI) and the Makati Business Club have come out against the proposal, questioning its timing. At hearings in the Senate, economists question whether the move would significantly increase foreign direct investment. Rosario Manasan of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) said moves to amend the economic provisions of the Constitution was “very much like a Trojan Horse” that would make way for political changes.

“Once the process of charter change commences, the possibility of the proposed changes going out of our control is just around the corner,” Ateneo legal expert Tony La Viña warned.

Other economists including UP School of Economics professor Raul Fabella point out that other factors including macro economic instability, corruption, high cost of power, and poor infrastructure support are equally important in determining investment inflows. In the current situation, Duterte’s attacks on key economic players including the Ayalas and the Lopezes introduce an element of policy unpredictability which is anathema to investors, especially foreign investors who can always go to other countries.

While constitutional restrictions have been in place for 33 years, politicians prodded by business have found ways around these restrictions.  Inquirer columnist Joel Ruiz Butuyan pointed out that: “Foreigners can use land for 75 years under long term lease, similar to other Asian countries receiving huge foreign investments. Foreigners can own 100% of manufacturing, wholesale trading, and many other businesses by investing $200,000 or employing 50 Filipinos. They can own 100% of banks and retail companies worth $2.5 million. They can put up 100% foreign-owned businesses inside the hundreds of export processing zones, information technology zones, and freeport zones. They can own 100% of companies that provide news and entertainment content to local media companies. They have a wide berth of participation in the mining industry after the Supreme Court rendered a decision favorable to them.”

In the Senate, Senators Ronald dela Rosa and Francis Tolentino would introduce changes not just on economic provisions but also on “democratic representation,” making way for Duterte’s push against the party-list system. Even now statements by several senators indicate that this proposal will not get the support it needs. Apart from senators in the minority (Frank Drilon, Kiko Pangilinan, Leila de Lima, and Risa Hontiveros), Senators Pia Cayetano, Nancy Binay, Koko Pimentel, Ralph Recto, and Richard Gordon have objected because of the proposal’s timing or prefer to introduce legislation. To pass a constitutional amendment, it would have to get at least 18 votes in the Senate.

Unlike in the lower House where the leadership has worked hard to pass amendment proposals, the Senate leadership has, at best, been lukewarm. Senate President Tito Sotto has said he favors changing the national patrimony provisions, but has not pushed hard. The chair of the constitutional amendments committee, Senator Kiko Pangilinan, is a member of the minority and a leader of the opposition Liberal Party. He is a virtual gate keeper for charter change. –

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, and the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party. He worked in government under former president Benigno Aquino III as the Lead Convenor of the National Anti-Poverty Commission.