Dancing with Dictatorship?

The 1972 imposition of Martial Law has left lasting scars on the political psyche of the country. Individuals were not the only victims of involuntary disappearances during his period; the Filipino people as a whole have yet to find the sense of trust in their government, the trust that Martial Law threw into a dungeon.

President Estrada has claimed that his proposed amendments of the 1987 Constitution are limited to economic reforms. However, some sectors have warned that any amendments of the current Charter, whether economic or political, would leave the entire Constitution vulnerable to dictatorial machinations. Its framers want to prevent the rise of another tyrant. Hence the stringent rules governing the declaration of martial law, as well as the term limits of officials and the check and balance system.

All of these raise questions on the possible political consequences of any sort of constitutional change. Is such a change suited for our type of democracy and political temperament? Is it the right time to undertake such a move? What are the political, as opposed to the much-publicized economic benefits, of President Estrada’s ‘Concord’?

The Roots of (In)stability was established to fit 

The 1899 Malolos Constitution was established to fit the needs of the newly born Philippine Republic. In 1935, it was replaced by a constitution that sprung from American roots, specifically the Tydings-McDuffie Law. After several decades, growing nationalistic sentiments caused many to question why an independent republic should continue to operate under a co situation fashioned under colonial auspices. The proposal  for a thotough overhaul of the 1935 Constitution gathered momentum. On March 16, 1967, the Philippine Congress called for a convention to propose constitutional amendments.

In 1981, the Constitution was again amended. This time, the main change was from a parliamentary government (established under the 1973 Charter) to a presidential form of administration. By November 1985, as the Marcos regime sunk deper into unpopularity, the former strongman entered into the biggest gamble of his life. The rampant cheating in the February 1986 snap elections climaxed in the EDSA Revolt.  The main distinction of the so-called “Freedom” or 1987 Constitution is its emphasis on human rights and a system of check and balance. But the evolution of the Charter almost did not end here. Former President Ramos toyed with the idea of constitutional reforms, but his proposals were met with stiff opposition.

Bad Timing

Many fear that the Estrada government may try to perpetuate itself in power through constitutional amendments. However, there is a positive side to the extension of term limits, particularly at the local government level. This is according to Dr. Francisco Magno, a faculty of the Political Science Department. Dr. Magno, who is also connected with De La Salle’s Social Development Research Center, stated that the three year term of officials is not enough for them to deliver all of their campaign promises/ Nonetheless, he said that that the benefits of this would not outweigh the disadvantages of a potentially authoritarian rule. Dr. Magno stressed that the time is not right to change the Constitution. This is due to the discontent over political and economic policies that are prevalent among the populace, as well as disenchantment with well placed political groups.

The Fruits of Labor

Land has always been the root cause of discontent in Philippine society. The Spaniards deprived Filipinos of thousand of hectares of land. During the ‘30s and ‘40s, the hacienderos of Central Luzon virtually enslaved their countrymen, sparking the Hukbalahap Revolt.

Today’s economy is far less dependent on agriculture, and the government has taken steps to address the problem of equitable land distribution is contemporary Philippine society is anything but equitable. This is true not just of farmers vis-à-vis landowners, but also of tribal people in relation to land developers and the government. According to Dr. Magno, political revisions, if they are to be made, should be geared toward cases like the aforementioned. “Under our present constitution, we still abide by the Regalian Doctrine, which declares that the state has ownership of all natural resources, including upland forest resources. This doesn’t fit in with the notion that indigenous communities or tribal people are effective protectors of the environment. They have been doing this (taking care of their environment) for a long time now, even before the time of the colonizers. This is certainly one of the issues to be considered if we want environmental protection and social equity.”

Cleaning Up

Corruption has become synonymous with government, at least in the Philippines. Dr. Magno stated that another benefit from constitutional change is the provision on accountability. This would make public officials liable for corrupt practices.

He also recommended that revisions be made in terms of political jurisdiction for ecological purposes. For example, the mayor  and the governor of a particular area pass the buck over the denudation of forests, since there is no inter-agency coordination over these kinds of issues.

Dr. Magno also added that while the need for charter change may be present, it is the process by which it will be undertakes that makes it distasteful to most people. Hence, a constituent assembly is a better option.

Back to Basics

According to Dr. Magno, the Philippines is one of the few countries in the world with a Presidential form of government. A parliamentary system would be more suited to the country, since officials would be elected based on their platform of government rather than their personalities. He added, “We should have a provision requiring those in (government) positions to have the proper training before or after their proclamation; maybe they should go to reputable educational institutions like La Salle to take courses on good governance.”

Déjà vu

Year after yea, the September 21 anniversary of Martial Law is commemorated. Each year, dire warning are spoken on the looming dictatorship of the current government. This scene is repeated so often in so many places, that we have come to dismiss it as the rantings of publicity0hungry radicals. Nonetheless, if we treasure our freedom, if we have truly learned our collective lesson, we must continue to be vigilant.

Let the September 21 of 27 years ago be the last of its kind!

The LaSallian

By The LaSallian

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