1987 Charter ‘imperfect’ but carries safeguards vs instability, framer says

Charter change
The Constitution needs amending, but only at the right time and by the right people, says framer Ed Garcia. —PHOTO BY TJ BURGONIO

When politicians tried to have their way in the crafting of the 1973 Constitution, they were met with street protests in the tumultuous early years of Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s regime.

The writing on the wall was very clear. Filipinos “didn’t want politicians to be involved in the drafting of the Constitution,” human rights activist Edmundo “Ed” Garcia recalled in a recent Zoom interview with CoverStory.ph. 

“Remember that the First Quarter Storm was an offshoot of the protests of young people and students to make sure that we have a nonpartisan constituent assembly,” Garcia said, referring to the period from January to March 1970.  

He said the protests 54 years ago and today’s growing opposition to fresh moves to amend the 1987 Constitution should serve as a “warning” to the proponents. 

“It’s a warning to them not to destabilize the situation further. It’s already destabilized,” Garcia said, pointing out that Filipinos are groaning under the weight of poverty, unemployment, injustice, and poor policies on food production, agriculture and education. 

If anything, he said, the country’s leaders should focus on addressing the urgent and long-term needs of Filipinos instead of wasting time and resources on “political maneuvering.”

“This kind of people’s initiative that they’re forcing on us is really not coming from the people. It’s coming from a few politicians who want perhaps to enlarge the possibility of retaining their power,” he said of the now discontinued mode of amending the Charter.

The Constitution, drafted in the aftermath of the February 1986 bloodless people’s revolt that brought down the Marcos dictatorship and catapulted Corazon Aquino to the presidency, “is not the problem, but part of the solution,” Garcia said. 

He said that while it’s “imperfect,” it carries safeguards against the return of dictatorship, institutes a system of checks and balances, enshrines the bill of rights of Filipinos, and fosters people’s participation in policymaking, among many others. 

Constitutional commission 

Garcia was among the framers of the 1987 Constitution. At 43, he was tapped to be part of the constitutional commission (Con-Com) in 1986 to draft a new charter that would replace the 1973 Constitution. At the time he was teaching political science at the University of the Philippines and Latin American studies at the Ateneo de Manila University.  

Cecilia Muñoz-Palma was elected Con-Com president; Ambrosio Padilla, vice president; and veteran journalist Napoleon Rama, floor leader. 

The commission also included Felicitas Aquino, Adolfo Azcuna, Teodoro Bacani, Jose Bengzon Jr., Joaquin Bernas, Florangel Rosario Braid, Roberto Concepcion, Hilario Davide Jr., Vicente Foz, Jose Luis Martin Gascon, Jose Laurel Jr., Regalado Maambong, Christian Monsod, Teodulo Natividad, Ma. Teresa Nieva, Jose Nolledo, Blas Ople, Minda Luz Quesada, Florenz Regalado, Francisco “Soc’’ Rodrigo, Rene Sarmiento, Lorenzo Sumulong, Christine Tan and Bernardo Villegas. 

It took them at least four months, from June 1 to Oct. 16, 1986, to draft the document, but only after undertaking a rigorous process.

Garcia, who chaired the public hearings committee, said they suspended the sessions in Manila in the early days, packed their bags, and traveled to the countryside to hold consultations with the people “from Batanes to Sulu.”

“I said, ‘Stop. We can’t continue to craft this Constitution unless we consult our co-authors.’ We have to go out to the country and listen to their opinions, or ideas’,” he recalled telling the other delegates.  

“It is very important to the process that you incorporate the ideas of the people. So we came back to incorporate a good number of ideas that came from the ground,” he added.  

Forty-four delegates voted for the draft and two others voted against it. In a plebiscite on Feb. 2, 1987, 16.6 million Filipinos voted in favor of ratification while 4.9 million others voted against it. It came into force on Feb. 11, 1987, with President Aquino, other government officials, and military officers swearing allegiance to it, according to the Official Gazette. 

Word war 

The latest attempt to amend the Charter through a people’s initiative has been marred by allegations of bribery and use of government funds in the gathering of signatures. 

Senators have accused their colleagues in the House of Representatives of orchestrating the initiative for political ends, sparking a bitter word war. 

The people’s initiative has since taken a backseat, with the Senate and the House each hearing identical measures that seek to relax limits on foreign ownership of public utilities, educational institutions and the advertising industry.

This would entail Congress forming a constituent assembly to introduce amendments to the Charter.

In their statements to the press, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., key Senate and House leaders and the chair of the Commission on Elections agreed that holding the midterm elections simultaneously with a plebiscite to ratify the amendments in May 2025 would save costs—at least P13 billion in additional government expenses.

But Garcia said: “It’s very difficult once a constituent assembly is formalized. They can tinker with other provisions.”

“There’s a tendency obviously for people whose interests are being kind of pushed forward to make sure that what they want, rather than what the people’s needs are, prevail,” he added, echoing the sentiments of a growing number of individuals and groups opposed to the administration-backed Charter change. 

What investors look at

Garcia also found spotty the professed objective of Charter change proponents—to lure big-time investors into the country.

“What do the foreign investors look at? They look at the infrastructure, corruption, bribery, difficulty of doing business, political instability, economic malaise,” he said, adding: 

“In other words, what the investors are looking at are not so much the economic provisions of the Constitution [as] the nitty gritty of doing business. That there’s no monkey business in doing business.”

Garcia acknowledged that the fundamental law is “imperfect”—a fact that he said he stated when he explained his vote in favor of the draft Charter at the Con-Com plenary session in 1986—and, hence, needed some fixing.  

For instance, he said, its provisions on political dynasty and the party-list system need to be tweaked to better serve the public interest. 

“I voted yes for this Constitution knowing that it’s imperfect. Yet, sometimes even imperfect documents can help you transcend a turbulent period in our history. That’s what this document did,” Garcia said, referring to the series of coup attempts that besieged President Corazon Aquino’s administration in the late 1980s.

“So a Constitution is very important [as] a bulwark against all the possibilities for instability in our country,” he said. 

According to Garcia, he would be the first to rise in support of Charter change when the “right time comes along” and the “right people will do it.”

“There’s a saying, ‘God writes straight even with crooked lines.’ But when crooked people write the lines, you end up with crooked lines. Do you trust them?” he said, chuckling.

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