‘Economic Cha-cha’ is sweeping the political dance floor

‘Economic Cha-cha’ is sweeping the political dance floor

The plot thickens with the Senate announcing full participation in the planned activity of the moment: the amendment of the Constitution. 

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri’s surprise filing on Jan. 15 of Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 6 proposing the amendment of certain economic provisions represents a stronger than usual push for Charter change. It used to be that only the majority in the House of Representatives avidly sought this drastic procedure that, in all the times it was attempted in past administrations, ultimately fell by the wayside.

This time things are shaping up fast. It was only in December that House Speaker Martin Romualdez raised the idea of amending the Constitution; mere days into the new year, a campaign for a people’s initiative appeared to be underway. Zubiri’s resolution, coauthored by Senate President Pro Tempore Loren Legarda and Sen. Sonny Angara, signals a resolve by the Senate leadership not to allow the upper chamber’s strength and status to be clipped by the move seeking a “joint vote” for Charter change by two-thirds of all the members of Congress.

The demand for “economic Cha-cha”—the amendment of the Charter’s economic provisions alleged as stumbling blocks to the entry of foreign investments touted to lift the Philippines out of its backward state vis a vis its neighbors in the region—is louder, more strident. Pirma (or the People’s Initiative for Reform, Modernization and Action) has stirred to life and, through a TV advertisement aired prime time, declared what in the past was merely slyly suggested: that the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution and its results, including the 1987 Constitution, were for naught and now getting in the way of progress.

The temerity of the script is stunning, although it seemed that only those of a certain age and political perspective swiftly took offense. The “creatives” who produced the ad on the cues of their principals could be said to have risen to their expected provocative level: As articulated by representatives of the Gana Atienza Avisado law firm that paid for the ad, it was intended as a trigger for a wider discussion of economic Cha-cha. But the ad’s use of the term “Edsapwera”—to mean the nation’s exclusion from progress because of a supposed constrained and limiting “Saligang Batas”—was telling and deserved deeper outrage for its dismissal of a high point in Philippine history: the toppling of Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s dictatorship, a brutal regime that, among other economic factors, was marked by “hyperinflation of 50% in 1984, immediately followed by 23% in 1985,” according to Inquirer columnist Mahar Mangahas.

“These,” wrote Mangahas, president of the opinion survey firm Social Weather Stations, “were surely part of the fuel behind the Edsa People Power Revolution in 1986!”

In full swing

Still, the gathering of signatures looks to be in full swing, giving credence to the principals’ purported timeline that the Kabataan Partylist had earlier divulged, to the effect that a fait accompli would be presented as a midyear gift to President Marcos Jr. Already the Commission on Elections has announced receipt of signature sheets and forms for a purported people’s initiative. From the Cordillera in the north to the Bangsamoro in the south, the poll body’s local offices have received the documents, per Comelec Chair George Garcia, indicating a vigorous nationwide effort to produce the signatures of 12% of the Philippines’ registered voters on a petition for Charter change. 

Bishop Broderick Pabillo of the Apostolic Vicariate in far-off Taytay, Palawan, was the first of a number of Catholic bishops to warn the faithful not to sign any such petition, and to refuse money offered in exchange for their acquiescence, the activity being, in his pointed description, “not an initiative of the people but only of a few politicians.” 

Stories of big money changing hands for the purpose of buying the required signatures (denied by named parties) and of people signing in the belief that it was for ayuda, etc. are rife. So rife that even Sen. Imee Marcos, who chairs the Senate committee on electoral reform and people’s participation, saw fit early on to advise the citizenry to be aware that “tricking the people” is involved in the signature-gathering. Her friend and ally, Vice President Sara Duterte, has belatedly chimed in, lamenting the “pera-pirma” (money for signatures) as an insult to the dignity of poor folk.

In a  recent TV report, the President’s manang also lit into the Speaker, her first cousin, for his push for Charter change, quipping that one can’t choose one’s relatives.

The pertinent talking heads are being kept busy indeed. Garcia was quoted as saying that the Comelec could verify the authenticity of the signatures, but only after the formal petition had been filed. Imagine the tremendous expense and effort that would go into such an undertaking, supposedly to preclude possible coercion, bribery and fraud. And within 60 days yet. Nevertheless, Garcia subsequently said, those who eventually discover that they had signed the forms without fully understanding the nature of the enterprise are within their rights to withdraw their signatures.

“Ordinary people submitting boxes of signatures for verification by the Comelec”—as primly described by Cha-cha advocate Albay Rep. Joey Salceda—realizing they’ve been shafted, finding it unacceptable, and getting their signatures back? This potential display of enlightenment and quick restitution, many will agree, is something we’ve got to see. 

Political agendas

One question remains valid in this setting where political agendas almost always lurk behind proposals for economic progress: Is constitutional amendment the panacea for the anemic inflow of foreign investments? Many think not, correctly, including the minority in the Senate and in the House, as well as groups and individuals who constantly seek to air clear explanations of political developments and how these impact on the general public.

Through the noise, University of the Philippines economics professor Cielo Magno—undersecretary of finance until last September, when she ran afoul of authorities for posting her thoughts on the law of supply and demand as it pertains to the gut issue of rice, just as the President set a price ceiling on the precious grain—kept it simple. A genuine resolve to address such critical issues as corruption, the high price of electricity, the general difficulty of doing business in the Philippines, etc. would achieve much more in terms of drawing foreign investments than opening the Constitution for amendments, she said in the briefest of interviews with ANC’s “Pasada” on Jan. 15.

Unfortunate that the show hosts did not devote their running time for Magno to expound on the matter, but observers attentive to the realities in this unhappy archipelago surely got her drift. The realities become more entrenched as the days go by. For one example, power blackouts in Panay and Negros again occurred on the heels of the 4-day outage earlier in the month, doing havoc and posing a continuing threat to big and small businesses, yet the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines  is seemingly just coasting along. For another, ordinary Filipinos are struggling with ever-rising costs of rice and other staples, as well as of utilities, fuel, and virtually everything else. Farmers are losing their shirt (if they haven’t lost it already) in the face of imported produce. Other sectors are in turmoil, not least jeepney drivers and operators. Etc. 

So that tickets to the Coldplay concert have become an extreme, unthinkable luxury…

Dire straits

It should be evident that Charter change is hardly the solution to the dire straits in which many Filipinos now find themselves, even if, as announced, Angara would lead the Senate’s deliberations on RBH 6 and not Sen. Robinhood Padilla, the author of RBH 5 which seeks to lift term limits on elected officials. Padilla, the former action star and No. 1 in the last senatorial elections, chairs the committee on constitutional amendments and revision of codes and is the Senate’s foremost pusher of Charter change. 

Those who oppose the opening of the Constitution for amendments are correct to warn of the great risks involved in the process. They are correct to direct attention instead to the urgency of curbing corruption in public office and guarding against the plunder of public funds and resources, in order to boost agriculture, foster genuine industrialization, and generate employment, among other measures. Good governance is, after all, as important as foreign investments, which are apparently still elusive despite the President’s numerous trips overseas (so numerous that the Philippines recently merited a question in “Jeopardy” on the country with the most globe-trotting leader).

But battle lines have been drawn in this power dance. Watch their moves.

Read more: Challenge to Congress: Easing of bank secrecy is necessary for economic Charter change

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