In January-March 1970, youth and student organizations and their allies among workers, farmers and religious groups held numerous rallies and other forms of protest across the country in what became known as the First Quarter Storm of 1970 against the decades-old sociopolitical ills plaguing the nation.
One of their major demands was a nonpartisan constitutional convention (Con-con) to prevent the involvement of political parties and politicians and their families in the revision of the Commonwealth-era 1935 Constitution for selfish ends. The election of delegates to the Con-con in November 1970 was approved in a law passed in August 1969, three months before President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. won reelection.
On Jan. 30, 1970, just days after his first State of the Nation Address in his second term, Marcos met with representatives of “moderate” student groups who asked him to sign a binding document that he would not seek another term. Marcos was “infuriated” by this demand and rejected it, according to one account of the meeting.
Top of the agenda
More than half a century later, the Constitution is uncannily once again on top of the agenda of another generation of youth and student leaders, who have formed a broad national alliance against Charter change (Cha-cha) being pushed by lawmakers.
The Alliance of Youth against Charter Change (Tayo Against Cha-Cha) includes over 100 groups, from student councils to Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) units, according to the organizers who launched it at a press conference on Feb. 12.
The move to amend or revise the Constitution this time comes after the rise to the presidency of the dictator’s son and namesake, the break between Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, and the Senate’s noncooperation with the House of Representatives led by the President’s cousin, Speaker Martin Romualdez, in a “people’s initiative” for Cha-cha purportedly to relax the Charter’s economic provisions to encourage the entry of foreign investments.
The Cha-cha movement is also being pushed against the backdrop of a deliberate attempt to diminish the value of the 1986 People Power Revolution, which toppled Marcos, according to the #BuhayAngEdsa Campaign Network.
In a statement, the alliance said it was “united in opposition to moves by the government to railroad charter change over solutions to people’s issues.”
“We fervently urge the government and our policymakers to concentrate their efforts on addressing pressing concerns affecting the youth,” it said.
Nestie Villaviray, chair of Model SK Network, said during the press conference that the 1987 Constitution is a “legacy bequeathed to the youth after the dictatorship.”
The Constitution must be protected and defended against politicians who want to change it “because the people do not need Cha-cha, the students do not need Cha-cha, but genuine service for the citizens,” Villaviray said, adding:
“What our lawmakers should do instead is to pass laws that would give just wages and benefits to our workers, establish hospitals for free medical services, build classrooms with complete facilities for better learning, combat irregularities and corruption to encourage investors in our country, strengthen support to the local industries and the agricultural sector to end dependence on importation of rice, fish and other things, and most of all, to pass laws to terminate political dynasties in all government positions not just in the SK, and to hold corrupt politicians accountable.”
Lawmakers supporting Cha-cha via the petition for a people’s initiative say that the least expensive way of doing this is to convene Congress into a constituent assembly (or con-ass), where the senators and congresspersons vote jointly to approve any amendments.
The move immediately fell under a cloud of suspicion when the President’s own sister, Sen. Imee Marcos, alleged that Romualdez had promised up to P20 million in government aid per congressional district to gather signatures. This was strongly denied by the Speaker.
The President openly supports Charter change, but “nothing more” than the economic provisions that limit foreign participation in businesses in the Philippines. But he said he opposed foreign ownership of land in the country—a major change that some House members are pushing for.
To mollify fears that Cha-cha would lead to changing certain political provisions, particularly term limits of elected officials, Romualdez stressed that “we do not advocate any political amendment.”
But Francis “Kiko” Dee, a grandson of Corazon Aquino who was swept to the presidency by the Edsa people power revolt, said he remained suspicious of Cha-cha.
He said the signature campaign for the people’s initiative intended only to compel a joint vote by the smaller Senate and the bigger House on any future amendments without stating the specific provisions to be changed right at the outset, leaving open the prospect of changing the political provisions of the Constitution once the work begins.
“We are very suspicious of any form of Cha-cha under this administration,” said Dee, who teaches political science at the University of the Philippines and serves as deputy executive director of the Ninoy and Cory Aquino Foundation.
Villaviray, the SK leader, said the Constitution did not have to be amended to attract foreign investments or to ease the business climate in the Philippines, citing the rise in the country’s investment grade under the late President Benigno Aquino III.
“Can we trust our legislators who, starting with the people’s initiative, already employed deception, power tripping on SK officials and exploitation of the hardships of Filipinos in gathering signatures?” he said.
Other student leaders cited the deteriorating quality of education as seen in the low international ratings of Filipino students in math, science and reading, and poor or inadequate school facilities.
They said a proposed amendment to allow 100% foreign ownership of schools would not solve these problems, and that these prospective new schools would still be out of reach to the majority of Filipino students whose education remained the responsibility of the state.
Matthew Silverio, chair of the Student Council Alliance of the Philippines (Scap), urged the government to declare an “education crisis” to focus solutions on problems that had piled up over the decades.
“We are outraged that while millions of young people and children are out of school and continuing to drop out of school … our lawmakers are rushing to sell our lands to foreigners, to foreign companies, by changing this Constitution,” Silverio said.
“Education is the cornerstone of progress and development. It is through education that we empower the youth, unlock their potential, and pave the way for a brighter tomorrow to be nation-builders,” he said. “Investing in education is investing in the future generation, in the future of the nation.”
Khylla Meneses, secretary general of Akbayan Youth, said the current Cha-cha move was “a case of fighting elites rallying to consolidate their power over the people and to shape the Charter change according to their self-interests.”
Meneses said the opposition to Charter change by Duterte and his family was “fake” as they supported such a movement when the former president was in power.
“We cannot expect any truth from the Dutertes,” she said “From spreading fake news to governing ineptly, the Dutertes are now portraying themselves as pseudo-oppositionists to gain an advantage in their dynastic war with the administration and escape accountability for their crimes.”
Student council leaders
The youth alliance is headed by student council leaders of the University of the Philippines, Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Bulacan State University, X-Ed Senior High School Coalition, University of the East Manila, National Teachers College, Batasan Hills National High School, City College of San Jose Del Monte, and the Junior Association of Local Colleges and Universities.
SK federation chairpersons and other SK officers from Manila, Pasig and Marikina, and progressive national youth and student groups such as Akbayan Youth, Scap and the Model SK Network are also part of the coalition.
Dee praised the “multigenerational effort” against Charter change but said it was “definitely the youth that have a bigger stake for the very simple fact that they’ll be around a lot longer.”
He said it was surprising to see the “very strong efforts” to amend the Constitution at this time.
“We cannot talk about Edsa without defending the Constitution” that institutionalized the gains and victories that resulted from the 1986 revolution, Dee said.
According to him, Edsa must be celebrated to honor the sacrifices of the people that made it happen.
“This year in particular, it is clear to us that there is an effort to set it aside, and that’s something we want to stand against,” Dee said. “In a very strong voice, we want to say that we love the fruit of Edsa. It is not perfect. No revolution is, no administration is. But because of Edsa, we enjoy the fact that we can call a presscon today.”
The President, unlike his predecessors, did not declare Feb. 25 a special holiday. Feb. 25, 1986, was the fourth day of the revolt. In the evening of that day, the dictator and his family and close associates fled Malacañang to their exile in Hawaii, where he died three years later.