Filipinos remain wary of constitutional change

Filipinos remain wary of constitutional change

Can Rodrigo Duterte achieve constitutional reform where three previous presidents have failed?

Having won the recent election on a platform that included giving serious consideration to federalising the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte again declared his support for this huge political transformation in his inaugural State of the Nation Address.

Many Filipinos, however, remain wary of constitutional reform, seeing it as an underhand scheme to extend the term of a sitting president. The memory of how dictator Ferdinand Marcos (1965–86) was able to do so in 1973, with the help of martial law, is still fresh.

Three other Philippine presidents have pushed for charter change. Fidel Ramos (1992–98) tried in 1997 with the help of a group called the People’s Initiative for Reform Modernization and Action. Joseph Estrada (1998–2001) attempted to do so in 2000, aided by the Constitutional Correction for Development movement, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001–10) tried her luck in 2006 through a purported, but actually government-led, people’s initiative called Sigaw ng Bayan.

Although term extension was never declared as the main motive for these attempts to revise the constitution, the public always knew—or at least suspected— that it was.

Negative attitudes

The failure of these three presidents to change the constitution has done little, however, to allay the negative attitudes of Filipinos towards constitutional reform. Whether Duterte can use his current great popularity to reverse this remains to be seen.

The reluctance of Filipinos to embrace constitutional reform lies in their poor understanding of the constitutional order. Many Filipinos are unaware of the significance of 2 February—the date officially designated as Constitution Day in a proclamation issued by President Corazon Aquino in 1988. Aquino argued that designating a particular day as Constitution Day would give Filipinos the ‘opportunity to consecrate and dedicate themselves to the Constitution’ and ponder its significance.

From an informal survey of my own of local community members, friends and relatives working in government, and university colleagues, it appears Filipinos give little significance to Constitution Day. Even university law schools don’t appear to recognise its significance. Nor do primary and secondary schools use the occasion to improve knowledge and understanding of the constitution among students.

Nearly everyone I surveyed was unaware that 2 February is designated as Constitution Day. One comment summed up the general attitude: ‘The meaning of Constitution Day to many of our people is as murky as the polluted Pasig River.’

Given that the 1987 constitution is the highest symbol of Philippine statehood, it is incredible how 2 February slips by unobserved every year. The ‘democratic principles’ and ‘noble and lofty ideals’ enshrined in the constitution are, it seems, still not deeply instilled in Filipino hearts and minds.

This is confirmed by surveys conducted by two of the country’s most respected polling firms. A Social Weather Station poll in 2002 showed that three out of four Filipinos said they needed to be better informed about the constitution. A Pulse Asia survey in 2014 revealed that 70 per cent of Filipinos have little or no knowledge of the constitution. These results hardly inspire confidence in the readiness of Filipinos for constitutional reform.

Education campaign

If change is to occur, proponents should consider, as a preparatory step, a broad civic education program to raise awareness of constitutional principles. This could be undertaken through the barangays—local and village administrative divisions—and their legislative body, the Barangay Assembly.

Barangays have a statutory mandate, through the assembly, to provide a forum through which the ‘collective views of the people may be expressed, crystallised and considered’. Although the consideration of constitutional issues does not fall strictly within the Barangay Assembly’s powers, the barangay mechanism is the most convenient way to allow ordinary citizens the opportunity to speak out and be heard.

In addition, the president could, by executive fiat, commission law schools to act as moderators in these constitutional education sessions—a daunting imposition but warranted, nonetheless.

Until this level of awareness is achieved, Filipinos will be unable to undertake significant constitutional reform with confidence

A statute enacted in 2010 to strengthen volunteerism specifies a role for ‘the academe’, to provide technical assistance and share technology not only within academic circles, but also with ‘target communities and other clienteles’. Law schools have a role to produce ‘constitutional professionals’ whose knowledge of constitutional reform forms part of the ‘legal technology’ that they can share with the local communities to which they belong.

A national education campaign involving the barangay and law schools could instil a deeper attachment to the constitution in Filipinos so that they see themselves as stakeholders in ensuring that constitutional principles are enforced. Until this level of awareness is achieved, however, Filipinos will be unable to undertake significant constitutional reform with confidence.

Countries that value their constitution as a foundation document and believe in constitutional values as a guide to political life are more likely to be orientated towards the rule of law and greater inclusiveness. This reflects a high level of democratic maturity. Sadly, Filipinos may not be at that level yet.

Featured image:
President Duterte giving his State of the National Address in which he again declared his support for federalising the Philippines. YouTube

Michael Henry Yusingco is a Senior Research Fellow at the Ateneo School of Government in Metro Manila and a Fellow at the Institute for Autonomy and Governance in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

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