MANILA, January 13, 2003 (STAR)  Most Filipinos still oppose amending the Constitution at this time but support for Charter change or "Cha-cha" appears to be growing, according to a non-commissioned nationwide poll.

Fifty-eight percent of 1,200 respondents said they were not in favor of making any amendments at this time while 42 percent said they were, the opinion poll conducted by Pulse Asia from Nov. 6 to Dec. 22 showed.

The poll is conducted quarterly to track the nation’s sentiment on the issue. It has a 95 percent confidence level and a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The poll results contradict claims by some politicians that Filipinos are in favor of introducing amendments to the 1987 Charter.

However, while the majority of Filipinos still oppose constitutional amendments, Pulse Asia said it found more support for amendments now compared to a previous survey conducted in July.

In that poll 64 percent of 1,200 respondents nationwide opposed Charter change while 36 percent were in favor. Explaining the results of that survey, pollster Emmanuel San Andres said in an earlier interview that "constitutional overhaul is not high on Filipinos’ agenda right now."

Filipinos were more preoccupied with "other issues that affect them directly" such as prices of basic commodities and electricity rates, unlike "something that is abstract" like Charter change, he said.

Previous surveys showed that Filipinos have consistently opposed moves to amend the Constitution.

Meanwhile, the influential Catholic Church, which has consistently opposed constitutional amendments, will soon discuss the latest move to amend the Charter and take a position, Monsignor Hernando Coronel said.

"The issue is still under discussion because the bishops have individuals comments," Coronel, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said in a radio interview.

He said the Church, which has sway over the predominantly Catholic nation, opposed previous Charter change moves because they were "untimely."

"Some politicians are only thinking of extending their terms, that is why they want to amend the Constitution," he said, adding that if the time comes for amendments, only "selfless" individuals with "honest-to-goodness" intentions should propose amendments.

A coalition of businessmen and labor groups, meanwhile, is set to announce its strong opposition to any proposed Charter change at the time because of the "instability it will create," business leader Donald Dee said yesterday.

Dee, chairman of the Confederation of Garments Exporters of the Philippines, estimated that the process would take at least 18 months and might slow business because investors will adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

The previous administrations of Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada pushed for Charter amendments to make the country more competitive.

However, Charter change proposals were shelved because of strong public opposition, fueled by suspicion that politicians only want to remove limits on their terms so they can remain in office.

Term limits were put in place in the Constitution, which was rewritten in 1986 and ratified the following year, to prevent local officials from staying in power indefinitely as well as to prevent abuse.

The latest move to amend to the Constitution are being pushed by President Arroyo’s allies in the House of Representatives. But the Senate disagrees with the House on when and how to introduce constitutional amendments.

Mrs. Arroyo has remained cool on the latest Charter change initiative, saying the country has more urgent problems that needed attention.

In a move that stunned the nation, Mrs. Arroyo announced on December 30 she was withdrawing from the 2004 presidential elections so she could concentrate on revitalizing the poverty-stricken economy during her remaining 18 months in office without being distracted by politics.

Last week, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said Malacañang would remain neutral on the issue.

Senate leaders decided last week not to pursue Charter change before the 2004 elections and only by a constitutional convention.

In a joint press statement, Senate President Franklin Drilon, Senate President Pro Tempore Juan Flavier and Majority Floor Leader Loren Legarda said the country faces more pressing problems than constitutional amendments.

It would be "irresponsible" for the Senate and the House of Representatives to focus their attention on amending the Constitution instead of working to improve the lives of Filipinos, they said.

Under the Constitution, the Charter may be amended either through a constitutional convention, wherein delegates would be elected by the people to the body; a constituent assembly, wherein lawmakers would propose amendments; or a people’s initiative, wherein at least 12 percent of the electorate may propose changes through a petition.

All amendments are to be ratified by the people in a plebiscite. — With Mayen Jaymalin, Marianne Go

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