MANILA, OCTOBER 10, 2003 (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan  - With someone like senator-cum-broadcaster Noli de Castro topping all surveys for the presidential (and vice presidential) race next year, the prospect of amending the Constitution to change the form of government becomes more attractive.

The Charter change or Cha-cha initiative, however, suffers from being so closely identified with Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., who gets his legislative homework done, but whose public image as a consummate politician is akin to a snake-oil salesman.

Those willing to give Cha-cha a try have an overriding concern: who will be the head of government? People need choices — in our case, given the quality of those aspiring for the presidency in 2004, a choice of which candidate is the lesser evil. If it’s not "Kabayan" Noli or opposition Sen. Panfilo Lacson, whose date with jailers approaches, who will lead the country in case we shift to a parliamentary form of government?

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One scenario being peddled by a prominent member of the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslims Democrats is that a six-year term as prime minister will be split between Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who will serve in the first three years, and businessman Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. This scenario is given credence by the support expressed by Cojuangco’s party, the Nationalist People’s Coalition, for Cha-cha through a constituent assembly.

Yesterday President Arroyo also came out in favor of a shift to a parliamentary form of government. But she’s leaving the mode of amending the Constitution to Congress. No one seems willing to budge at the Senate, which prefers Cha-cha through a constitutional convention.

I don’t know how De Venecia of the "sunshine coalition" can swing "consa" (con-ass sounds better). Perhaps Cojuangco can use his… uhm… persuasive powers on his supporters at the Senate, especially now that he is on his way to regaining full control of his shares in food and beverage giant San Miguel Corp.

Another scenario is that there will be a three-way power-sharing scheme in case con-ass succeeds and there is a shift to parliamentary government, with the six-year transition to be split among President Arroyo, Cojuangco and De Venecia.

A third scenario is that the winner in 2004 will simply be a transition president, slowly ceding powers to parliament under a certain schedule.

Is this more palatable than a Noli de Castro administration?

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While De Venecia is trying to engineer the success of con-ass, everyone is going through the motions of participating in the 2004 presidential race. De Venecia insists he will soon have enough votes in the Senate to swing con-ass. It will take all his marketing skills to sell senators to an idea that will abolish their chamber. The abolition is not such a bad idea, as far as many Filipinos are concerned.

Cha-cha proponents do have some sound arguments. One is that under a unicameral parliament, with the government headed by a prime minister, the nation will no longer be held hostage to personality cults and the TV viewing habits of a poorly informed electorate. Sure, entertainers, broadcasters and athletes can still be elected to parliament. But in such a system, the cream tends to rise; you don’t expect brilliant members to allow a popular idiot, whose greatest skill is voice modulation, to become prime minister.

By necessity, the prime minister will have to be skilled in politics; there is the danger that so-called trapos or traditional politicians will rule the roost. But there are many such trapos around; only one can become prime minister. There’s a reasonable chance that parliament members will pick their leader for competence.

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A parliament, where certain members make up the Cabinet, could speed up both legislation and executive action. No more endless legislative gridlock and horse-trading between the House of Representatives and the Senate, and between Congress and Malacañang.

Speeding up the pace of reforms is one thing the nation urgently needs. Talk to any foreign investor and he will tell you that the nation is becoming less and less attractive to business compared with neighboring countries.

The investors’ complaints are well known: inadequate infrastructure, political instability, government policies that change from one administration to the next. The depreciation of the peso, resulting from a confluence of many things wrong in this country, has been murder to returns on investments.

Investors like to cite one particular case: the flap over terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The government may be right in trying to correct a flawed contract for operating NAIA-3. But like it or not, the scandal over that contract has made investors particularly in Europe think twice about putting their money in this country. At the time the deal was closed, the German investor, Fraport AG, had picked the Philippines over other countries including Thailand that were seeking foreign funds to expand their airports. After what has happened, you can be sure Fraport is not the only one vowing, "Never!" when you mention the Philippines.

The head of one of the biggest multinational companies here, who so far has no plans of relocating, says he would welcome reforms in the labor front. While the nation has some of the most competent managers, he says, we are losing out to other countries when it comes to skilled workers. Labor cost is lower elsewhere and the prospects for industrial peace are better, he says.

We have a population that keeps growing, he points out. Since there is no political will to reduce the growth, the government should at least guarantee employment for the booming population. For this you need investments, he says. But investors are moving to more business-friendly countries.

Naturally investors welcome any effort through Cha-cha to make the nation more conducive to business. There are simply too many barriers and imponderables here, however, and Cha-cha has a long way to go. * * *

THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER… when you don’t step on it, as far as Malacañang is concerned. So unauthorized persons must keep off the grass, planted on the Palace grounds from the administration building to the press center, lest the lushness of the grass disappear before the visit of US President George W. Bush on Oct. 18. The tropical lawn was started during the ill-fated visit of Australian Prime Minister John Howard last July, when Indonesian terrorist Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi bolted Camp Crame. With the abundance of rain and constant fussing by Palace gardeners, the lawn has come out nicely. Kuratong-style rubout awaits trespassers.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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