BIZ  OPINION:  THE  SCOURGE  OF  CHARTER  CHANGE

MANILA, DECEMBER 5, 2008
(STAR) FILIPINO WORLD VIEW By Roberto R. Romulo - Amidst The gloom that has pervaded the world economy since the meltdown of the United States economy in September, it looked for a while that the Philippines would weather the crisis with equanimity and little damage. The strength of our economic fundamentals, the gutsy presidential decision to push for the unpopular VAT, the cushion provided by OFW remittances, the continued growth of BPO, the hard lessons learned by our financial system (e.g. the successful initiative to clean up bank balance sheets after the 1997 crisis) — all these served as a firewall to contain the global contagion. And many out there — notably investors and fund managers looking for havens — had begun to notice that while other countries were reeling from or roiling over the crisis, we were “a relative sea of calm”.

But here come the stalwarts of the House of Representatives and the Kabalikat ng Mamamayang Pilipino (KAMPI) with their initiative to convene Congress into a constituent assembly to amend the Constitution. As though to replicate the conundrum in Thailand, they are instigating a political crisis in our country when there is none. And they seem deadly serious in their ill-timed efforts.

Their game plan is to gather enough signatures from members of the House and the Senate to nominally satisfy the constitutional requirement (three-fourths majority support from the members of Congress) for a constituent assembly. Given the Constitution’s failure to spell out the manner of congressional voting (whether the houses vote separately or jointly), they plan to bring the issue to the Supreme Court so it would rule once and for all on how votes should be counted.

On paper, it may sound like a reasonable initiative for our congressional leaders to mount, despite the well-known aversion of the general public to charter change. But in the real world of our national politics, it is a time bomb that could explode with far-reaching consequences.

After repeated declarations by Cha-cha proponents that they would not be deterred from their objective, those against the initiative have started to move. Both the majority and minority of the Senate have firmly said No to the House plan. Church groups have called for an anti-Cha-cha interfaith rally on Dec. 12. The other day, El Shaddai leader and presidential spiritual adviser Mike Velarde threatened to mount one-million-strong street protests if the House leaders do not relent or if President Arroyo does not stop the initiative. Civil society groups from left to right have voiced similar calls for the public to condemn the actions of the House.

One group has started a signature drive against Cha-cha. My former boss, Fidel V. Ramos, an erstwhile advocate of charter change, felt compelled to call a press conference to caution lawmakers against pursuing the initiative, saying that the move is untimely as well as suspicious. When Business World asked foreign chambers their views on charter change, they pointed instead to the Negative List which has not been reviewed by NEDA since FVR’s time. In other words, there is no need for charter change but a review of the current negative list would substantially improve our economic competitiveness. Then there is the media. Not a single media organization or columnist has endorsed the House initiative. Almost all have dismissed it as misguided.

From the way the battle lines are forming, one can see that this latest incarnation of Cha-cha will not get anywhere. Sooner or later, the forces pushing it and its masterminds will be forced to retreat and wait for another day. But what I fear is that before this denouement comes to pass, the nation will first be forced into a prolonged confrontation over the issue and all kinds of pitch battles - all of which will serve to show the world the specter of political instability in our country. And before we know it, the rest of the world will be viewing us as another Thailand in the making.

This in my view is the disservice that our House lawmakers are gifting the nation with through their initiative. In no time, it can wipe away the image of calm and poise amidst the economic crisis that we have worked so hard to cultivate. And we will wind up in the same morass we were in before — a sick island in the sea of Asia.

It may be that the proponents of Charter change really believe that such moves are necessary for the nation to move forward. Whatever the reason, Cha-cha is a no-brainer at this particular time in our national life. I cannot imagine anything more counter-productive for our country. Even more than ridiculous impeachment actions against the President, there is no issue that riles the public more.

Palace spokesmen may be telling the truth when they say that the Administration has nothing to do with this latest Cha-cha initiative, that this is strictly the program of the House and Kampi. Even so, the President’s leadership and the nation will pay a high price for this misguided initiative in economic, social and political terms.

At a time when the nation should be gathering its energies to face collectively the global economic crisis, we should not be splintering into factions fighting for contrary causes and distracting ourselves from the current economic challenge. Someone clearly has their priorities wrong.

At a time when the national polity should be settling into full acceptance of President Arroyo serving her term up to June 2010 and preparing for the 2010 presidential elections, we should not be debating scenarios linked to term extensions or election postponement.

And at a time when the country should be reaping its just rewards for sound economic management and important structural reforms, we will again be shooting ourselves in the foot if this Cha-cha parade is allowed to move forward.

Charter change is an empty can that we have kicked around long enough. People are fed up with it. It’s time our elected leaders realize this too.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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