, November 11, 2005
(STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo urged her allies in the House of Representatives yesterday to rush work on amending the 1987 Constitution and promised them she would abide by whatever decision they make regarding the remainder of her six-year term.

She hosted a lunch for 85 administration lawmakers at Malacañang and thanked them for their support of her initiatives.

They also discussed various concerns and projects relating to their respective districts aside from Charter change (Cha-cha) issues, according to Majority Leader Prospero Nograles of Davao City.

"The President said she is all-out for Charter change and we should rush our work on amending the Constitution," Nograles said. "She left no doubt in our minds that she is committed to a shift to a parliamentary system" of government to replace the presidential form.

Mrs. Arroyo also "made a commitment that she will abide by whatever decision we will make, whatever we’ll come up with."

Mrs. Arroyo issued the call after Malacañang announced last week that it wanted a new Constitution ratified in a plebiscite by early next year.

Mrs. Arroyo said a shift to a parliamentary form of government is necessary to replace what she described as a "degenerated political system" that is hindering the country’s economic recovery.

In a private meeting with Speaker Jose de Venecia and former President Fidel Ramos last week, Mrs. Arroyo had agreed to hold parliamentary elections in 2007 even if it might cut her term short.

Nograles said congressmen from the ruling coalition led by Lakas Christian and Muslim Democrats, Liberal Party, Nationalist People’s Coalition, Nacionalista Party and some pro-administration party-list groups were present at the meeting.

He said the issue of her term was not specifically discussed. But he added because Mrs. Arroyo said she would leave the matter to lawmakers, this showed that Charter change was more important to her than her political future.

"But maybe the President was buoyed by the fact that there is a move in the House that she should finish her term until 2010 even with a prime minister possibly elected in 2007," Nograles said.

Mrs. Arroyo’s latest move was also seen to end speculations that she was reneging on her commitment to amend the Constitution now that her opposition-instigated political troubles appear to be winding down.

In her State of the Nation Address last July 25, the President called for moves to amend the Constitution through a constituent assembly or with the Senate and the House sitting as one Charter-changing body.

Her proposed mode to amend the Constitution through a constituent assembly was a reversal of her previous stance of Charter change through a constitutional convention while she was still enjoying the support of the Senate.

Her reversal was seen as a concession to her allies in the House and Ramos for their support during her political crisis, and as a reaction to the withdrawal of support by Senate President Franklin Drilon.

The Senate has been resisting Charter change, particularly through a constituent assembly, as it would effectively abolish the chamber.

Ramos has repeatedly pushed for his proposal to hold parliamentary elections next year and have the new prime minister running the affairs of government by 2007 as a "graceful exit" for the President, who has battled an opposition-led campaign to force her from office over allegations that she cheated in last year’s presidential election.

Ramos said his support for Mrs. Arroyo last July 8, when calls for her to step down had peaked, was on the condition that she immediately initiate a shift to a parliamentary system.

If the parliamentary elections would push through in 2007, a prime minister would have to be immediately elected with Mrs. Arroyo as sitting president.

Lawmakers said if that happens, there would now be two leaders in government and the authority of the new prime minister would reduce the powers of the sitting President.

They conceded that Mrs. Arroyo won a clear mandate in the May 2004 elections to serve until 2010.

Another ranking administration lawmaker present during the luncheon said Mrs. Arroyo also reminded the congressmen that they should work closely with members of civil society and the Consultative Commission (con-com), which she formed to assist Congress in amending the Constitution.

Mrs. Arroyo also reiterated her preference for a constituent assembly as the mode for Charter change, he said. A constituent assembly is formed when the Senate and the House convene as one body to amend the Constitution.

It was also agreed during the meeting, the lawmaker said, that a new draft Constitution must be ready for ratification by the people by the second quarter of next year at the latest.

"We must start plenary debates next week and we have just about two months to finish our work," Nograles said.

In her State of the Nation Address, Mrs. Arroyo argued that shifting to a federal, parliamentary form of government would help stop gridlock caused by quarrels between the president and the legislature. It would speed up passage of needed legislation as well as make the government more efficient.

A federal system has gained favor among provincial governments who have long been dissatisfied over the dominance of "Imperial Manila."

However, most of the Senate disagrees with the House on how to amend the Constitution as well as the timing, saying there are more urgent problems that need attention.

Senators prefer amendments made by a constitutional convention, which would be made of delegates elected by the people.

That leaves a possibility that the Senate may again block the renewed attempt to amend the Constitution as it did last year.

"Their approach, which is perceived by many to be self-serving, will not get very far," said Senate majority leader Francis Pangilinan.

Strong public opposition fueled by memories of the brutal Marcos dictatorship blocked attempts to amend the Charter during the administrations of Ramos and Joseph Estrada.

Most Filipinos fear that Charter change proponents might remove limits on elective officials’ terms if amendments were made by a constituent assembly. Term limits were put in place when the Constitution was rewritten in 1986 to prevent abuse of power.

Critics argue that a parliamentary system needs strong parties to work properly and that a strong party system is something the Philippines’ personality-driven politics notably lacks.

They say political parties in the Philippines are merely vehicles for prominent personalities. Elected officials switch parties with ease, making parliamentary governments vulnerable to overthrow anytime.

Charter change proponents contend that shifting to a parliamentary form of government would promote political maturity.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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