Thursday, December 21, 2006

The ConCon to ChaCha

The Catholic bishops who congregated at the Luneta grandstand on December 17 proclaimed as gospel truth that before there can be "charter change" in the Philippines, there must first be "character change." The obvious question is: who decides when the Filipinos have sufficiently changed their character that they are then ready for charter change? Of course, if Filipinos have already changed their character by then, what would be the need for charter change?

In a forum in San Francisco early this year, Prof. Jose Abueva, the chair of the consultative commission that proposed changes to the charter, explained that laws can be used to change or modify the behavior of people. A heavy tax on cigarettes and barring smoking in public places, for example, can discourage people from smoking. Changing the charter, in Abueva's view, can change the character of the system and the people, even if only incrementally.

In the current bicameral/presidential system of government in the Philippines, for example, candidates for president have had to raise anywhere from P2-B to P5-B pesos ($40-M to $100-M) just to have a chance of winning. Where did all the money come from? The president has the resources of the government (the "equity of the incumbent") at his or her command while challengers have had to obtain the support of powerful business interests, who have sought to be properly "compensated" when their candidates assume office.

Even senatorial candidates have to raise about P500-M pesos ($10-M) just to win a senate seat. Their financial patrons also need to be compensated in some way, and the victorious senators find ways and means to do so, usually by corruption. After all, wealthy benefactors did not become wealthy because of idealistic support for their candidates. They expect and obtain returns on their investments.

When the present bicameral/presidential system has shown time and again that it is hopelessly corrupt, largely because of the high costs of acquiring and retaining office, then simple logic dictates that the system must be changed.

But how sure are we that an alternative unicameral/parliamentary system will be better?

Lawyer Ted Laguatan cites the example of two brothers who were petitioned by a parent to immigrate to the US. Both considered their options: Will life in the US be better than what they had in the Philippines? Will they be able to find a job? Will they face racism and discrimination from white Americans who may look down on them because of their brown skins or mock them because of their Filipino accents?

They did not know the answers, Ted recounts. But one brother decided that because life was so difficult for them in the Philippines, he and his family deserved to find a better life for themselves in the US. The other brother chose to stay because he feared the unknown. Ted narrates that 20 years later, the brother who stayed in the Philippines deeply regretted his decision and wished that he had joined his sibling in the US where he now enjoys a comfortable life for himself and his family.

The point of Ted's story is not that everyone should immigrate to the US, but rather that we should not fear the unknown. If we know the presidential system is hopelessly corrupt, then we owe it to ourselves to change it, not to keep it just because we don't know for sure if a parliamentary system will be better.

For one thing, candidates for a parliamentary seat will not need to spend obscene amounts of money just to win as they will be elected in smaller parliamentary districts, where congressional candidates currently spend about P20 to P50 million pesos ($400,000-$1-M) to win election. While these are still obscene amounts for a country as poor as the Philippines, they are on a much smaller scale compared to the current senatorial or presidential levels. There may thus be less corruption because less money would be needed to obtain a return on the "investments".

It is also less likely that members of Parliament will elect popular but intellectually deficient entertainers or sports stars to lead them as their Prime Minister. Among themselves, nurses will elect the best nurses to lead them, lawyers the best lawyers, physicians the best physicians, and politicians the best, and most effective, among them.

If the Prime Minister commits a major political blunder, or is involved in a corruption scandal, then a simple vote of "no confidence" will be sufficient to bring the government down. Under the current presidential system, such a scandal or blunder will require that articles of impeachment be filed in the lower House where a vote of a third of its members will be needed to impeach the president. Then the Senate sits as a jury to hear the evidence in a trial that may take as long as six (6) months to a year. During this period, the government grounds to a halt, with businesses, foreign and local, fleeing the country in droves because of the uncertain political crisis.

But how do we change to a parliamentary system?

The 1987 Constitution presents three methods of changing it: a People's Initiative, a Constituent Assembly or a Constitutional Convention. The first two were tried and rejected by the courts, the first by the Supreme Court, the second by the Court of Public Opinion.

So now all that is left is the third alternative, which is problematic because of its enormous cost. If each congressional district elects 2 or 3 ConCon delegates and their terms last three years, and each delegate will require an office, a staff and housing and transportation expenses, it will likely cost about P10-B ($200-M) to fund the convention. Where will all this money come from?

If concon is the only way to change the system, then perhaps people should consider the proposal of Rep. Baham Mitra who calls for one delegate to be elected per district, where the candidates must renounce any political affiliation, and waive the right to elective or appointive office up to three years after the convention.

Mitra's proposal includes closely-monitored spending limits for the candidates, who would be required to disclose their tax returns to show their true financial wealth to guard against dummying for vested interests. The thought behind Baham's proposal is to make holding a concon seat unpalatable for politicos.

The delegates would have a stringent budget, and the convention would be given a reasonable deadline within which to complete the proposed constitution that would then be submitted to a national plebiscite.

While the cost for this modified concon will be a fraction of the current estimates for a larger concon, Baham Mitra's proposal has not received the support of either the majority or the minority politicos who have united in opposition to it. That's the reason right there to support it.

Happy New ChaCha Year!

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