Monday, December 11, 2006

The Last Rites for Cha Cha

MANILA - While the attention of the world was focused on the havoc wrought on the people of Bicol by Typhoon Reming, Manila was strangely preoccupied with what the newspapers called "Con Ass," short for Constituent Assembly. Critics of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) publicly accused her and the House majority of attempting to "con our ass" with this congressional maneuver.

"Con Ass" or Constituent Assembly was the last remaining constitutional option for those supporting "Cha Cha" or Charter Change. A Constitutional Convention or "Con Con", the first option, was out of the question because it would require the consent of the Philippine Senate which was not about to commit political suicide as "Cha Cha" would likely result in a unicameral parliamentary system eliminating the Senate, a body composed primarily of presidential wannabes.

The second option, a "People's Initiative," required that the signatures of 10% of the electorate be obtained, including a certain percentage from each congressional district in the country. Although 6.5-M signatures were obtained by Sigaw ng Bayan, a pro-government coalition, the Philippine Supreme Court recently ruled in an 8-7 vote that the explanation to the signatories of the proposed change was woefully insufficient and was therefore unconstitutional.

"Con Ass" was therefore the last option open to House Speaker Jose "Joe" De Venecia, the most outspoken supporter of a change of the charter from a bicameral/presidential to a unicameral/parliamentary system. Critics claim this was his power ploy to be elected prime minister.

This option's premise is found in Article 17 of the Philippine Constitution which provides that "Any amendment, or revision, of this Constitution may be proposed by the Congress upon a vote of three-fourths of its members."

Speaker Joe's gambit is what American football fans would refer to as a "Hail Mary" pass as it would call for a number of unlikely events to occur to make it happen. First, the House would convene a Constituent Assembly where members of the entire Congress would be invited to participate -- the 225 House Members and the 23 Senators (for a total of 248). If the senators do not show up, as likely would happen, the "Constituent Assembly" could still pass proposals for a "Cha Cha" if Speaker Joe obtained the vote and support of 195 House members as that would constitute three-fourths of the total number of the members of Congress.

Once that happens, the next step would be a certain Supreme Court challenge to the constitutionality of the House interpretation of Article 17.

In the unlikely event the Supreme Court upholds it, then the really tricky third stage would be getting the people to approve it in a national plebiscite where polls show a decisive majority in opposition to "Cha Cha." Hail Mary, indeed.

Against seemingly insurmountable odds, the Speaker stubbornly pushed through with his gambit on December 5 even as opposition House members raised various legal and political objections to what they considered to be a railroading of the "Con Ass Express".

After watching the proceedings on TV the first night, I decided to go to the Batasan the next night to watch the conclusion of the debate LIVE. I thought the place would be packed as the controversial issue was the premier topic of discussion in the media, which hardly paid attention to the Bicol mudslide disaster. To my surprise when I got there, less than a quarter of the gallery seats were occupied.

Prominent among those who did show up in the center gallery were members of the "Hyatt 10", GMA's former cabinet members who tendered their resignations on July 8, 2005 and who called on the president to resign because, they believe, she had lost her ability to govern. As Batasan rules prohibited open cheering or jeering, they wore head bands with red horns that collectively lit up when they supported a point. (These Xmas gadgets were sold in Cubao).

While I was listening to the speakers, a young congressman (Robert "Dodot" Jaworski Jr.) invited me to the "members only" congressional lounge to join him for mami and siopao snacks. While in the lounge, I noticed that House members were warmly collegial to each other even as they hotly disagreed on the issues.

Dodot told me that he had previously supported the impeachment of GMA but, after going through it the first time, he realized that it was "not good for the country" to subject the president to constant impeachment, as the government would simply ground to a halt during the process. A parliamentary system, he explained, would avoid that governmental paralysis as all it would take would be a vote of "no confidence" to bring down a government.

When I returned to watch the debate, I saw Rep. Luis Villafuerte, Jr., the 70-year old Congressman from Albay (the province most devastated by Typhoon Reming) and the principal sponsor of the "Con Ass" resolution, still standing on one podium while patiently answering all the questions from opposition members lined up to speak in the other podium. I was told the debates would end by 2AM but when the marathon session continued past 3AM, and I couldn't keep my eyes open, I decided to leave, along with most of the gallery. The final vote of 161 ayes and 25 nays occurred at 5:45AM. By then, I was sound asleep.

Bishop Angel Lagdameo, the President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), immediately branded the House move "fraudulently illegitimate" and "scandalously immoral". Many critics denounced it as a "rape" of the Constitution likening it to what Private Daniel Smith was convicted the previous week of doing to "Nicole". Anti-government groups vowed to hold massive nationwide rallies on December 15 to protest Con Ass.

By Saturday, December 9, public sentiment against Con Ass had become so overwhelming that President GMA had to dissociate herself from the House move. Speaker Joe then called a press conference at the Dusit Hotel in Makati to announce that he would not proceed with Con Ass if the Senate would agree to convene a Con Con by next year, which the Senate has already announced it will not do.

I was having lunch with friends at the Shanghai Court in Makati that day when Speaker Joe and a coterie of House members entered the restaurant to have their lunch there (of all the thousands of restaurants in Metro Manila to choose from). Although I could not hear their conversation, I could see that they were clearly not happy campers. It was like attending a funeral wake.

Make no mistake about it, I concluded, Charter change is dead.

As my friend, Jarius Bondoc, wrote: "It was dead the minute politicos hijacked it for their self-interest. They debased the essence of reforms and foisted on the public only self-serving changes. Forgotten was the need to completely free the economy in turn for full employment and against hunger. Lost in the political din was the idea of genuine people's autonomy via federalism. Chatter centered solely on shifting to unicameral parliament, a political stabilizer under normal times, but also a perilous centralizing of authority if not counterbalanced by federal rule."

I came to Manila with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for a baptism and confirmation of sister city ties between our two cities and I left as the last rites for charter change were being performed. It was a sacramental visit.

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