The idea of ‘charter change’ is nothing new to outsiders, but being able to observe and discuss the movement as a serious idea rather than cynically dismissing it as the same old limited-focus canard that gets floated every year is a refreshing change of pace.
So what’s different about ‘charter change’ now, as opposed to every other time since the FVR era that the idea has been mentioned? Primarily, it’s the timing: not counting the Arroyo initiative at the beginning of the legislative session – something that was anticipated from the moment she announced her intention to run for Congress – the movement has gotten off the ground much sooner than anyone would have guessed. This is largely seen as an indictment of Aquino, and although opinion is still somewhat divided, the balance of the assessment tilts towards it being an appropriate indictment of his administration. From the external perspective, he was elected in a reasonably (for this country, anyway) non-controversial way, with relatively strong support on the back of a generally favorably-regarded pedigree and the promise – though an unspecific one – of cleaner government. In the intervening six months, he has accomplished nothing substantial, has not delineated any specific objectives, and his government appears as polluted by corruption and incompetence as any the Philippines has ever had. With calls for ‘charter change’ coming from a number of directions, the impression is that a significant proportion of the country – perhaps equal to the proportion that originally supported Aquino – is at this early date already fed up with the direction of things under his stewardship. The wide-ranging “mainstream” discussion of ‘charter change’ beyond the traditional sphere of the ineffectual opposition, Aquino’s own stubborn and logically-flawed resistance to even considering the idea, and the demagogical dissent aired by the Establishment-backed leftist rebellion and their self-appointed mouthpieces tend to reinforce this impression – the conventional regime is on the back foot, quickly losing popular support, and as a result, is being viewed with a degree of apprehension that would have seemed unjustified from the international perspective half a year ago.
Another factor that encourages more serious attention from the international community to ‘charter change’ this time is the context in which it is being presented by its advocates: rebranding, as it were, ‘charter change’ as ‘constitutional reform’, a concept which is not only a more accurate characterization of the effort, but which signals a more open mindset willing to examine changes in a more comprehensive and less prescriptive way. Previous ‘charter change’ efforts tended to focus on specific concerns, for example term limits under FVR and a shift to a parliamentary system under GMA, and as a consequence the term ‘charter change’ has become associated, correctly or not, solely with the idea of altering the system of national leadership, and has developed a negative connotation both inside and outside the country. ‘Constitutional reform’ signals a more sober approach and one that indicates a potentially less unstable transition when the transition finally happens; from either of the two important foreign perspectives, the political and the economic, anything that reduces the instability risk is appreciated.
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The Road Ahead: What the International Community is Looking For
The energetic movement towards constitutional reform is a positive first step, but it is only the first; whether the momentum can be sustained and the actual work of comprehensive reform begun will be the next milepost to pass. Assuming that is accomplished, the outside observers with political and economic interests in the Philippines will be looking for three primary objectives to be met:
1. Serious action against corruption. Although some Filipino constitutional reform advocates bridle at placing “corruption” at the top of the list of problems that need to be solved, from the global point of view that is exactly what the Philippines needs to do. That is part of why Aquino initially gained favor with outside observers – his own personal record and acknowledgement of the issue hinted at potential progress. His performance, however, has not impressed; he is now either regarded as not having an understanding of – and as a result, no ability to develop a strategy for – the complex interrelation of systemic, economic, and social factors that cause corruption, or among his harsher critics, regarded as being a garden-variety Philippine trapo.
The “grand formula” for constitutional reform – economic liberalization, Federalization, and a Parliamentary system – is generally regarded as being one decent framework for approaching the problem of corruption, because it addresses, one way or another, many of the underlying causes of corruption except for the social ones. In that respect, there is cause for concern; Philippine society is considered undisciplined, and unless that is directly addressed – an area in which Lee Kuan Yew’s experience in transforming Singapore can serve as a useful guide – there is an apprehension that political and economic solutions will be significantly compromised.
2. A legislative agenda to back reforms. This primarily applies to economic liberalization, the current problems of which do not entirely lie in the country’s flawed Constitution. Loosening protectionist restrictions in the Constitution is only one part of the solution; that will only provide opportunity for economic development and foreign investment, but not the competitive advantages that will attract investment and make development happen. Improving the business environment will require the same comprehensive focus on the systemic, economic, and social conditions in the country, and will be a long-term effort. The favorable optimism with which the rest of the world will look at constitutional reform will quickly evaporate if the necessary follow-through is not apparent.
3. Development of legitimate political parties. Regardless of what final shape the system of government takes, strong political parties that, ideally, represent a clear majority and relevant opposition at any given time are the political “system that transcends the system” and confer a strong measure of political stability on the country, even if (as is currently predicted) the Philippines endures a period of “growing pains” that may see a number of different governments in a relatively short period of time, particularly under a Parliamentary system. A Parliamentary system or even a much more formalized Presidential system will help to develop stable parties, provided that any system chosen is built in such a way as to prevent as much as possible the electoral opportunism that characterizes Philippine parties now.
And finally, it is worth mentioning that the point of view towards what they suppose are Western intentions towards the Philippines from otherwise well-meaning reform advocates is for the most part erroneous and more importantly, an unnecessary diversion of intellectual effort that needlessly confuses the issues. It is no secret that the US and its sphere of influence – and presumably, the Chinese sphere as well – sincerely desires constitutional reform in the Philippines and has a number of ideas of what would likely work best for the country and the corresponding international interests. From the Western perspective, at least, there is a simple reality that the Filipino people should consider: the ability of this country to affect what the US bloc does or thinks is pretty close to zero at this point. The US will, as it always has, react as the opportunity presents itself to whatever the circumstances on the ground in the Philippines are at any given time; for the Philippines to insist on a fair input into how that relationship is managed, it must do so from a position of its own strengths and value to the outside world. The best way to achieve that position is for the country to get its own act together, and to continue the momentum towards constitutional reform that has already begun.