, February 29, 2024

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People’ Initiative: Can They Pull Off a Miracle?


  •   6 min reads
People’ Initiative: Can They Pull Off a Miracle?
Press and Public Affairs Bureau
By Joey Salgado

All previous attempts to amend the 1987 Constitution have been considered as embarrassing failures, weighed down by controversy and public outrage. 

The closest that an administration got to overhauling the Constitution, not simply amending it, was during the Duterte presidency. But despite the former president’s autocratic swagger and obsessive drive to shift to federalism, with the lifting term limits thrown in as bonus, the charter revision was derailed not by opposition in Congress or street protests but by the pandemic.   

The House of Representatives led by Speaker Martin Romualdez, the President’s cousin, has once again set the wheels of charter amendments in motion. Like previous undertakings, the lower chamber is in lockstep with the House leadership. Yet several factors could make this a daunting exercise, even more daunting than taking on the Dutertes.  It will test Romualdez’s political heft and his ability to pull off what amounts to a miracle. 

Economic Provisions Need Amending

The 1987 Constitution was crafted when the nation was still basking in the sunshine glow of the February 1986 EDSA Revolution. The bitter lessons of martial law were still fresh, and most of the appointed members of the Constitutional Commission were themselves active participants in the protest movement. 

The charter’s economic provisions proceeded from a Filipino-centric mindset. Foreign domination of the economy was one of the hot button issues against the martial law regime, and the framers sought to insulate the national patrimony from foreign control and protect Filipino-owned businesses from undue competition from foreign business interests. 

Economic experts have argued that these provisions are outdated. While we continue to limit the entry of foreign capital, the economies of our neighboring countries have reaped the benefit of massive foreign investments. 

In justifying the House’s push for charter amendments, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda cited the urgency of revising these provisions. 

“It is natural and normal for democracies to revise their Constitutions, to suit the evolving needs of the times, as well as to adjust for conditions that framers did not foresee,” he said in a statement. 

“The need for urgent revisions in the Constitution, particularly on the economic front, has long been the consensus in the House of Representatives,” he added.

And to address concerns of a hidden motive behind charter change, Salceda said amending the Constitution now will assure the public “that this is no attempt to extend President Marcos's term.” 

Why PI?

Last year, leaders of the House and the Senate reportedly met to discuss charter amendments. According to highly placed sources, Romualdez himself offered to sign an agreement enumerating specific provisions to be amended by Congress, with the House limiting the list to the economic provisions. The senators, however, refused to play ball. 

The congressmen then decided to take the route of People’s Initiative and Referendum. 

This would provide context to a portion of Salceda’s statement where he twitted the Senate for standing in the way.

“The House has tried several times in the past to initiate charter change. Such attempts have languished in the Senate. Being nationally elected representatives of the people, it should be more encouraging to Senators to heed the electorate's call via People's Initiative. As such, I support ongoing efforts to initiate Charter Change through the direct involvement of the voters,” Salceda said.

Of all the mechanisms for amending the Constitution, People’s Initiative is the most difficult to implement. Difficult but not impossible.

The Constitution requires proponents to secure the support of 12 per cent of all registered voters, and three per cent of voters for each legislative district. The undertaking also requires review, verification, and certification by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and the holding of a plebiscite to approve the proposed amendments. It also limits initiatives to no more than one every five years.

The late constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas, writing in “The Philippine Constitution for Ladies, Gentlemen and Others,”  explained the framers’ thinking behind these stringent requirements.

The higher percentage, Bernas said, is “in recognition of the fact that the process involves a constituent and not a legislative act.” 

The five year-gap between initiatives, on the other hand, is intended to prevent abuse. 

“This is not to imply that the people acting as a constituent body is inferior to Congress or to a constitutional convention both of which may propose amendments as often as desired. This is merely to recognize that initiative is both an extraordinary and cumbersome process and to abuse it by too frequent use can unduly hamper government operations,” he added.

Questionable Motives

But more than the procedural hurdles, the People’s Initiative suffers from a credibility problem. 

There is a lingering sentiment that the charter’s  intention of giving to the people the power to directly propose amendments has been hijacked by selfish political motives.

These were evident during the initiatives mounted during the terms of former presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macagapal-Arroyo. The amendments zeroed in on the provisions on term limits for elected officials. These were seen as undisguised attempts to allow both Ramos and Arroyo to extend their terms.

These initiatives suffered a fatal blow when the Supreme Court declared Republic Act 6735, the law covering People’s Initiatives, unlawful. Congress has not enacted a law to address the infirmities cited by the high tribunal. 

The absence of a new law could prove fatal to the cause.

For Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, it leaves the People’s Initiative vulnerable to a legal challenge.

“The Supreme Court in Santiago v. Comelec (G.R. No. 127325)  ruled that while the Constitution allows amendments to be directly proposed by the people through initiative, there is no compliant implementing law for the purpose and in Lambino v. Comelec (G.R. No. 174153) the Supreme Court denied the petition for people’s initiative for various fatal defects,” he said in a statement.

Despite the legal infirmity, Lagman revealed that proponents have been circulating signature forms in his province. Based on a supposed screenshot of the form circulating on social media, the initiative proposes to amend Article XVII Section 1 of the Constitution covering amendment or revisions. It would allow Congress to propose amendments or revisions to the Constitution upon a vote of three-fourths of all its members, voting jointly.

Lagman also revealed that voters are allegedly being offered P100 to sign the petition forms. The proponents have denied Lagman’s allegation.

But Senator Imee Marcos, the President’s sister, is also alleging that the drive has been incentivized, with P20 million being offered to each congressional district that could deliver the required signatures by next week. The senator said the money would be taken from the various government assistance programs.

A similar controversy hounded the initiative during the Arroyo administration. The group orchestrating the signature drive in Makati were photographed and videotaped in the act of distributing bags of groceries to residents in exchange for signing blank pieces of paper. They also tried to pass off as authentic the signatures of voters already deceased. The names of the fake signatories were copied from   cemetery tombstones.

Denigrating the 1986 EDSA Revolution

Any initiative that invokes the name of the people should be anchored on their trust and support. Charter amendments offered as solutions to festering problems demand discussion and transparency. It should be a result of informed choice. But trust cannot be earned with a badly-conceptualized television ad that attempts to litigate the 1986 EDSA Revolution 37 years after the fact. 

This week, an ad began airing on primetime television paid for by  PIRMA, the same group behind the Ramos era initiative. According to a lawyer for PIRMA, the television ad was intended to encourage public discussions on charter amendments.  

But an ad that blames chronic poverty and underdevelopment on the 1986 EDSA Revolution does not edify. It sows discord. Instead of encouraging the public to rally around economic reforms, it courts controversy. The ad does not sell the journey or the destination. It is a 60-second rant.  

If the proponents want to gain support, they should create consensus around the proposition that economic amendments will improve the lives of the people. Denigrating the 1986 EDSA Revolution does not advance that idea. Instead of showing noble motives, it exposes ill intent.

And the ad also suffers from bad imagery, one that is not flattering to Congress. Those who supposedly benefitted from EDSA are presented in the ad as men wearing barong tagalog, which has always been associated with legislators.

According to sources, the urgency, bordering on manic, behind the push for charter change is driven by a self-imposed deadline for the House to deliver the charter amendments in time for the President’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July. 

In their haste, the proponents seem to be fumbling all over. 

Allegations of cash for signatures, government resources as incentives, a looming Comelec probe, a badly-conceived television ad. This is not the way to rally the people behind charter amendments.


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