Road toward 2010 to be bumpy with Cha-cha–US think-tank

By Doris Dumlao
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 20:35:00 09/28/2008

MANILA — The Philippines’ political scene is facing a rough road ahead toward the 2010 presidential elections due to fresh initiatives to tinker with the 1987 Constitution and heightened economic risks from the global financial crisis, according to a New York-based think tank.

But remittances from overseas Filipino workers would continue to keep the domestic economy afloat, Global Source said in a paper titled “Minefields on the Road to 2010” dated Sept. 26.

“The road to the 2010 presidential election is not expected to be a smooth one,” said the commentary written by Filipino economists Romeo Bernardo and Marie-Christine Tang.

Mounting a Charter change (Cha-cha) initiative, even if eventually blocked or pulled back, is seen as a way to save President Macapagal-Arroyo from becoming a “lame duck” during her remaining 20 months in office.

“Thus, this is a no-lose strategy for the leadership,” the paper said.

While local financial markets have been able to shrug off these political developments until now, Global Source said “it would be rash though to discount current moves as mere political noise.”

It reckoned that amending the Constitution would be a difficult process. “This is something that its crafters in all likelihood intended. Several previous failed attempts, going back to the 1990s during the time of President Ramos, attest to this,” it said.

The think tank also noted that the outlook for global growth dimmed since the most recent US financial crisis, which was expected to affect developing countries’ exports and growth prospects.

“Higher domestic inflation can exert pressure on wages anew, which firms may not be able to accommodate at this time given the poor business climate. This may lead to some labor unrest, increasing political tension further,” the report said.

But unlike in the 1980s when a confluence of unfavorable external conditions and internal political turmoil led to a debt crisis and the end of the 20-year Marcos regime, Global Source expressed confidence that remittances would continue to provide “buffer from the storm.”

Right before Wall Street’s crisis hit the headlines, Global Source observed that Philippine dailies dwelt extensively on Cha-cha ahead of the 2010 presidential elections. There are three ways—people’s initiative, constitutional convention, constituent assembly—to introduce amendments to the Constitution.

The last attempt at Cha-cha, in 2006, went for a people’s initiative, purportedly showing the signatures of some 6.3 million voters favoring amendments, but the initiative was junked by the Supreme Court as a “gigantic fraud.”

Global Source said opposition to Charter change appeared to stem from fears that it was a mere ploy to keep the current administration in power, either through term extension or a shift to a parliamentary form of government that would allow the incumbent to run for prime minister.

Suspicions over motives for Cha-cha led a broad segment of society, which recognized the need to adapt various economic provisions of the Constitution to changing global economic realities, to propose postponing any discussion of amendment to post-2010 election, the paper said.

Global Source also observed that the leadership’s unpopularity fanned suspicions that Cha-cha was intended to preserve political power for the President and her congressional allies (many of whom are also legally impeded from running for reelection) rather than to reflect the public’s will.

“While there is disconnect now between political developments and market movements, we think that the line in the sand for people to take to the streets is any obvious move to tinker with the rules to do away with the 2010 elections,” the report said.

The report also noted that the current leadership was accused of trying to engineer Charter change through a proposed peace pact with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The Arroyo administration earlier announced support for Charter change in order to move to a federal system on grounds that this will lead to more responsive governance at the local level.

Global Source said that while there was much controversy on what was seen as creating a state for the Moro people with all its complications, the principal issue for many was that it would open doors for other constitutional changes, specifically moving to a parliamentary system without term limits that would concentrate power in the Lower House and do away with the Senate.

The peace agreement was in the end set aside, the paper said, leading to “unfortunate” consequences for the peace process.

Global Source, nevertheless, noted that members of Congress, allies of the leadership, already put forward an explicit proposal to amend the Constitution and shift to a parliamentary form of government.

This was to be achieved by convening Congress as a constituent assembly where, through a vote of three-fourths of its members, proposed changes would then be submitted to a referendum.

“Cha-cha moves have since gained momentum and more maneuvers may be expected in the coming months,” Global Source said.

While there are many roadblocks, including getting the nod of the Supreme Court and winning the referendum, some quarters believed that the current move would have a fair chance of passing within the relatively short timeframe before 2010, it said.

Some have even conjured up a Marcosian scheme in which emergency rule or martial law will be imposed to obtain the needed majority in the referendum.

Others have argued that a no-election scenario could materialize should current officials be retained during the transition to a parliamentary system.

“Analysts liken recent exercises to a horse race, with the leadership, seeing limited downside, allowing the race to go on and betting on a preferred horse—until events conspire to eliminate it in the running which would then require switching bets to the next preferred horse,” Global Source said.

“That is to say that if opposition, including from the Church, influential business groups and civil society (the groups that in the past have visibly shown outrage and taken people power action that led to the ouster of Marcos in 1986 and resignation of Estrada in 2001), turn out to be strong, the leadership will shift to alternative maneuvers to keep political influence beyond 2010,” it said.

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