Back to Cha-cha

SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Philippine STAR

Give the administration an A for audacity. Or maybe it’s plain cluelessness, born of long years of insensitivity to public sentiment.

I don’t know how the administration intends to sell two unpopular ideas at the same time to Filipinos: Charter change to shift to another form of government, plus a deal with a bunch of violent hooligans that will reward their banditry with vast tracts of Philippine territory, and without consulting affected communities.

Shifting to a new system of government elicits passionate debate in this country only when Filipinos see the initiative as a mere smokescreen for the real agenda: the perpetuation of public officials in power.

In this case, the intended principal beneficiary of a shift to federalism looks too much like President Arroyo – the most unpopular chief executive so far since Ferdinand Marcos, according to independent surveys.

Fidel Ramos, who brought the country closest to Asian tiger status, could not pull off Charter change. In fact his allies’ efforts to allow him to seek re-election through Cha-cha, coupled with an economic slowdown due to the Asian financial crisis, pulled down his performance ratings.

How can the country’s most unpopular president since Ferdinand Marcos at his worst think that she can pull off what even Ramos could not?

This is the problem when people stay too long in power; they become indispensable in their own minds. The lust for power must be one of the toughest addictions to cure. In the past four decades, only one Philippine president has handed over power with grace and dignity – Corazon Aquino – though there were rumors back then that certain members of her inner circle also harbored thoughts of making her hang on to power beyond her constitutionally allotted six years.

Suspicions of a hidden agenda in President Arroyo’s push for a shift to federalism were bolstered yesterday by an “informal survey” trotted out by her allies in the Palace rubberstamp House of Representatives, that bastion of political navel-gazing and unenlightened self-interest.

The instant survey, conducted among 238 lawmakers, elicited responses from 123, of whom 115 favored a shift to federalism, according to the head of the House committee on constitutional amendments.

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There is only one way Filipinos will go along with political amendments in the Constitution: no incumbent public official must benefit from any of the amendments especially through a term extension.

Federalism is a concept that most Filipinos cannot easily understand. But they can understand what a term extension means.

Faced with the prospect of a few more years of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – and the shelving of the 2010 general elections – the naifs in the Senate who supported a resolution for federalism are now reviewing their stand.

What were they thinking in the first place – that MalacaƱang would let such an opportunity for Cha-cha pass?

As I have often written, President Arroyo’s staying power is due less to her personal strength than to the weakness of her enemies. The disorganized opposition is reactive, lacking in foresight, unable to anticipate the moves of the enemy. And it has its share of navel gazers preoccupied with matters of unenlightened self-interest, constantly waiting for someone to make them an offer they can’t refuse.

So now MalacaƱang is happily announcing that “it’s all systems go” for federalism through Cha-cha.

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The world has changed so much since the so-called Freedom Constitution was ratified 21 years ago. A number of provisions in that Constitution have held back Philippine competitiveness in a global economy. Constitutions are supposed to be dynamic, and we must always be open to changes in the basic law of the land.

We must be open even to the possibility of changing the system of government, though with the same characters, the same dynasties keeping their stranglehold on politics, it’s hard to see what difference such a change would make.

But any credible effort to overhaul the Constitution would have to wait until the country’s most unpopular president is no longer in power, and no longer able to influence the results of Cha-cha in her favor.

If certain foreign governments are willing to go along even with Cha-cha, just to ram down Filipinos’ throats any peace pact with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, they should consider that they would likely end up saddled with cleaning up the resulting mess – including a peace agreement that cannot be enforced.

That aborted signing of the land deal in Malaysia should teach the diplomatic community certain lessons about dealing with this government.

One of the ambassadors who eagerly rushed to Malaysia was surprised to learn that Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo had not been informed of the diplomats’ presence. In the first place, don’t foreign offices have a rule that ambassadors should not encroach into each other’s turf? The governments represented at the aborted signing all had their respective ambassadors to Kuala Lumpur. Those were the envoys who should have been present at the ceremonies.

Perhaps there was just too much confusion. And the confusion can only be attributed to the hush-hush nature of the fast-break attempt to get that bizarre land deal signed.

Now the continuing fast break includes Cha-cha. The effort can still be blocked.

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