Reviving Cha-cha

SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Philippine Star

There were many horror stories about Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from people who worked for her before she rose to power.

Some of their complaints Filipinos have become familiar with in the past seven years: this President is too demanding and unreasonable, she lacks charm, she lacks empathy.

The President has admitted a number of her faults, some of which she attributes — like her good skin to her genes — to a rigid upbringing.

Yet those same traits made her look like the antithesis of Joseph Estrada. And back in 2000-2001, with Filipinos suffering from an overdose of President Erap’s natural charm and empathy, the possibility of his workaholic though crabby vice president replacing him seemed like a godsend.

People power 2 succeeded in part because people saw Erap’s constitutional successor as a far more competent and palatable alternative to the incumbent.

A similar sentiment helped fuel the original people power revolt in 1986. In that epic battle that came to be portrayed as one of good versus evil, Filipinos found their alternative to Ferdinand Marcos, in the person of Corazon Aquino.

President Arroyo owes much of her staying power, amid repeated attempts to unseat her, to the perceived incompetence of her constitutional successor, plus the weakness of the opposition that has failed to rally behind a single alternative to the incumbent.

But the situation is changing as the 2010 elections approach. At least two of the serious contenders for the presidency are seen to be highly capable, hardworking and relatively clean given the dirty political environment in this country.

If recent survey results are accurate, Filipinos are also open to the possibility of a Noli de Castro presidency. Then there are Erap’s loyal legions who, like him, are dreaming of Take 2 for his aborted presidency, though the Constitution bars “any” re-election for presidents.

With more than one palatable replacement emerging, and with the performance and trust ratings of the incumbent plumbing new depths with each quarterly survey, I can’t see how President Arroyo can swing Charter change (Cha-cha) to perpetuate herself in power without tearing the country apart.

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And yet there is persistent talk about her administration’s efforts to revive Cha-cha through whatever route.

The last people’s initiative to amend the Constitution collapsed through sheer sloppiness. Some quarters suspected that while MalacaƱang truly wanted Cha-cha, if only to amend certain economic provisions, the sloppiness was deliberate to foil then speaker Jose de Venecia’s dreams of taking over the country’s helm.

These days there are reports that the people’s initiative for Cha-cha is being revived, to be spearheaded by local officials who have been promised a term extension plus cash.

The real prize, at least for MalacaƱang, is supposedly a constitutional amendment that will allow the President to stay in power beyond noon of June 30, 2010.

The final peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is supposed to provide a convenient smokescreen for the deeper agenda for Cha-cha.

This is supposedly the reason why the government is anxiously trying to ram down the nation’s throat the first phase of the final pact, which is the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain. Implementing the MOA will require amending the Constitution.

But now the MOA is in limbo. The provisions of the MOA and any final peace pact will have to be ratified by affected residents in a plebiscite. That sounds simple enough. But given the way electoral exercises are conducted in this country, especially in several areas in Mindanao, you can’t blame residents in the affected areas for believing that any agreement signed with the MILF, even before ratification by the affected communities, is already — in the words of an MILF commander — a done deal.

Some quarters are particularly leery with retired Armed Forces chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. as the new government point man in the peace process. Esperon, despite his vehement denials, cannot dispel suspicions that he helped manipulate Mindanao votes in favor of the President during the 2004 race.

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The inevitable entanglement of Cha-cha with politics is unfortunate, because there are several provisions in the 21-year-old Charter that need amending if the country wants to improve its competitiveness in the global economy.

One provision that has been successfully invoked as legal justification for a coup d’etat must be either reworded or struck out of the Constitution.

The powers of the Supreme Court need clearer definition.

Certain protectionist provisions, though well-meaning at the time the Charter was drawn up, must be lifted if we want to attract more job-generating foreign direct investments as well as promote competition and efficiency in several sectors.

No one can say for sure if changing the system of government will offer a cure for many of the ills plaguing Philippine politics and governance.

Among the arguments for a shift to a unicameral parliamentary system is that it will stop uninformed voters from choosing popularity over competence in picking the nation’s highest official. Presumably, members of parliament will know each other well enough not to pick a popular but incompetent moron as prime minister.

This argument gained traction during the term of Joseph Estrada, a popular actor who won the presidency by the biggest margin ever in the history of the republic.

But recent elections have shown that popularity is no longer enough for the typical Filipino voter. Even boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao could not get himself elected to Congress. In the Information Age, it is becoming harder to fool all of the people all the time.

And with the same political dynasties controlling parliament, would a change in the system of government make a difference?

Filipinos no longer want to set a bad precedent by prematurely kicking out yet another president, with less than two years left before the next elections.

But those dreaming of perpetuating themselves in power through Cha-cha should also consider that Filipinos are eager for change, starting with their leader, at the scheduled time. And now there are alternatives who are perceived to have the ability to do the job better.

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