Monday, December 8, 2008


After our bitter experience with deposed President Ferdinand E. Marcos, who tinkered with the Constitution to perpetuate himself in power for 20 years, we have since been on the guard against possible attempts by succeeding presidents to stay in power beyond the term of their office.

With the ushering of the 1987 Constitution, that laid down the new structure of government to remove the vestiges of the Marcos regime, not only were the president's powers limited but its term of office as well. As it now stands, the president is limited to a six year term only with no eligibility for reelection, which tempts a president who is unwilling to relinquish power to extend his or her tenancy in MalacaƱang.

For fear of another Marcosian era - characterized by prolonged stay in power, totalitarian rule, abuse of authority, cronyism and corruption - attempts by a sitting president to amend the Constitution are always met with stiff opposition. Another reason is the desire for fresh leadership, especially if the incumbent has lost the trust and confidence of the people, as in the case of Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo whose popularity has nosedived in greater depths after scandals in her adminstration have exploded one after the other.

Now that amendments to the Constitution or Charter change (Cha-cha) are being pushed again by the administration and seriously considered by the House of Representatives, oppositions thereto have predictably been mounted anew. No matter how hard administration officials and legislators insist that the changes they want to introduce concern only the economic provisions of the Constitution and have nothing to do with term extensions, the opposition does not buy it.

Whatever motives the cha-cha proponents have one thing for sure is looming on the horizon. There will be political and legal battles that will soon be waged from the halls of Congress to the chamber of the Supreme Court. One of the most strategic issues that is already taking form is the manner of introducing changes to the Constitution. Cha-cha proponents seem to favor a Constituent Assembly (Con-ass) where amendments will be made by Congress upon a vote of three-fourth of all its members. Even among proponents of this mode, however, there is disagreement as to the manner of voting, with the president's party mates calling for a joint voting by both houses of Congress while others calling for separate voting.

Administration congressmen's insistence on joint voting, being led by Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Villafuerte, is understandable from a tactical point. The Lower House's huge membership of 238 could easily outvote that of the Senate, majority of whose members are known to favor a Constitutional Convention. It is reported that Congressman Villafuerte had already gathered 167 votes to support the convening of a Con-ass - which is just 29 votes short of the required 196 votes to meet the three-fourths Constitutional requirement if Congress were to vote jointly.

But constitutional law expert Fr. Joaquin Bernas does not agree with the concept of joint voting. He believes that the Constitution does not prescribe such a procedure because the structure of Congress is bicameral in nature, with its division into a House of Representatives and a Senate. Except when expressly provided by the Constitution, a bicameral legislature does not vote jointly as this is the essence of bicameralism. Father Bernas opines that a Charter change by Congress is not one of the instances where the Constitution allows joint voting.

After all is said and done, however, the issue will ultimately have to be resolved by the Supreme Court. In this battleground not only is the legal aspect seen as the battle to be waged, but the political as well; in fact, Cha-cha proponents may even see this latter aspect as the more important of the two. Enter the Supreme Court appointments.

Without necessarily suggesting that the administration will influence the outcome of voting in the Supreme Court if and when the issue on Cha-cha is brought before it, Cha-cha proponents may wait for a favorable moment in bringing the issue before the High Court. With a chance to fill almost half of the Court's membership next year, President Macapagal-Arroyo might appoint nominees who share the adminstration's view of joint voting. This could become a vetting criterion among possible nominees to the Supreme Court. The Judicial and Bar Council, as the body tasked to recommend nominees to the Supreme Court, could very well become part of the theater of war.

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