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Why Filipinos Don't need Charter change

THE OVERWHELMING vote in favor of Charter change by the House of Representatives last week was a signal that politicians are unfortunately getting the upper hand in the battle to change the Philippine political system from a presidential one to a parliamentary one. The idea of Charter change has been around for years now, but now its proponents seem to be gaining ground.

I'm against charter change because I think it will just be a colossal waste of money and serve as diversionary tactic to stop the voting public from seeing the corruption that so many politicians are wallowing in. Worst of all, I think politicians that are pushing for it want it only because they think it will enable them to get rid of term limits, perpetuating political dynasties that the country would be better without.

Former president Corazon Aquino is in favor of a constitutional convention to be held in 2004 just after the election. The election would be used to elect delegates to the convention. This is the more democratic option, as all civic sectors would be represented and have a voice in deciding which parts of the Constitution to change. Members of the House of Representatives, unsurprisingly, are pushing for turning Congress into a constituent assembly, i.e., only they and senators would decide on changing the constitution. Yet again, the senators are the voice of sanity in Congress by disagreeing with their colleagues in the House, preferring a constitutional convention.

Neal Cruz wrote a hilarious column on Jan. 16 in the Inquirer in which he related having a conversation on Charter change with an unnamed representative. ("Solon: Why we need a parliamentary system"). Now I don't know if this was a real conversation or not as the politician sounded so dumb, but the only reason the politician kept giving for adopting a parliamentary system was because the country needed a strong leader.

Perhaps the politician was thinking of the Iron Lady of Britain, Margaret Thatcher, who ruled for 11 years from 1979 to 1990. She seems to be an anomaly in the parliamentary systems of Europe. Look at Italy for example. Until Berlusconi was swept into power a few years ago, the Italian government was changed so often following votes of no confidence in parliament, that Italy became a joke in Europe. Sure, Italy continued to muddle along before Berlusconi came along, but it had 10 different governments in just a few years.

Even if a parliamentary system worked in the Philippines, would we really want 11 years of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Corazon Aquino, Joseph Estrada or even Fidel Ramos? I don't think so! A strict presidential limit of only one term in office was imposed following the ouster of the Marcoses, the tyranny of their dictatorship still fresh in the minds of Filipinos. But many presidents now seem to complain that six years is not enough time to get all of their programs done. Perhaps the Constitution could be changed to give them the chance to run for office again after sitting out one term in office. That way Filipinos wouldn't be stuck with the same leader for 12 years in a row, but would have a chance to try a former president again after he or she had sat out one term.

The only advantage that I see in a parliamentary system for the Philippines, is that it can be less divisive when the public splits its vote between many political parties. That way it is easier for coalition governments to be formed, where power and portfolios are shared. Unfortunately, in presidential forms of government, such as we have in the United States and the Philippines there is no scope for power sharing. This is unfortunate in the US, where under the archaic voting system George Bush was elected president despite not winning the popular vote. (He won the Electoral College vote). Bush is lucky because his Republican Party now controls both houses of Congress after the November elections.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo announced a few weeks ago that she wouldn't run for president in 2004, and that she wanted a government of national unity. Under the existing presidential system, that is easier said than done. Sure, she could appoint opposition politicians to posts in her government, but it wouldn't be very effective or a smooth ride, for that matter.

Many in favor of a parliamentary system will say that it is a superior political system to the presidential one because it makes voters focus on issues rather than personalities. While it is true that voters don't actually vote for the prime minister per se, instead voting for individual members of parliament, I still think that strong personalities end up dominating parliamentary systems. Just look at Tony Blair in Britain and President Jacques Chirac in France. Sure, France is a strange hybrid of the parliamentary and presidential systems, but who remembers who the prime minister of France is? Chirac's personality is so overwhelming that Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Rafferin has disappeared into the background.

The real question in all of this is whether or not the Philippines has enough need and money to ponder the luxury of changing its political system. As Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin said this week, "We do not need to change the Constitution to give food to the poor, to house the homeless, and to educate the street children."

I think the whole issue of charter change should ultimately be posed to the electorate in a referendum. After several months of campaigning by both sides, a simple "yes" or "no" vote would be held. Let the people speak their minds. Changing the Constitution is too important to be left to just a handful of selfish politicians.

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