Sunday, August 07, 2005

Battle royale between senators and local authorities

FROM A DISTANCE By Carmen N. Pedrosa The Philippine Star

As the struggle for constitutional reform progresses, the main conflict will not be between the House and the Senate as most assume it will be. In the final analysis the struggle will be between the Senate and local authorities with the senators representing the elite or the upper class and local authorities representing the masa, as the bulk of their constituencies. There may be some rich guys and gals in local authority who have fattened up by corruption but they do not stop representing their masa constituency. So is it with the Senate which has some members of more humble origins. We are speaking here about institutions and what they represent in the political structure.

Local authorities, as government, by their very nature, are closest to the people. Their assessment of what the masa want and need is more reliable than senators sitting in their air conditioned Manila offices.

On the other hand, we have only to look at who the senators are to tell us that they represent the moneyed and privileged class. Who are the senators against charter change? Senate President Franklin Drilon, Juan Flavier, Francis Pangilinan, Aquilino Pimentel, Joker Arroyo, Rodolfo Biazon, Pia Cayetano, Loi Estrada, Jingoy Estrada, Richard Gordon, Panfilo Lacson, Lito Lapid, Alfredo Lim, Jamby Madrigal, Ramon Magsaysay Jr., Sergio Osmena III, Ralph Recto, Bong Revilla, Mar Roxas, Miriam Santiago and Manuel Villar.

Of these twenty, at least three want to be president, three are sons of former presidents, three are multimillio-naires, maybe even billionaires. Two of them are heirs to family fortunes and one is self-made. Three are Cory boys who protect the 1987 Constitution as if it were their personal belonging. (Cory herself comes from the Cojuangco clan of fabled wealth said to have been stymied as a victim of her own class.) There is a mother-son team of a former president and actor who has become very wealthy and ought to be convicted. Two are former actors and another two won through the popularity of their actress-wives. One is a former presidential candidate. One claims to be for charter change but seems to have decided his ambitions come first. He also wants to be president. The poorest of the pack, well, can’t decide for himself so he has joined a gang of senators who swore ‘walang iwanan.’ (As told to me by one of the group himself.) Why did we end up with such personalities as senators?

Dennis C. Mueller in his ‘Constitutional Democracy’ gives us an explanation. He says that the historical function of an upper house has been to represent the upper class. Only patricians could be members of the Roman Senate. The same is true with the House of Lords which he says plays an effective role in the British parliamentary system to protect the British aristocracy from the common folk represented increasingly over time in the appropriately named House of Commons.

Since we borrowed most of our political ideas from the Americans, here’s what he says about the US Senate: "With the House of Lords as a model, Gouverneur Morris, and to some extent James Madison sought to have the aristocracy directly represented in the US Senate. No subtle theory of promoting temperance and deliberation was at work here. The Upper House is there to protect the property from the masses. As the republican form of government replaced the unchallenged role of the aristocracy, bicameralism emerged as a form of compromise in which the aristocracy agreed to share power with the commoners. As such it is a half way house between government in which sovereignty lies with the aristocracy and government in which sovereignty lies with the people."

Senator Richard Gordon, the Senate chairman of the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments and Revision of Laws, admits there is a need to change how the Philippine government works but he says this is not the time. That is disappointing. Why? Where has Gordon been that he should not know that the charter change campaign has been with us for decades. But the Senate of which he is a part now has resisted debates on the issue except to say ‘now is not the time.’ It is tiring to hear the excuse ‘now is not the time’ when it is said again and again. As far as the Senate is concerned it will never be the time now or ever.

There are several drafts cobbled by some of the best constitutionalists in the Philippines that could be the starting point of a constituent assembly if the Senate would only will it. So the next time a senator stands up to say that ‘this is not the time for cha-cha’ you know why. And that goes for Gordon who may think himself a president to be. He is just as hobbled with the upper class role in these times of increasing democratization. I don’t think even the good senators realize when they reject charter change they are acting true to form in their role as a political compromise between the aristocracy and the masses.

He should read the Mueller book. It systematically examines how the basic constitutional structure of government affects what they can accomplish. "At a time when Americans are more and more disillusioned about government’s fundamental ability to reach solutions for domestic problems, and when countries in the former Soviet bloc and around the world are rewriting their constitutions, the relationship between government and constitution is especially important," Mueller adds.

He explains how the links between the structure of democratic government and its outcomes by drawing comparisons between the American system and other systems around the world. His book analyzes electoral rules, voting rules, federalism, citizenship, and separation of powers. It is an important resource for those who would like to understand how charter change will be good for the country. But that does not stop Gordon from politicking. While he says it is not time for charter change he says the terms of office of local government executives are too short. "We give our local officials just three-year terms because we were afraid of Marcos’ twenty-year rule.

Now do you wonder why many of our local officials have no long-term vision for developing their towns or provinces, and all they can manage are a few waiting sheds? Hindi pa mainit ang upuan, tinitira na sila dahil mag-eeleksyon na." How does he intend to solve that problem without amending the Constitution? That is an infirmity of the constitution which will continue to drag the country down while we wait for the right time. Its first victims are the masses for whom the senators’ hearts allegedly bleed at the same time that they refuse to debate charter change.

Speaking of local authorities, I attended a recent meeting called by Speaker Jose de Venecia where they spoke frankly. If the senators think governors and mayors will wait for crumbs to fall from the Upper House table, I am afraid they are in for a surprise. Local authority groups will use their clout and barnstorm to get their constituencies behind them in the struggle for charter change. In the meeting they told story upon story about how the unitary presidential government under the present constitution has failed the masses. Abangan.

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