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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Is Charter change immoral?

The Manila Times
Is Charter change immoral?

Religious leaders normally shun political tussles unless moral principles are at stake. So they seem to be when stalwarts of the Catholic Church and Iglesia Ni Cristo objected to how the majority bloc in the House of Representatives tried to turn Congress into a constituent assembly to propose amendments to the Constitution.

Despite the shelving of the constituent assembly plan, moral questions about Charter change will come up again and again. Three criteria are paramount in assessing whether political acts conform with moral principles.

First: Is it legal? Laws embody moral principles, as well as policies and activities deemed beneficial to the nation by duly authorized lawmaking entities. If Charter change fails to follow constitutionally mandated procedures, it may contravene justice and the common good the ultimate goals of morality.

Second: Is the action democratic? In a democracy, political processes should allow the people’s informed choice to decide national issues. They should also advance democratic rights, including free expression and peaceful assembly, government accountability and suffrage.

Third: Is Charter change beneficial to the nation? To be judged moral and upright, human activity in any field must serve the common good. If it harms people, deprives them of liberty, justice and truth, subjects them to hunger, poverty, ignorance, disease or oppression, then a given act is wrong.

The legal question

There is no shortage of sound, persuasive and fiery legal arguments for and against every mode of Charter change. Thankfully, our legal system has a sure-fire way of peacefully settling such intense verbal jousts. Not by the intelligence or indignation of partisan sides, but by the interpretation of law by the nonpartisan courts. Not everyone will agree with judicial decisions, but all have to abide by them.

Morality, of course, is not just legality. Indeed, what is legal today could be illegal tomorrow, and vice versa. Moreover, what is perfectly legal may not serve democracy or the common good also variables in the moral equation.

Though it may be constitutional, a Senate-less constituent assembly could be seen as undemocratic for excluding legislators with a national mandate. Also deemed undemocratic is the refusal of two-dozen senators to expedite a process favored by about 40 percent of Filipinos, as properly surveyed by Pulse Asia.

The democracy debate

As with legal issues, both sides in the Charter-change debate claim to comply with democracy’s tenets and reflect the people’s will. The Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP) and Sigaw ng Bayan brandish the 6.2 million signatures on their people’s initiative. Opponents claim that people were duped or ignorant about what they signed.

Independent surveys show there were more than enough citizens aware and supportive of Charter change to gather the signatures. Pulse Asia reports that 39 percent of voting-age Filipinos want Cha-cha now, while Social Weather Stations (SWS) says 27 percent know of ULAP-Sigaw’s proposals, and one-third would vote for amendments favored by the President all well above the 17.7 percent of voters who signed the people’s initiative.

Citing allegations of poll fraud in 2004, anti-Charter-change groups want no plebiscite conducted until the Comelec is revamped (but they are willing to go ahead with the May elections, plus a referendum on calling a constitution convention). In fact, hard data affirms the assessment of both the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) that the results of the 2004 elections reflected the vote and will of the people.

Less than 1 percent of the 17,717 election races in 2004 are in dispute or in doubt, according to former Comelec Chairman Christian Monsod. There was less than one percentage point difference between the shares of votes obtained by presidential candidates in the Congress and Namfrel counts. And Gloria Arroyo topped all surveys done by Pulse Asia, SWS, ABS-CBN, GMA7, Radio Veritas and DZRH days before or right after the voting. Notably too, her K-4 coalition won almost 90 percent of all governor, congressman and mayor positions.

Strangely, while those against Charter change insist they speak for most Filipinos, they refuse to let those millions speak for themselves in a referendum, the only constitutionally mandated process to ratify or reject proposed amendments. (Instead, some want to spend many millions of pesos asking voters if they favor Charter change, which even the Senate and the Church say they do not oppose.) Who then violates the nation’s democratic right to vote on contentious issues?

The boon and bane of Charter change

The question of whether Charter change is good or bad for the country cannot, of course, be definitively answered by any length of argument, blaze of eloquence, or deluge of data. Only history will tell whether, say, the federal parliamentary system would work better for the Philippines than the unitary presidential.

What’s needed is a full and free public debate and deliberation on proposed amendments, so voters can make informed decisions on them. Opponents contend there is not enough knowledge because Charter change is being rushed. Proponents in turn point out that the nation has considered and discussed the main amendment proposals for years, if not decades.

The current push for constitutional reform was advocated in President Arroyo’s campaign platform in 2004, incorporated in the Medium Term Philippine Development Plan, Chapter 25, that same year, and launched in her State of the Nation Address in July 2005. By comparison, the entire 1987 Constitution was ratified three and a half months after it was finished in October 1986, with the nod of three-fourths of the electorate, most of whom never read even half of the Charter.

Another moral objection to Charter change are the benefits it confers on its advocates, especially locally elected politicians who will gain power in a federal parliamentary system. Hardly reported, however, are its critics’ advantages under the present dispensation, where nationally elected officials reign supreme.

If Charter change fails, it is not the people who benefit most, but those able to harness big names, big money and big media to win big power.

Now, is that moral?