Charter change: good to have, or must have?

Charter change: good to have, or must have?

There is one ad that is currently going the rounds of television networks and it is a push for charter change. The Inquirer described it as one employing “a play of words on the Filipino slang “echapwera,” which means “left out” or “ostracized” in English, and inserting the word “EDSA.” It is a derogatory reference to a democratic uprising in 1986.

EDSA is the old Highway 54 where the 1986 People Power Revolution transpired that led to the drafting and ratification of a new Philippine Constitution in 1987. The ad claims that our “asenso” stopped in 1986 because quality education was ruled out, plentiful farmers’ harvests did not happen, and land ownership by foreign investors was not allowed. They were “EDSA-pwera.”

The call: Gawing Saligang Patas ang Saligang Batas. Let there be a level playing field.

Of course, as Albay Rep. Joey Salceda pointed out, it is within the law for democracies to amend their constitutions “to suit the evolving needs of the times” and to implement appropriate realignments with fast changing economic and political conditions. No issue about this, but it is important to avoid using this initiative to insert additional agendas for revision like a possible extension of term limits.

Or to change the form of government as if this nation’s future depends on it — both parliamentary and presidential forms of government have their share of successes and failures in political and economic management. That is hardly the issue of how to move this country forward.

Well, at least two senators have been reported to have denounced some parties for their attempts to get the Philippine Constitution amended by “allegedly bribing districts, local government units, and potential signatories openly and shamelessly to agree to a people’s initiative.” They called for an investigation and prosecution of those involved in what they called “unlawful activity.” Whether this proposal is serious and will prosper remains an open question. It takes more than a committee hearing in Congress to advance the process. Enough votes are needed to reach the plenary or submit the committee report for appropriate action.

But make no mistake about it, there could be some scope for amending several restrictive constitutional provisions on the economy, but uploading that particular propaganda over the media is not exactly the best way to rally a people’s initiative to attain genuine political change. The ad’s subtext was that we need a political change other than what the EDSA People Power was all about.

We don’t think we need to revise the Constitution only to achieve that purpose.

Transforming our politics involves a change in the people’s mindset on who to vote for. For the choice of candidates, we need to implement Article II, Section 26 of the Constitution that mandates that “the state shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” That provision is yet to be fleshed out in a law.

While we have more than our share of constitutional and legal empowerment, we have very little resolve to enforce the Constitution and the laws of the land. In many instances, appropriate public policy is all that is required to address many national ills. For the Constitution does not guarantee good governance, transparency, and accountability in doing public service. The electorate have not exactly exercised their right to vote by selecting candidates based on competence, character, and experience in public service. They have been enamored with those who can dispense something on the eve of the election, those who can execute a song and dance medley, those who are popular in entertainment and media.

Most important, generating the momentum for charter change through people’s initiative may not exactly reflect the sentiment of the Filipino people. As indicated by the position paper of the faculty members of the UP Department of Political Science submitted to Congress, a June 2018 Pulse Asia survey showed that around 67% of the respondents were against charter change, with 37% against it “now and in the future” while 30% were opposed “now but may be open to it sometime in the future.” Only 18% were in favor of revising the Constitution and a close 24% were undecided.

What is more troubling is that from the same survey, 74% of Filipinos had little, or almost no, knowledge of the Philippine charter. Then as now, the most urgent national concerns continue to be controlling inflation, improving workers’ pay, creating more jobs, and fighting criminality as well as graft and corruption. These gut issues do not lend themselves directly to constitutional amendments. Not one among the most urgent national concerns — and they are 16 in all — in the latest December 2023 survey by Pulse Asia remotely resembled a plea for some charter amendment. These 16 national concerns are all about good governance, transparency and accountability of those in Government. They are all about character and integrity, and concern for the poor and the disadvantaged among us.

As a fellow, we support the Foundation for Economic Freedom’s (FEF) position paper on charter change because “the removal of restrictive economic provisions sends a clear and compelling message to foreign investors, signaling a warm welcome to investment and business operations in the Philippines.” Such restrictions are real constraints to developing those areas where the country enjoys great potential like mass media and renewable energy.

Three points strengthen the FEF’s position on charter change. First, it recognizes the various policy reforms like the amendments to the Public Service Act and the Retail Trade Liberalization Act as also essential to economic transformation. Second, it recognizes that while the proposed amendments to remove the restrictive economic provisions are necessary, by no means are they sufficient. Rule of law, good infrastructure, and ease of doing business, among others, are vital to attracting foreign investment. And, three, it strongly emphasizes that the constitutional amendments should be limited exclusively to economic provisions.

If we allow a free for all, free riders if one wills, whether by people’s initiative, congressional amendment through constituent assembly, or a constitutional convention, we risk a political crisis that could even prevent us from benefitting from this charter initiative and achieve additional cylinders for greater economic velocity.

Just like our major commentary on the Maharlika Investment Fund, it will be doing an injustice to civil society to argue that without charter change, we can kiss goodbye our aspiration to transform the Philippine economy, revitalize it to break through the low middle income trap, and promote progress and prosperity for all Filipinos.

We have the current Philippine Development Plan 2023-2028 that, in the words of the President, “provides us a comprehensive roadmap containing actionable policies and programs, as well as legislative priorities, that will enable us to reach our desired development outcomes.”

Such outcomes involve fundamental transformations in all business sectors to push for greater job creation, accelerate poverty reduction and achieve prosperity, inclusion, and resiliency of our society. It embraces the values of digitalization, servicification, enhanced connectivity, greater collaboration between local and National Government, and partnership with the private sector.

The Plan commits to maintain high levels of economic growth ranging from 6% to 7% in 2023 to 6.5% to 8% (later downgraded to 7.5%) from 2023-2028.

All these whole-of-society approach and ambitious growth targets were framed for civil society’s ownership without linking their likelihood of success to any constitutional change. It’s time for the people to be involved in deciding whether such constitutional change is “good to have,” or “must have.”


Diwa C. Guinigundo is the former deputy governor for the Monetary and Economics Sector, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). He served the BSP for 41 years. In 2001-2003, he was alternate executive director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC. He is the senior pastor of the Fullness of Christ International Ministries in Mandaluyong.