Con-com or Con-ass? Con-com or Con-ass? BENJIE OLIVEROS, Bulatlat.com

Is federalism dead? Featured

IF we gauge by the coverage of major dailies these days, the debate on federalism is nowhere, at least not where it should be. Of late, the major focus has been on the spat between two co-equal institutions, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The former threatening to boycott the constituent assembly (Con-ass) if voting is not done separately; the latter going ahead with Con-ass, with or without the Senate’s participation.

Speaker Alvarez wants to rush the revisions to the 1987 Constitution for a plebiscite in early May 2018 (in five months) simultaneous with the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections and a shift to a federal system by 2019. There is even a proposal to postpone midterm-elections next year and allow a 10-year extension of the terms of elected officials, including the President’s, for a transition to federalism.

These scenarios could spell the death of Charter revisions and federalism in the country, as happened in the past. The first attempt to revise the 1987 Constitution by FVR in 1997 through the People’s Initiative for Reform, Modernization and Action (Pirma) failed because people suspected Ramos of wanting to extend his term.

President Erap’s pathetic attempt in 1999 through his Constitutional Correction for Development (Concord) to amend the Constitution to lift restrictions on foreign ownership of businesses did not even gain traction before he was booted out. During the GMA administration, a 50-man Consultative Commission (2005 ConCom) was created to propose constitutional revisions to effect a shift to a federal/parliamentary system, much like what PRRD is doing today. This too was aborted principally on the issue of the abolition of the Senate. All these past failures are merely alibis perpetrated by the main opponents of Charter change and federalism: the oligarchy and the traditional politicians out to maintain the status quo.

President Duterte’s election campaign with federalism as one of the major flagship programs, was attractive to the electorate. The intricacies of federalism as a system was not much understood but the slogan capturing the idea of freedom from the clutches of “Imperial Manila” struck the right chord. Although its impetus was the demand for the Mindanawnons to extricate themselves from the political and economic dominance by the center, this is also true for the Visayans, the Bicolanos and even the Tagalogs; provinces, islands and areas in the periphery of the epicenter of the political universe – Metro Manila.

What has been left out in the debate today is the more important issues of how federalism can bring about a better life for the citizenry. In short, what’s in it for them! This column will not go into the specifics of the issues. Please refer to my Manila Times articles (October 27 and November 3, 2016 on “Social market economy”).

What is urgently needed now is the full attention of DU30 to set up the 25-man Consultative Commission (ConCom) that will help guide him on a clear path toward federalism. This band of experts will provide the president the arguments he needs to steer the debate towards the advantages of a shift from the unitary system we have now to a federal-parliamentary government. But more importantly, the bureaucracy needs to be harnessed to elucidate and educate the citizenry on how this new paradigm can advance social justice, alleviate poverty and hunger; eliminate corruption; and make their lives better. This should be the core of the citizens’ education and debate and the Deegong has to reset the mode for the political conversation.

At the same time, he needs to reconcile the steps leading towards federalism, either through a “simple parliamentary unicameral form” (CDP position) or through a so called “semi-presidential or hybrid-parliamentary bicameral system” (PDP Laban).”Even his own party is ambivalent on the role of the future Senate. Sen. Koko Pimentel, PDP Laban president naturally wants the retention of the Senate, although regionally elected; Speaker Alvarez, PDP Laban secretary-general opts for a unicameral body, similar to CDP’s position. The President can’t afford discordant voices in his own political party and among his allies.

The outcome from the 25-man ConCom should be the position of DU30 and presented to the constituencies in palatable dishes. It would be dangerous and self-serving to allow exclusive input by the two houses of Congress in a Con-ass. Let’s learn from the lesson of the “anti-dynasty” 1987 constitutional provision that couldn’t pass muster, since 1987.

The Senate and House can disregard the Constituent Assembly mode (Con-ass) and pass a law for a constitutional convention (Con-con) with a twist. Allow both elective and DU30 appointees to sit in as delegates to revise the 1987 Constitution. The argument for this is simple: those running for Con-con delegates would be mostly politicians and relatives out to carve out or defend their own political turf. Allow a percentage of presidential appointed experts to the mix. The Con-con can thus be created simultaneous with the barangay elections in May 2018. They have a year within which to revise the Constitution; and by May of 2019, call for a plebiscite simultaneous with the mid-term elections in May 2019. Those elected will hold office only for a year up to May 2020, when the first parliament is elected and subsequently constituted (or a transitory provision can be written into the new constitution defining the role of those elected in 2019; please refer to my column of Jan 18, 2018, “The Centrist proposals”).

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