Considering the role of voice and choice in Charter change

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Maria Elissa Jayme Lao


Considering the role of voice and choice in Charter change

It seems the Philippines has reached another juncture in its slow march towards political development, with the most recent debate on Charter change (including a proposed shift in the form of government) as the most prominent hurdle. Political junctures can be reached gradually as part of a political cycle, or a sudden insistent questioning of dominant norms. Whatever the case may be, the change is most compelling when the demand for social and political change is authentic, and not a fabricated version of public opinion.

What seems to be missing from the current debate unfolding in the different halls of power: the House, the Senate, and the newly created Charter change Consultative Committee is a strong multi-sectoral voice clamoring for this debate to prosper.

Perhaps what is underappreciated in the current debate on Charter change is the need to separate an authentic demand for political change from one that is cloaked in consultations, road shows, and other consensus seeking devices. The lack of a definitive demand via public opinion is a telling sign of unpreparedness for what political change is to come.

What constitutes a definitive demand? When the situation requires it. I return to an article I wrote for Blueboard in 2014 (and prior to this, another article written a decade before, in 2004, on electoral reform and Charter change issues). This previous article, written for a previous administration on a previous Charter change try raised Schimitter’s criteria for a “constitutional moment.” It is one that emerges when the political context changes drastically, either by becoming a State or having no prior experience of constitutional governance, or when there are changed boundaries in a State’s territory, or when role that political authority has played changes drastically, or if a new ethnic minority has joined the polity or a new part of the population has been enfranchised.

In other words, the State should have changed so much that it is clear to everyone that the Charter must be changed as it no longer represents who we are as a people.


Granted, there are characteristics of the Philippine State that must be viewed with some consideration such as the Local government code of 1991 or RA 7160 that provides for the role and powers of local government units and has yet to be fully implemented. Migration, of course, has changed the course of the Philippine State and it has accommodated our Filipinos abroad with the Migrants Workers Act of 1995 (or RA 8042 and the subsequent RA 10022) and RA 9189 or the Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003. Mindanao’s changing political landscape is currently being considered through the BBL or the Bangsamoro Basic law. Population growth and the debates on the passage and implementation of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 or RA 10354 and even the recently passed Train law: these are all indicators that the State continues to address changes in the political, social, and economic landscape. By looking back at the passage of these laws, one sees not just governmental actors but thick networks of civil society organizations: NGOs, POs, internationally based and local groups and other special interest groups alongside concerned citizens that actively pushed for (or against) each of these landmark laws. There was a multiplicity of voices that actively challenged or supported State actors and in doing so produced policy that can by all means be considered public.

I also argue further that aside from ensuring that there is a definitive need for Charter change beyond that which can be responded to by current mechanisms such as the enactment and further implementation of laws, a number of changes must also be made to move beyond the current framework of Philippine Politics that is still hinged on personal (and familial) ties weak representation and limited political participation:

(1) Representation — we must reckon the role that political parties play in political organization. Without clarifying how we want to be organized and represented means that we allow other traditional actors (such as political dynasties) to continue playing an all too central role in the way politics in the Philippines is run and won.

(2) Participation — electoral reform must continue because the context in which we elect our leaders also evolves. This includes ensuring the active participation of groups such as women, the youth, ethnic minorities, Filipinos overseas, persons with disabilities, and the poor in each electoral contest. This can be done via developing new electoral technologies or simply ensuring that electoral violence and intimidation, which seriously should have no place in modern electoral contests, do not limit Filipinos right to vote.

Frankly, as Philippine-based political scientists, it becomes slightly frustrating to keep pointing out the same things. We joke among ourselves that it makes our job easier and our income steadier but at the same time, it leaves us with the feeling that we really aren’t doing our jobs very well. A political event such as the current debate on Charter change and the shift in form of government forces us to reevaluate our political realities and reminds us once again to do our jobs well. It is a challenge not just for academe based citizens but for all members of our political community: it is OUR job and we must ensure that political changes undertaken at important junctures are not made by just those who think and make us believe that they are doing theirs.

I end with a shameless plug: ATENEO EAGLEWATCH, a political and economic briefing will be held on March 7, 10 a.m.-12 noon at the Escaler Hall in the Loyola Height Campus. Speakers are Ciel Habito, Ph.D. on “the Philippine Economic and Performance Outlook” and Melay Abao, Ph.D candidate, on “the Philippine Political Outlook: What to Expect Between Now and May 2019.” For inquiries, please call the Department of Economics at 426-6001 (local 5222/21) or the Department of Political Science (local 5250/5253).


Maria Elissa J. Lao is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Ateneo de Manila University where she is currently the Director of the Institute of Philippine Culture.