Cha-cha or dictator's waltz? Part 1 of 3

Mon, 05/01/2006 - 00:00
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Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

The Entire Series
Part 1: New charters designed to keep embattled presidents in power
Part 2: Following a dictator's playbook
Part 3: The Supreme Court has the ball

The constitutional convention that met in 1971 was formed because of a growing public perception that the country was in crisis and needed drastic change. There was a clamor for a new constitution, particularly in the light of suspicions that Marcos had cheated and spent heavily in the 1969 elections in order to win a second term.

If businessmen, politicians and student activists all wanted a new charter then, it was because they hoped to curtail the powers of the president and to reform what they thought was a rotten political system. The political opposition, in particular, wanted to block Marcos's attempts to perpetuate himself in power by shifting to a parliamentary form of government.

But Marcos outfoxed his opponents. He managed to subvert the convention into producing a constitution that did precisely the opposite: give him enormous powers and extend his term indefinitely.

The present moves toward charter change echo many of the circumstances that took place more than 30 years ago. Last year, in an effort to save a presidency reeling from allegations of election fraud, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo formed a Consultative Commission (ConCom) to "review" the 1987 constitution.

Members of the commission would find out during their trips across the country that many people wanted a new charter mainly to get rid of the present administration. Yet the draft constitution the ConCom has produced is, like the 1973 charter, designed to bring about the opposite result: perpetuate the present political order in power.

The Marcos touch

"We had Marcos after 1971 for the next 14 years," says Jose Luis 'Chito' Gascon, who was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission and who resigned from his post as education undersecretary at the height of the presidential crisis last year. "We will probably have GMA (for longer than her term) unless we learn from history."

Arroyo, however, may have studied that chapter in the nation's history too well. Just like Marcos's ConCon, her ConCom would:

  • Break up into subcommittees and form a "special committee" that would insert into the draft new powers for the incumbent president;
  • Present these new powers at the very last minute to the rest of the body;
  • Suspend the rules and tell everyone to speed up approval;
  • Refuse to accept amendments; and
  • Make last-minute unauthorized insertions.

Ironically, the man many say could have dealt a serious blow to Marcos's martial rule was no other than President Arroyo's late father, former President Diosdado Macapagal, then head of the ConCon. But instead of adjourning the convention and depriving Marcos of a constitution that would legitimize his dictatorship, Macapagal decided to see the ConCon through.

Macapagal died in 1997, but in 1984 this reporter interviewed him extensively about the ConCon. He described himself as essentially helpless, "a figurehead with very limited authority." He also said, "It was not I, but the convention, which decided to continue with the sessions."

"If it were in my hands," Macapagal said, "I would have wanted to declare an indefinite recess but it could not be done under the rules of the convention against the will of the majority, especially since at that time Malacañang had already an unchallenged dominance over the Convention."

Grabbing control

Macapagal said that Marcos grabbed control of the convention by obtaining "the loyal support of certain delegates through the inducement of money, patronage, and other favors in enough number to be able to decisively influence the Convention."

He probably never foresaw that one of his daughters would later be suspected of employing similar tactics with another body tasked with charter change.

Initially, Marcos had influenced the ConCon to choose another former Philippine president, Carlos Garcia, as its head. But Garcia suddenly died three days after being elected. That led to Macapagal's being voted ConCon president - apparently through Marcos's influence. Throughout the convention's 17 months of existence, Macapagal could never shake the image that he had been "selected" instead of "elected."



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