Politics and the Constitution

The issue in the September 21 rally, as I see it, is not whether the present Constitution should be changed now or at any other time.  The real issue is whether the Constitution should be changed in order to allow the incumbent president, in this case Mr. Ramos,  to stay in power longer than 6 years.  This is not a constitutional question, for the Constitution permits amendments.  It is, rather, a political question, and, some say, a moral one too.

The supporters of President Ramos have every legal right to try to get the charter amended so that he can remain president after 1998, either through an extension of his term or through the removal of the prohibition against a re-election.  Nothing in the present Constitution forbids them from seeking such amendments.  By the same token, those who oppose him have every right to prevent  this from happening at every point of the process.  The Sept. 21 rally is a legitimate exercise of a constitutionally guaranteed right.

I too am against extending Mr. Ramos’ term or allowing him to seek re-election not necessarily because he has been a bad president, but because I believe we must avoid creating those conditions under which another Marcos might be re-created.   If there is a lesson to be learned from the Marcos years, it is that a second term makes it nearly impossible for the president to relinquish power.   The enormous powers of the presidency can be deployed so as to alter the balance of power among the 3 branches of government, and to nullify the existing system of institutional controls.

The framers of the 1987 constitution recognized this danger, and they regarded it as a structural problem that needed to be cured by an explicit prohibition against a presidential re-election.  That cure may indeed have certain costs.  But whether this has been a wise provision or an irrational one is a question that, I believe, is best discussed by a constitutional convention that is not under pressure from an incumbent president desiring re-election.

Clearly, the 1987 Constitution was a reaction to the national tragedy that was the Marcos rule.  But that is not something that anybody needs to apologize for.  All constitutions are documents of their time, and to a greater or lesser extent, they would tend to reflect the contingencies of the period in which they were crafted.  Constitutions are not written in a vacuum; they are written in the context of the national experience.  More specifically, they reflect the outcomes of a political experience.

The massive reaction to the possibility of an extended or re-elected president testifies to the vitality of that experience.  At crucial junctures of our national life, we sometimes lament the shortness of our people’s memory.  We now know that the people do not forget; it is only that remembrance is selective.  Something triggers the awakening of dormant memories.

I was shocked to see how, during the discussion on the constituent assembly, legislators identified with the ruling party forced a motion on the floor despite vigorous objections from the opposition.   That scene was, for me, frighteningly reminiscent of the final days of the 1971 Constitutional Convention, when the majority of its members, out of fear or sensing opportunity, presented Marcos with a constitution that was custom-made to his ambitions.

There is nothing wrong about amending or even replacing a constitution.  A constitution is a basic guide – a tool — that a community uses in the conduct of its affairs.  It is perfectly all right for a community to revise or replace its basic document in  response to changing times and circumstances.  A good constitution, in fact, provides for ways by which this can be done in an orderly and legitimate way.

It is politics however that ultimately determines what meanings a constitution will have in the life of a community.  Some of its provisions will have a greater saliency than others.  Some provisions may become dead letters, rendered irrelevant  by changing times.  Indeed, a constitution, for all its claims of inviolability and legal superiority, may be completely nullified by a revolution or a coup d’etat.

These are not chaotic times, as some may believe.  Rather they mirror the latent political struggles in our society.  The forces that are locked in combat bring into the arena various interests, which they may or may not publicly acknowledge.   The constitution itself is  only one of many resources that can be mobilized in this struggle.  We have seen how its various provisions are cited by the contending forces to justify their respective actions.  Clearly, the Constitution is not the principal motive for their actions; it is rather the warrant they use to lend legitimacy to their actions.

To view matters from this perspective allows us to understand how various groups in our society, who are otherwise divided by long-term interests, can converge at the Luneta on the basis of a common cause – to prevent the incumbent president from staying in power beyond 1998.   This is politics, and there is nothing wrong with politics.  How this question will be resolved, and what happens beyond September 21 bears watching.  It is a good time for the permanently marginalized sectors of our society to re-group their forces, and to act consciously in order to advance their interests.


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