A Rule of Thumb for the Law of the Land

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase-Albert del Rosario Institute (ADRi) for Strategic and International Studies

As the rule of the land, a constitution assures a society of continuity beyond the term of elected public officials and the system of government in place. To be an effective barometer of continuity, a constitution should be accommodating of some change. While it should set out the principles of our society, it should avoid rigidity and favor flexibility, allowing succeeding generations the breathing room to address the needs of a people in a given place and time.

The Political Moment

Past efforts to change or amend the 1987 Philippine Constitution during the Estrada, Ramos, Macapagal and Benigno Aquino administrations were marred with incredibility. The efforts were easily branded as a means to prolong the stay of incumbent leaders in power and to promote narrow interests. However, Philippine society today faces a different and more dynamic internal and external spatio-temporal landscape.

The peculiar nature of the present situation is defined by four characteristics – the popular election of a seemingly disinterested president; the worsening inequality and non-inclusive growth in the economy; the growing competitive nature of Philippine economy; and ASEAN economic integration. The Philippines of today has an altogether different role in the region than it did in 1986. This situation gives us an opportune moment to provide a more competitive edge to the law of our land. It could be done through judicious intervention to change the form of government and to adjust the long-inflexible economic provisions.

Federal Initiative

Although not guaranteed to reform the highly centralized and clientelist nature of Philippine politics, a federal form of government possesses a more democratic stance in terms of the following aspects. First, it could promote a more transparent and accountable governance as leadership is brought closer to the people. Second, a federal set-up could help to democratize growth and make it inclusive. Third, the national power that has hitherto been held by imperial Manila could be de-concentrated, leading to more political and economic equality. Fourth, the principle of subsidiarity could be the critical step toward the resolution of ethnic, class and gender conflicts in Philippine society.

However, understanding the nature of Philippine politics renders a double-edged character to the institution of a federal structure. Under a federal set-up, the power of historically entrenched local elites could further consolidate their dominance at the subnational levels. Second, the localization of police power could bring warlordism into new heights. Third, the economically unequal nature of local units is a stumbling block in the process of federation; and many other counter-arguments notwithstanding.

Given the said tug-of-war situation, people empowerment in the political and economic aspects becomes an imperative. An empowered people at the local level could effectively deal with problems and conflicts at the meso- and micro-levels. In turn, political economic empowerment could arrest the power of entrenched local elites.

Inflexible Provisions

In terms of economic arrangements, a particular adjustment could be made to render a more competitive and flexible stature to the economic provisions in our constitution. The proposed amendment is a simple insertion of the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law” to the economic provisions in Sections 2, 3, 10 & 11 of Article XII (National Patrimony and Economy); Section 4 of Article XIV (Education, Science and Technology, Arts, Culture and Sports); and Section 11 of Article XVI (General Provisions).

Admittedly, the simple insertion changes the dynamics of economic competition as enshrined by the Constitution. The fine point, however, is that such amendment relaxes the provisions and attunes them to the changing conditions that govern our society at the subnational, national and supranational levels.

The economic flexibility to be brought about by the amendment is deemed to benefit our society on the following grounds. It would empower Congress to pass legislation that would abolish restrictions on foreign ownership in certain industries to attract investments and generate jobs. This would provide both urban and rural communities the much needed employment opportunities. Second, the resulting competition would produce better services and prices for the Filipino consumers. This would increase the competitiveness of the talented Filipino labor force. Economic growth based on job creation insures an inclusive and sustainable economy.

Further, the amendment establishes a more open policy regime that nurtures a globally competitive investment climate and extends beyond political timelines. Leveling the playing field of economic opportunity, protecting consumer rights and instilling industrial discipline could be achieved through the institution of bold policy reforms. Relaxing the limitations on foreign ownership would enable our country to maximize the benefits of ASEAN integration and participate in other free-trade agreements. By creating an investment-conducive environment, the Philippines will be better able to engage investors in long-term partnerships and investments. The attraction and creation of investments is critical to job creation and sustainability.

Beyond Political Bickering

In a nutshell, a clear political and economic agenda based on democratic interests is what differentiates the current effort from past efforts in instituting constitutional change. While bringing governance to the people by directly engaging them is the greatest potential of a federal set-up, the relaxation of the economic provisions in the Constitution mounts a competitive spring board for inclusive growth.

The present initiative and movement for constitutional amendments is therefore beyond the act of political bickering for more political and economic power. It simply aims to institute a politically and economically inclusive structure in Philippine society.

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