Constitutional Reforms in East Asia, Part I: Progress and Possibility in the Philippines

Talks of constitutional reforms appear to be sweeping across the presidential and semi-presidential systems in East Asia: the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. Constitutions capture the principles – some say, the most sacred principles – around which institutions, legislation, rules, and processes of a country are built.[1] Constitutional reforms, then, are generally significant and painstaking undertakings, often requiring supermajorities in the legislature or the electorate or both to ratify. And, this may be rightfully so: if they are to amend or revise principles that underpin the political, economic, and social structures of a country, the process should not be based on changeable and changing attitudes. Given the significance, the concomitant grip of constitutional reforms across several of the East Asian with a president as head or co-head of government is interesting, if not curious. What level of public support is there for these reforms? And, how likely are these reforms to pass?

President Duterte entered office in the Philippines with a pledge to adopt constitutional reforms to change the country’s unitary system into a federalism, with some powers devolved to the local governments for a more responsive government. Constitutional revisions have been proposed under previous governments: for instance, under President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, talks of constitutional revisions to repeal the term-limited, single, six-year non-re-electable presidential term-of-office surfaced towards the end of the popular executive, while former President Arroyo pushed hard for a change to a unicameral parliamentary system following an impeachment effort against the President for possible electoral irregularities in the 2004 presidential elections.[2] A marked difference between this constitutional reform effort and its predecessors is: President Duterte is hugely popular; as a contrast, President Arroyo was pre-empting protests and demonstrations as she pushed for her reforms.

Does this mean that there is wide public support for the federalist revision? That is less clear: on the one hand, the President was elected into office with federalism as one of his platform promises; on the other hand, Duterte was elected into office with a plurality of 36.7 percent of the total votes cast.[3] Polls report economic progress remains a key concern among survey respondents, so that a key consideration for public support is likely whether federalism will address economic development as promised.

How likely is the constitutional reform to pass? The Constitution provides for revisions in one of three ways: through a vote of three-fourths of the members of Congress; a constitutional convention; or direct petition by the people of at least 12 percent of the total registered voters, and of which every legislative district has three percent signatories. All revisions must then be ratified by a majority of the votes cast between 60 and 90 days of the approval of the amendment. In these processes, President Duterte seems largely unfettered: in particular, he enjoys the support of a super-majority in the legislature, and has high trust ratings that have only recently fallen. Even the Supreme Court has refused to limit the President’s martial law powers in Mindanao. Indeed, President Duterte has already moved to a constitutional assembly so that lawmakers will draft and approve the changes, rather than use a constitutional convention. The constitutional assembly is expected to convene after the national budget for 2017 is passed; the Speaker of the House anticipates that the amendments may be finalized by the end of 2017. If the amendments remain limited to the federalist structure, this is one constitutional revision effort that may fly.

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[1] Strauss, David. 2010. The Living Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press

[2] Hedman, Eva-Lotta. 2006. “The Philippines in 2005: Old Dynamics, New Conjuncture.” Asian Survey vol 46 no 1: 187-193

[3] Election Guide, International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Washington, D.C.

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