Tag Archives: constitutional revisions

The Philippines – The President and Political Cha-cha

The issue of Charter Change, or constitutional revision, has gathered steam in the Philippines recently in regards to two areas: one, constitutional revision to extend the President’s term of office; two, constitutional revisions to reduce the powers of the Supreme Court.

Discussion of constitutional revisions towards the end of a popular president’s term – President “Pnoy” Aquino III’s approval at about 55 percent in July is about a 10-point decline from March but still high for the executive after four years of the six-year term – is not uncommon. What is interesting about this discussion of a constitutional revision to the term-limits of the president is its tie-in to the second area, revisions to the Supreme Court’s powers, that relates specifically to President Pnoy’s displeasure with the Supreme Court’s 13-0 ruling on the unconstitutionality of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) that was administered through the executive office.

Executives in democracies bring the “power” and “arbitrariness” of a single decision-maker into policy-making without the objectionable aspects of those qualities, largely because of the constraints of horizontal accountability between government institutions to check and restrain abuses of power by branches of government or public agencies, and vertical accountability.[1] At the same time, it is useful to note that when O’Donnell (1998) first raised the concept of horizontal accountability, he held “judicial autonomy” as “tricky” because the lack of oversight to enhance its autonomy may lead directly to a lack of accountability (123).[2]

The constitutional revision situation in the Philippines, then, is illuminating for encapsulating the struggle of balancing power with constraints for not one but two branches of the government. But perhaps it is most instructive in terms of the losses from this struggle: the latest polls show approval ratings dipping across all three branches of government.

It is perhaps not surprising that struggles between the branches of government do not usually lead to victors, at least from the perspective of electoral support. This disapproval provides a useful context for evaluating the value of constitutional revisions: it suggests that few consider system-wide changes as appropriate for dealing with conflicts within the government. And it may also serve as a useful reminder: insofar as politicians are generally seen as motivated by self-interest,[3] constitutional revisions that benefit incumbents are also generally not viewed with approbation.

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[1] See discussions in O’Donnell (1998), and Yap and Gibb (2013/14: 160), about horizontal accountability as well as its complement, vertical accountability, where public officials are held accountable through the electoral process, an active civil society, or a free press.

[2] Studies of accountability generally focus on executive accountability, probably because of the potential for abuses related to the position of head of government and commander-in-chief of the military.

[3] Bowler et al, 2006.