When a television ad championing charter change went viral last January, it became apparent that Philippine politics was dancing to the beat of cha-cha again. The video criticized the 1987 Constitution and linked it to the nation's present problems, like poverty. Afterwards, politicians and netizens allegedthat the ad derided the current Constitution and the EDSA Revolution that birthed it.
What followed were news of the cha-cha proposal, disagreements in the Congress, and allegations of bribery — all headlines that cemented the fresh proposal for a revised constitution. But this in no way comes as a surprise. In fact, the charter change conversation never left the sphere of Philippine politics — like a fire that was never fully extinguished.
The country has seen several efforts to change its constitution over the years. Administrations from Ramos to Duterte have dealt with their own charter change proposals, all of which fizzled out or were thwarted somehow. This time, officials under the Marcos Jr. administration are calling for constitutional amendments in the name of political and economic development. This present cha-cha movement, however, has found itself in staggered development.
Still, despite its sporadic progress, we must be wary of the persistent embers of charter change.
Charter change is good in itself
Unlike other political buzzwords like trapo or epal, "cha-cha" is not inherently negative. Short for "charter change," cha-cha is simply the process of changing provisions of the constitution, be it in small parts or as a structural overhaul.
The Constitution also provides the methods through which change can be achieved: A constituent assembly (con-ass) or a constitutional convention (con-con). Another option is a people's initiative, where the public can propose amendments. This is where cha-cha starts losing unified support. At present, a consensus is far from being reached, with some wanting con-con over con-ass while the people's initiative is jeopardized by allegations of bribery.
The ideal push for cha-cha is motivated by a desire to make the law consistent with the modern developments of the Philippines. After all, the Constitution is the highest law of the land, but there is only so much that the 37-year old document can cover. The Philippines has seen development unheard of by this law, which raises questions as to how an aged document can address the present needs of the country. Charter change then becomes a noble pursuit.
But Filipinos are all too familiar with empty promises of change. Despite good intentions, cha-cha and its proponents have a history of corruption, tainting the public's view on their endeavors. It's easy to see how many Filipinos suspect that politicians will insert self-serving provisions, like term extensions, into amendments supposedly for the betterment of the country. Adding to the public's disdain for cha-cha is the country's tumultuous politics. Against this backdrop, charter change is at an extreme disadvantage.
Deepening political divide
Photo from Rodrigo Duterte’s Facebook page
At present, those who champion charter change find themselves in the middle of a messy political feud. Like cha-cha, the divide between Marcos Jr. and Duterte has been simmering for a time and is only reaching its boiling point; and in the splintering of Uniteam, cha-cha is a point of contention. While Marcos Jr. has underscored the need for economic amendments in the charter, Duterte warnsthat cha-cha could lead to the President's downfall. For either side, cha-cha is a measure of power and influence.
Even the Congress was not spared by fallouts in the government. When the House of Representatives' proposal for cha-cha was rejected by the Senate, many suspected that it was a product of the deepening political divide. Both sides are, after all, full of Marcos or Duterte allies. Acting on the House's push for cha-cha, the Senate expressed its concern that self-serving provisions would make their way to the proposed amendments, saying that such could "erode" the country. Adding to this, the Senate has also opted out of a con-ass, saying that the size of the House of Representatives puts them at a disadvantage.
These divisions run deeper and more convoluted than we think. Our government is run by a network of families, allies, and enemies who are not above using the law and their power to maintain their status. But as the highest law of the land, amending the Constitution should not be a weapon for political infighting. Doing so takes away the focus from the supposed benefits of cha-cha and instead makes it a show of power where the stronger side decides how the rules will be written. This weaponization of charter change puts Filipinos at risk. For them, cha-cha may be a weapon to show which side is more powerful and influential. For the common folk, how the law works could very well change their lives forever.
Risking the already vulnerable
In the headlines about cha-cha and political divisions, the focus is taken away from the masses–those who are at the greatest risk of being harmed by major constitutional changes.
Changing the Constitution could also change how the masses are affected by law, whether for good or bad. In the Philippines, the poor are punished for petty theft while those who plunder millions run free. While families still grieve their sons lost to EJKs, politicians can accuse each other of drug use without investigation. When the laws we now deem constitutional punish only the poor, cha-cha only risks more opportunities for abuse and impunity.
Another concern of the people is how charter change would affect their livelihood. The PUV Modernization Program fiasco exposed how laws can be out of touch with the industries they seek to improve. Following this, there should be greater concern about the creation of economic laws, which are founded on the Constitution. Cha-cha, on the other hand, could open the gates for the labor provisions of the charter to be altered. Labor groups have lobbied against this, expressing that they may lose the rights essential to them as workers.
It's undeniable that the Philippines is swamped by different problems, be it in the realm of economy, society, or politics, and any efforts to solve such are welcome. But charter change is not supposed to be a cure-all for all these. Turning the cha-cha into a convenient way to solve our problems could make the Constitution brittle and lose its supremacy. Perhaps the focus on cha-cha could be shifted towards putting the right people in power or enacting pertinent policies that could directly address the country's problems.
Though the flame of charter change may dwindle, leaving it unattended could mean changing the country as we know it. The persistence of cha-cha should not turn us indifferent to the matter. In fact, the Constitution’s power over the entire nation should make us more wary of any efforts to alter it. Cha-cha and its proponents must stick to noble methods and motives, otherwise, we risk leaving irreparable burns on the Philippines.