Owning constitutional reform

By Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M

It struck me as ironic that a lot of people commended the filing of a bill mandating the inclusion of constitutional education in our curriculum. First, because this is essentially an admission that we have not been studying our 35-year-old constitution.

Which probably explains why close to 80% of Filipinos have little to no comprehension at all of the 1987 Constitution.

Second, such a bill is actually unnecessary because the constitution itself commands that constitutional education must be part of the curriculum. Article XIV, Section 3 (1) prescribes, “All educational institutions shall include the study of the Constitution as part of the curricula.”

The mandatory tenor of this provision is indisputable. So the bill, I daresay, is an indictment against past and present public officials for their failure to obey this constitutional directive.

Our lack of understanding and appreciation of the 1987 Constitution is arguably the main reason why we have never been able to overcome our distrust of Cha-Cha or charter change. Because we have never internalized the constitution, warts and all, the appetite to improve it never developed in our consciousness.

The sad reality here is that some of the problems we face today result from pathologies in our constitution. Although I must concede as well that most of our troubles, particularly in politics and governance, stem from our poor comprehension of the 1987 Constitution.

Imagine that we truly believed in the constitutional prescription that “Public office is a public trust.”, and applied the same every time we cast our ballot in that polling booth. It would not be unreasonable to picture being governed by public officials who are vastly different from the current lot tormenting us these past 35 years.

Accordingly, helping each other learn more about our constitution should be an utmost priority. Obviously, the Department of Education should now be earnestly instituting constitutional education in the curriculum. Its inaction these past 35 years has caused significant harm to politics and governance in the country. Thus, I think it is only right to expect extreme urgency from this agency to bring us back to the right path.

Civil society groups can also do their share in helping more Filipinos learn to appreciate and understand the 1987 Constitution. One urgent constitutional matter that these organizations can help us figure out is the principle of separation of powers. They can easily facilitate meaningful public discourse on this aspect of our system of government through town hall forums and roundtable discussions.

I think a strong public disdain for some of the behavior being displayed by our elected officials can evolve if more of us gain a deeper comprehension of the principle of separation of powers. For one, I think many of us will vehemently protest when we see an incumbent senator acting like the personal assistant of the president. And for sure, we will all be roused to anger every time our lawmakers happily and blindly kowtow to the wishes of the Chief Executive.

Even the rabid proponents of Cha-Cha can help elevate the constitutional consciousness of Filipinos. I know for a fact that many groups are now actively campaigning for amending the 1987 Constitution. Some are pushing to change the constitution completely in the name of federalism, while some want to adopt a parliamentary form of government.

These groups should make an effort to point out the specific flaws in our constitution. It is not enough to just say we need to change our system of government. They have to explain how our current problems are related to these defective provisions. And more importantly, how their proposed changes can bring about improvements to our politics and governance.

Interestingly, this administration seemed disinterested in pursuing constitutional reform, which is particularly surprising given that President Bongbong Marcos is the standard-bearer of the Partido Federal ng Pilipinas. But of course, the President can easily change his mind and push for Cha-Cha before the middle mark of his term. If this be the case, then fostering a sense of ownership over the process must be seriously considered.

It is worthy to note that in 1986, the Constitutional Commission formed by President Cory Aquino was working under a strict deadline drafting a new charter to formalize the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. Today, the circumstances are vastly different. We actually have the luxury of time to pursue constitutional reform.

For constitutional law scholars and practitioners, the active engagement of the people in the entire constitution-drafting process is a key factor in demonstrating the internal legitimacy of the outcome, as well as securing for it the necessary external validation.

Engagement is usually implemented via citizen assemblies, where deliberative discussions relating to constitutional reform are done. Deliberation in these assemblies means the open exchange of ideas and insights, with participants willing to listen, reflect and, if warranted, change their views.

The Barangay Assembly mechanism in the Local Government Code meets these prescriptions quite ideally. For one thing, it is the most convenient way to gather ordinary citizens and give them the opportunity to speak out and be heard. Indeed, by statutory mandate, the barangay is a “forum wherein the collective views of the people may be expressed, crystallized and considered.”

But the most crucial role that these Barangay Assembly deliberations would play will be giving the people the platform to frame the issues that need to be addressed in the constitutional reform initiative. In a way, these assemblies would become the time and place for citizens to actually take ownership of what their constitution should be. It will be that “constituting” moment for the people, as they say.

Therefore, if this administration should change gear and decide to pursue Cha-Cha, railroading the process should be off the table. If they want to break the curse of public distrust, then they should proceed with constitutional reform as deliberate and deliberative as they possibly can.