Arroyo’s Charter Change moves copied from the Marcos book

Second of three parts

THE ARROYO government’s campaign to change the constitution seems to be following a playbook written by a dictator. His name: Ferdinand Marcos.

In 1972, Marcos manipulated, bribed and intimidated key delegates of the Constitutional Convention to grant him extraordinary powers. He dangled a promise to cancel elections the following year and struck a deal with convention delegates that those who would vote “yes” to his extraordinary powers would automatically become members of an Interim National Assembly. He then set up “citizens’ assemblies” to ratify his constitution.

Last year, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo formed a Consultative Commission (ConCom) to draft a new charter. A handful of commissioners inserted last-minute provisions in this draft, granting President Arroyo extraordinary powers.

Some ConCom members who represented various leagues of local government officials also prodded the body to insert a section canceling the 2007 polls and giving all elected officials a bonus three-year term. In return, pro-Arroyo local officials recently convened citizens’ assemblies to start a sign-up drive to ratify “substantially” the same provisions that the ConCom had proposed, giving the president extraordinary powers.

The difference is that the people’s initiative is proposing even stronger powers for Arroyo than the ConCom did.

Some of those helping Arroyo push charter change are also the same ones who cooperated with Marcos more than 30 years ago, among them House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., ConCom chair Jose Abueva, ConCom committee on style chair Gilberto Duavit, Concom deputy floor leader Alfredo Abueg, ConCom vice chair for Mindanao Pedro Romualdo and ConCom member Gerardo Espina Sr.

ConCom member Vicente Paterno, once a member of the Marcos Cabinet, says that Arroyo is taking steps similar to those employed by Marcos to ratify the 1973 constitution. Paterno adds that Arroyo could succeed in acquiring extraordinary powers even without first imposing military rule. “It can be done,” he says.

In fact, Paterno was the first to raise Marcos’s name during the commission’s plenary sessions last December. Reading fresh insertions in the already approved transitory provisions a day before the ConCom was dissolved, Paterno was moved to ask, “Are we going back to the Marcos regime?”

Similar insertions

Paterno noted that with the new insertions, there was now a remarkable similarity between the structure of power that Marcos fashioned for himself through the 1973 constitution, and what the ConCom proposed to hand over to President Arroyo. “I have to say it’s the same,” Paterno bluntly told his colleagues during the commission’s Dec. 14 plenary session.

Among the new provisions were:

  • Immediately upon the charter’s ratification, a unicameral assembly to be called an “interim parliament” would be formed.
  • The interim parliament will choose an interim prime minister among themselves. But the interim prime minister would be a mere member of the Cabinet of the “incumbent president” (i.e. Arroyo)
  • Incumbent president Arroyo will immediately wear two hats by exercising the powers of both the “head of government” (the prime minister) and the ceremonial president (head of state). The only power of the prime minister denied her is the power to dissolve parliament.
  • Incumbent president Arroyo will have exclusive “control and direction” of the Cabinet.
  • Incumbent president Arroyo can insert one-third of her Cabinet, plus 30 new members of her choosing, into the interim parliament.
  • Only members of her Cabinet can propose bills of national application in the interim parliament, relegating everyone else into filing local bills.

The official transcript of the Dec. 14 plenary session recorded a heated and passionate exchange among the ConCom members.

Vigorous objections

After Paterno pointed out the similarities between the new provisions and some of those in the Marcos constitution, Commissioner Pablo Garcia stood up and vigorously objected to what he said were unapproved insertions.

These were “not submitted or not found in the original committee report,” protested the former Cebu governor. “These are entirely new amendments that were prepared only about a few minutes ago or an hour…inside the executive room,” he said. He called what happened “cooking up provisions.”

But Commissioners Romela Bengzon, Raul Lambino and Romualdo said that the amendments — introduced by Abueva and Lambino — were a “substitution or addition” to the original report of the subcommittee on transitory provisions chaired by Bengzon.

They were done “in the interest of time” and “to fast track” discussions, they said. They and other commissioners also argued that the powers given to Arroyo would be needed to “smoothen the transition” between the purely presidential into a parliamentary form.

This somewhat echoed the words uttered by the supporters of the dictatorial provisions of the 1973 constitution, who had said the extraordinary powers given to Marcos at the time were needed to “contend with any problem during the emergency situation.” They had, however, carefully refrained from mentioning that the emergency had been brought about by Marcos himself, when he imposed military rule.

It had been Commissioner Bengzon who a few minutes after 5 p.m. last Dec. 14 had casually handed out copies of the insertions to her surprised colleagues. But more than three decades earlier, no less than ConCom chairman Abueva — then the ConCon secretary — had distributed copies of a draft article that listed “transitory provisions” to be included in the Marcos charter.

Marcos’s moves

Those provisions were laws that would prevail while the country was transitioning from the old constitution to a new one. They proposed to make Marcos both president and prime minister of an ad interim assembly, and gave a list of formidable powers that he would wield.

Yet the very next day — Oct. 17, 1972 — Abueva was handing out a revised copy of the provisions, with a note saying this “supersedes that which we transmitted to you yesterday.”

The previous document had stated that all Marcos decrees “shall remain in force and effect unless amended…by the ad interim national assembly.” The new document added three ominous words, saying that whatever decrees Marcos issued would be considered “valid, legal and binding” even after martial law was lifted or the constitution was approved. Delegate Dandy Tupaz would later tell this reporter, “This came from Malacañang.”

In a recent interview, Abueva denied he had a hand in helping Marcos gain dictatorial powers. He said he had merely performed a purely administrative function as the ConCon secretary. He said he had applied for the post — besting current Supreme Court Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban — because as a political scientist he wanted to witness history. But in the end, Abueva said, “I was so very, very disappointed (because) some of the provisions were made in Malacañang.”

So onerous were the Marcos provisions that after the strongman was overthrown in 1986 and delegates sat down to write yet another constitution, they made it a point to specifically delete the poisonous words “valid, legal and binding” from any transitory provisions.

Same words

Last December, though, the Arroyo-appointed commissioners included these three words in their proposed charter. If their version of the constitution is implemented, those words would mean that all of Arroyo’s proclamations and orders, including Proclamation 1017 that declared the entire country under a state of emergency, could be considered valid and legal.

In truth, it had not only been Paterno who thought that President Arroyo could become as powerful as Marcos had been.

During the Dec. 14 deliberations, Commissioner Angelo Abarico, a veteran editor-publisher from Davao, also pointed out, “This could be misconstrued as going back to the years of the late strongman, President Marcos, when he was both the head of state as well as the head of government. And the prime minister was a mere decorative piece.”

Abueva had quickly replied that the analogy was wrong and the situations were different since that of Marcos “was never really a parliamentary system” but a dictatorship.

Paterno, unconvinced, told his colleagues: “There is no distinction between this arrangement and the Marcos structure. I am looking for a way by which I can tell the people, ‘No, this is different.'”

Paterno and other commissioners noted that the ConCom draft charter was actually proposing two very different power structures: one for during the interim parliament headed by Arroyo, and another for the regular parliament.

During the transition, Arroyo would retain her title as president but be more powerful than the interim premier. After the transition, the prime minister would become the more powerful figure, relegating the president to mainly ceremonial functions.

Extraordinary powers

Lambino conceded to Paterno that he could think of “no parliamentary government that had that kind of power” Arroyo would have during the transition period. To which Paterno said, “Then why call it a parliamentary government?”

Lambino replied, “Because we are now in the interim period. After 2010, there shall now be separation between the powers under the head of state and the head of government.”

Paterno then asked worriedly how the Arroyo transition period “will be different from the Marcos government except for the martial law powers.” Lambino gave the assurance that Arroyo would exercise only powers provided by the newly proposed charter. As he saw it, she would be unlike Marcos, who not only retained the presidential powers stipulated by the 1935 Constitution, but also enjoyed the new ones granted by 1973 charter to the president and prime minister.

Yet earlier that day, Bengzon had told colleagues that during the transition, “the president still retains her power as president in the 1987 Constitution with no diminution thereof.”

Paterno suggested that they at least make the interim prime minister the “administrative head” of the Cabinet. But Abueva, Lambino, Bengzon and Abueg refused the amendment. Put to a viva voce vote, Paterno’s suggestion was defeated.

The only change the four ConCom officers grudgingly accepted was to place the Cabinet under Arroyo’s “direction and supervision,” instead of under her “control and supervision.”

Since the hour was getting late, Commissioner Oscar Rodriguez, mayor of San Fernando, Pampanga, moved to suspend ConCom rules requiring the printing of a clean copy of the proposals before final approval. He obtained ConCom’s consent through a viva voce vote.

ConCom floor leader Sergio Apostol, a former congressman, then moved to approve all the amendments on third and final reading. Nineteen members raised their hands in agreement; eight said “no.”

Fast-tracked amendments

Even if only 27 or less than half the 55-member commission had voted, many being absent, the motion was carried. The body then adjourned. It was 9:37 p.m. of Dec. 14; it had taken the commission less than five hours to approve Arroyo’s extraordinary powers.

The ConCom draft remains the mother document for the ongoing people’s initiative. But the initiative is pushing for even more powers for Arroyo.

Concom had wanted the interim parliament to have a free hand in electing the interim prime minister from among its members. The people’s initiative wants Arroyo to nominate the premier who will then be elected by his or her peers.

This is to avoid gridlock and ensure “a three-year period of harmony and unity among our top leaders,” Lambino said in an interview.

Concom had placed a cap of one-third of the Arroyo Cabinet that could become members of the interim Parliament. The people’s initiative removes that cap and says “incumbent members of the Cabinet who are heads of executive departments” will all be in parliament.

Lambino adds that even if Arroyo fires a Cabinet member, “it does not follow he will cease to be a member of parliament.”

The people’s initiative has also embraced Commissioner Bengzon’s view, not Lambino’s, regarding the breadth of the incumbent president’s power during the transition period. The attachment to the initiative’s petition to the Commission on Elections proposes that “the incumbent President and Vice President…continue to exercise their powers under the 1987 Constitution” upon ratification of the new charter.