December 2006
Political Predictions

Restarting the political and electoral reforms train

This essay was solicited by i Report, the online magazine of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, for its current series on political predictions. The views expressed in the essays included in this series do not necessarily reflect those of the PCIJ or any of its staff members.

THE PRESENT crisis facing the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo underlines the necessity for far-ranging changes in our political and electoral systems. It also poses both a threat and opportunity as far as these reforms are concerned. As such, careful handling is needed to neutralize the threats and seize the opportunities.

The threat comes from the obvious temptation to use reforms as a lip-service part of a strategy to ease pressure on the present administration or to overcome the political opposition. It may also come from the opposition, which could use these reforms as self-serving political maneuvers to gain advantage over the Arroyo government. The biggest threat, however, comes from the possibility that the crisis could worsen and breach the constitutional borders. That may then well lead to martial law, coups, and other situations hostile to democracy.

But opportunities abound in the crisis, too. As the administration and the opposition, as well as all other protagonists, make their moves, situations for compromises and actual agreements may present themselves. Most of these will be regarding the rules of the political game, including elections and political behaviour. Political and electoral reforms then become part of the process and turned into reality.

Indeed, even before apparent public anger derailed the administration’s charter-change express and had it heading prematurely (but as it turns out, only temporarily) for the barn, its main proponents were already forced to confirm that the May 2007 elections would take place. Current circumstances in which the cha-cha engineers appear chastened may even lead to openness and clearer social agreements on the parameters of a genuine constitutional reform process. The upcoming 2007 elections, meanwhile, produces the pressure for a revamp of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) — or at least for the commissioners to be on their best behaviour.

The crisis has turned the people’s attention once more to the many flaws in our political and electoral systems. It has renewed interest for reform of the electoral processes. Citizen-voter education is again being taken up by an increasing number of institutions and organizations, ranging from the educational institutions to nongovernmental organizations and political parties. In due time, this could produce a much higher awareness of what a genuinely democratic electoral process should be.

The prospects for political and electoral reforms beyond the May 2007 polls depend much on the outcome of the current political crisis. If the crisis is resolved by the elections, the reforms will be back on track. And given the current level of advocacy for these, the reform bills may well be passed by the 14th Congress, with the required reform actions undertaken at all levels.

If the crisis persists, however, then the nature and level of the political contest that would ensue after the polls would be crucial. If the political scene worsens after May, any reform would probably be set aside as its advocates would be addressing a more urgent need to defend a democracy that could be in near-collapse. This would be the scenario should extra-constitutional challenges are posed by either side in the political crisis.

Should the political crisis remain at an impasse, though, there could be a crisis of governance. This is because the Arroyo administration — unable to govern normally and always on the lookout for opposition moves — would consistently place its political survival above all other consideration. Reforms will just be a secondary consideration — or worse, used as a deception tool.

The opposition — unable to boot out the Arroyo administration within the constitutional framework — could then be attracted to a strategy of political guerrilla tactics aimed at eroding the administration’s political capital. Reforms in this scenario probably would also be reduced into being mere weapons in the opposition’s arsenal of propaganda and public relations.

POLITICAL AND electoral reforms had actually been at high on the national agenda following the 2004 elections. Federalism was even a popular topic for sometime, although it was constitutional reforms, particularly the proposed shift to a parliamentary system, that persistently hogged the headlines.

Reforms to strengthen the political-party system and address campaign financing had also been consistently tackled in many national discussions. Citizen-voter education and revision of the Omnibus Election Code as part of important reform measures were brought up. Automation of the elections had also been pursued in the midst of calls for the revamp of the Comelec. All these only mean that political and election reforms had been increasingly seen by both political leaders and the public as necessary to solve the many problems of our fragile democracy.

As early as April 2002, in fact, a summit of electoral-reform stakeholders had been convened jointly by the Comelec; the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments, Revision of Codes and Laws, and Electoral Reforms; the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms; and the Consortium on Electoral Reforms, a civil-society coalition of 42 national organizations.

The summit produced a legislative and action agenda of electoral reforms. Among these was the passage of bills on political-party reform and campaign financing, overseas absentee voting, local sectoral representation, amendments to the party-list law, and a ban on “turncoatism.” The summit participants also agreed on structural reforms of the Comelec, citizen-voter education, constitutional reforms through a constitutional convention, and strengthening of the electoral-reform network of civil society.

A month later, the first national conference of Philippine political parties adopted the summit’s resolutions in its own declaration. This positive response by the major political parties led to the rapid processing of electoral-reform bills through both houses of the 12th Congress. By 2003, there was already an overseas absentee voting law, while other pieces of legislation aimed at similar reforms were in plenary deliberations or had gone through committee deliberations.

But congressional processing of political and electoral bills began to slow down and eventually stopped when Congress got more and more mired in the many committee investigations of scandals and issues against President Arroyo and people close to her. In the 2003-2004 12th Congress sessions, no electoral bill was passed at all. The nearest that an electoral-reform bill reached at the time was the passage on third reading of the political party reform bill at the Lower House and its reporting out of the Senate committee.

The 2004 elections overran the 12th Congress reform initiatives, as well as those regarding other components of the electoral-reform agenda. The Comelec was also unable to push through with automation of the polls because the Supreme Court found anomalies in the Commission’s contract with the supplier of the machines.

Many problems associated with the antiquated election system were thus still present in the 2004 polls. One of the most notable was the presidential canvassing that dragged on and on. The canvassing took place for almost one month because of wrangling in Congress and the slow submission of results from several suspect regions.

THE OPPOSITION never accepted the presidential election results, which had Arroyo’s main rival, popular action star Fernando Poe Jr., in second place. Poe filed an election protest with the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, but his death in December 2004 rendered the process moot and academic.

When the so-called “Garci” tapes surfaced in June 2005, both the administration and the opposition went into tailspins (albeit in entirely different directions). Those who had questioned the 2004 presidential contest shifted to high gear while Arroyo’s camp put itself into political-survival mode, where it seems to continue to be stuck.

Political and electoral reforms became the immediate casualty. The proposal for the shift to a parliamentary system was pursued by the president and her allies through an accelerated process involving a “people’s initiative” and a “constituent assembly.” She dropped her previous support for a constitutional convention and appointed a presidential commission to propose her own version and an “advocacy commission” to sell the latter to the public.

Reform advocates condemned this hijacking of the constitutional reform agenda. A consensus then steadily developed among them to resist these two initiatives emanating from Malacañang. Last October, the Supreme Court rejected the farcical “people’s initiative” and called it “most likely a deception, and can operate as a gigantic fraud on the people.” Just several days ago, a Church-led people’s protest had the House majority putting its resolution to form a “constituent assembly” in the archives.

But the constitutional proposal for a federal system and even the proposal for a shift to a parliamentary system have suffered heavily from all these and may have a hard time bringing back public interest in them, if not public support for them. Even the mode of constitutional convention, which had been endorsed previously by a broad consensus, needs to be revisited so it could be acceptable once more to the people. Too many have simply been turned off by the desperate use of it by the majority in the House. Constitutional reform itself has to be brought back on the right track because of the damage wrought on it by the present administration’s political-survival strategy.

Ironically, though, electoral reforms have become more urgent as a by-product of the struggle in the constitutional front. The main factor that drove people into an angry resistance against the cha-cha train of President Arroyo and Speaker Jose de Venecia was the specter of a constitutional change to prevent the 2007 elections and to give incumbents longer terms. Demands for a revamp of the Comelec, the modernization of the electoral process, and prevention of cheating and fraud are on the table right now. Demands for other major electoral reforms are bound to join those soon.

In the end, however, it boils down to a question of constant vigilance and watching out for the threats and opportunities in advancing the political and electoral reforms. The one constant here will be the people as they embrace these reforms and change the Philippine political landscape forever with their heightened sense of democracy. Democracy, after all, is the one big lesson of the current political crisis.

Ramon Casiple is the executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform (IPER) and chairperson of the Consortium for Electoral Reforms.