By Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III

Our members of Congress have not learned from past failed initiatives to change the Constitution (also known as Cha-cha or Charter change). Every political administration after Corazon Aquino’s has attempted to do Cha-cha. And each attempt, resulting in heavy political costs, got nowhere.

In most cases, the Cha-cha project was engineered by the President or had their blessing, with the goal of extending term limits or consolidating power.

Fidel Ramos had a signature campaign or people’s initiative to amend the Constitution. It went by the name of PIRMA, the Filipino word for “signature” and which stood for People’s Initiative for Reform, Modernization and Action. Amid massive protests, the Supreme Court struck it down for having no enabling law.

Joseph Estrada coined another acronym for Cha-cha: CONCORD, which meant Constitutional Correction for Development. But Estrada’s term was short-lived, as people power forced him to resign.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) hatched the Sigaw ng Bayan (People’s Cry), which was similar to Ramos’ PIRMA. But the GMA’s version of the people’s initiative was likewise rejected by the Supreme Court.

Benigno S. Aquino III uncharacteristically entertained the idea of extending his term, which would have entailed amending the Constitution. But he retreated in the face of public backlash. On the other hand, then Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. filed a resolution to amend the Constitution’s restrictive economic provisions. But his resolution got stuck in the Lower House.

Rodrigo Duterte likewise pushed for Cha-cha to transform the form of government from a unitary system into a federal one. Like what happened in previous administrations, the Duterte initiative for Cha-cha ground to a halt.

Two salient reasons explain the failed attempts. First, the public or the electorate is deeply suspicious of any attempt to change the Constitution. The people believe that Cha-cha serves selfish, opportunistic interests of politicians to remain in power. Second, the senators — they have the power to block Cha-cha — consider it a threat to their political survival. The change in the form of government or an extension of the term of the president thwarts the ambitions of senators.

Because the people and a section of the elite see Cha-cha as a politically motivated act by opportunistic, selfish interests, the instigators use a smokescreen to conceal their real intent.

And that smokescreen has always been about having Cha-cha to remove or amend the Constitution’s restrictive provisions on the economy.

Recently, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on final reading to pass the Resolution for the proposed economic amendments to the Constitution. But this is the same leadership and members of the House of Representatives that are plotting to change the Constitution to prolong their rule and keep political rivals out of power.

The strategy of the Cha-cha plotters is to conceal their agenda by using the restrictive economic provisions as the strawman. In the process, they broaden their coalition for Cha-cha. They win over an articulate segment of society that favors removing the Constitution’s economic restrictions. These are the big businessmen and investors allied with foreign capital, economic libertarians or free-marketeers, and conventional technocrats.

Note that this essay does not dwell on the soundness of economic decision-making with respect to lifting the restrictiveness of the Constitution. That would be a separate discussion. The long and short of it: Using a diagnostics approach to identify binding constraints, we conclude that the economic constraints found in the Constitution are not binding constraints.

Bernardo Villegas, the epitome of a pro-market, pro-business economist, gives a neat summary. The economic restrictiveness of the Constitution is not a binding constraint because, to quote a Shimbun story citing Villegas, “many sectors have been opened by the Public Service Act (PSA).” The PSA was passed during the Duterte administration, together with other liberalization reforms. That is to say, legislation has a clever and innovative way to surmount constraints associated with the Charter’s provisions.

Here’s the rub: Many of those who favor lifting the restrictive economic provisions are uncomfortable being associated with the political opportunists — the reviled trapos (traditional politicians) — doing Cha-cha.

The Cha-cha coalition is thus fragile. And it faces a highly organized, deeply committed opposition to Cha-cha, which covers a broad swathe of society.

Finally, the Senate is the trump card. A cursory political mapping shows that the Senate does not have the numbers to pass a Resolution for Cha-cha. All this makes Cha-cha with a partisan agenda a Sisyphean task.

The Cha-cha plotters seem to have won big as manifested by the vote in the House of Representatives: 288 in favor, eight against, and two abstentions. But that is some sort of Pyrrhic victory. Wait for the Senate response and the public’s collective action.

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.