De Vera is a Professor of Public Administration at University of the Philippines and a Fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the in the March 30, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 and S1/5.

A few weeks ago, the University of the Philippines invited me to talk at a forum entitled “Is Charter Change the Key to Philippine Development?”  The forum attracted hard-core critics (Liberal Party’s Chito Gascon, Professor Liling Briones, former Senator Ting Paterno), hard-core supporters (Constitutional Commission members Lito Lorenzana and Gonzalo Jurado), and supporter-suddenly turned-critics (Sigaw ng Bayan’s Raul Lambino).

The holding of this Charter Change  (Cha-Cha) forum was probably fueled by the sudden passage of Speaker Nograles’s “economic amendments” by the House of Representatives, despite the spirited efforts of the opposition to block any amendments until 2010. House Resolution 737, which amends the “restrictive” economic provisions of the Constitution, according to Nograles, is “necessary in the face of the clear and present threats of recession.”

The dangers of a new Cha-Cha express became even more clear when newly minted Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said that “the Senate is prepared to consider moves in the House of Representatives to amend the economic provisions of the Constitution” and that he was keeping an “open mind” on other possible changes (Philippine Daily Inquirer).

Why the Fixation with Charter Change?

The continuing fixation for Cha-Cha, this time framed in the context of economic reforms, is difficult to understand given the global economic crisis, the record-breaking and historic levels of public dissatisfaction with Gloria Arroyo, and the obvious public preference to have elections in 2010.

Perhaps this is part of the “risky business” of democracy. Maybe we are one of the more than 100 countries in the past 35 years identified by Felisa Lee (2003) in her New York Times article, that have tried to create a more democratic Constitution. While drafting a Constitution is often the first step in transforming a country to democracy, according to Lee, questions are endless in terms of the structure, location and sharing of power, scope of suffrage, and rights of citizens.

Or as noted by New York University Law School Professor Stephen Holmes, we share the “fantasy that Constitutional law is an appliance you plug in New York and then plug in Budapest or Baghdad” (2003).

The Real Score

But what is the real score on Cha-Cha?

What do Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Algeria), Paul Biya (Cameroon), Idriss Deby (Chad), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Alvaro Uribe Velez (Columbia), Evo Morales (Bolivia), and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (Philippines) have in common?

Aside from their tongue-twisting names, they:

1.    Are incumbent Presidents of poor and developing countries.
2.    Cannot remain in office forever due to term limits.
3.    Are trying (or have succeeded) in lifting term limits so they can stay in power.

It has become fashionable in developing countries over the past decade to abolish term limits by amending their Constitution to allow term-limited politicians to run again. Incumbent Presidents and their allies in Algeria (2008), Cameroon (2008), Colombia (2005), Chad (2006), Uganda (2006), Venezuela (2009), and Bolivia (2009) have succeeded, while only those in Nigeria (2006) and Philippines (2009) have failed to Cha-Cha.

Some attempts have blatantly tried to extend dictators such as Cameroon President Biya, who has been in power since 1982. Others, like Hugo Chavez, were rejected in a plebiscite in 2007, but were again submitted for approval in 2009 with the support of a President-friendly Supreme Court.

There are other more ominous similarities in charter change attempts in these countries. First, all attempts were done close to a national election. And second, abolishing term limits was packaged with other “desirable” amendments to gain popular support and muddle the opposition to lifting term limits.  Examples include restricting land ownership and nationalization of natural resources (Bolivia), strengthening rule of law (Cameroon), generating savings due to synchronized elections (Uganda), rebuilding the country after prolonged civil strife (Algeria), fast tracking negotiations for Andean Free Trade Agreement (Colombia).

Is Cha-Cha the Answer?

When it was my turn to answer the question—“Is Charter Change the Key to Philippine Development?”—I replied that Cha-Cha is a very tricky process that very rarely produces the changes we really want. While “well-meaning reforms” may be acceptable, it is impossible to separate these from blatant attempts to extend power.

As currently proposed, Cha-Cha will not solve our most pressing problems – graft and corruption, political legitimacy of the President, administration of justice, and the job crisis.  It will not even address the immediate economic issues that supporters of Bill 737 used as an excuse to promote the proposal.

Nograles’’s “economic amendment” is nothing but a sugar-coated poison pill that would kill our only hope for a new government. If Nograles and his “economic team” truly intend to fix the economy, they should follow the lead of our Asian neighbors in increasing government spending and providing financial stimulus package to jump start the economy, instead of dancing around the Constitution to do a Cha-cha.

Is Charter Change a change we can believe in? Maybe yes, but only if done after Gloria Arroyo is safely out of Malacañang in 2010.