Thursday, May 23, 2019

Diagnosing the constitution’s pathologies

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte won on a platform that included giving federalism serious consideration. To commence delivery of this promise, the President issued Executive Order No. 10 organizing the Consultative Committee (Con-Com) on constitutional reform.

The mandate of the Con-Com is to “study, conduct consultations, and review the provisions of the 1987 Constitution including but not limited to the provisions on the structure and powers of the government, local governance, and economic policies.”

Curiously, while members of the Con-Com have yet to be appointed, both chambers of Congress have already mobilized their committees responsible for constitutional amendment and revision, to determine the wisdom and necessity of federalizing government.

Not surprisingly, understanding constitutional reform has been unfairly framed to the public as simply the process of shifting to a federal form of government. Public discussions on charter change have been dominated by appeals for finding a consensus on what sort of federal structure is well-suited for Filipinos.

But federalization should be conceived as merely one feature of charter change. Revising the constitution actually encompasses a broader political reform effort. It is, in a sense, a re-set button because the scope of what aspects of our political system can be changed is wide open. Hence, constitutional reform is also an opportunity to address anomalies such as the domination of dynastic families in the electoral process or the substandard political party system that allows these traditional political elites to skew elections in their favor, just to name few.

The reality is that pathologies in a constitution can emerge during its reign. These pertain to provisions in the constitutional text itself that may have been designed with good intentions but have eventually become debilitating to the political system it purports to govern. Our 1987 Constitution is no exception. Public discourse on charter change should also involve identifying, and analyzing, what these pathologies are.

For instance, one matter that needs to be tackled in the constitutional reform process is our national language. Article XIV lays out an interesting arrangement on this subject that needs to be reconsidered.

We have one national language, which is Filipino (See Section 6). But we also have two official languages, which are Filipino and English (See Section 7). And no law has ever been passed to remove the status of the latter as such. In fact, until now the language of government, of legislation, and of the courts in the Philippines continues to be English.

Then, we also have auxiliary languages such as Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Ilocano, Waray, Tausug, so forth, which are all contemplated to function as a third-level means of communication within the regions where they are spoken.

But this neat grouping of Philippine languages is not that accurate. The fact is most Filipinos commonly relate with English because it is the official language widely used by the state. Moreover, the use of Filipino as the language of the nation is suspect because it is basically a Tagalog clone. And hence it is very rarely spoken by nationals outside the Tagalog region.

A provision that is inconsistent with the actual conditions and sentiments of the people has no place in the constitution. Correspondingly, our experience of languages spoken in the country necessitates a rethinking of the constitutional designation of Filipino as a national language.

Is it still necessary to have just one artificially created national language given the richness of our linguistic heritage? Or is it now more appropriate for our language diversity to be officially acknowledged because it reflects the narrative that is real to all Filipinos? A constitution could recognize more than one national language after all.

Additionally, should English now be unequivocally accepted as the lone official language of the Philippines because doing so more accurately reflects the reality in our day-to-day lives? English is obviously a colonial language. But considering that American colonization is a fact of life that is universally shared in the Philippines, the designation of English as such would certainly be more unbiased for all Filipinos than Filipino.

With Filipinos now being genuine citizens of the world, claiming the lingua franca of the day as our one and only official language makes practical sense. Plus, insisting on having just one national language seems anachronistic. Our nationhood now ought to be founded on deeper grounds than just having a common native tongue. Indeed, it is only fair to demand that the linguistic and cultural diversity of the country be prominently manifested in our constitution.

There is no guarantee that the President’s timetable for charter change will be followed to the letter. Even with a strong push from his surrogates in Congress, the revision of the 1987 Constitution is still not a sure thing. For as they say, anything can happen in Philippine politics.

Nevertheless, as responsible citizens, we are duty-bound to deeply reflect on our national charter while the Con-Com and Congress fulfill their mandates. And if possible, to participate in the hearings and consultations they would initiate towards this end. So that whatever happens in 2019, or even in 2022, one outcome we can all look forward to is this: more Filipinos with an enlightened civic consciousness. Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, Contributor

(Lawyer Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a writer, legislative and policy consultant, law lecturer and a Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Ateneo School of Government. He researches on state-building, decentralization, and constitutionalism.)
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