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Enrile, Belmonte talk Charter change

2 Congress leaders confident of support

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile

Obviously buoyed by his successful shepherding of two impeachment votes last year, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte declared with utmost confidence that the House of Representatives will initiate and carry out long-contemplated amendments to the Constitution, particularly on the restrictions on foreign ownership of land, utilities, media and other services.

Belmonte said his upper chamber counterpart, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, was just as confident of getting the senators in line and on board the Charter change express.

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“The Senate President said yes (about getting the majority of senators to agree). But we don’t care about (their business). It will be approved here (in the House) because we are hoping to have far-reaching change,” he told reporters Wednesday.

The Speaker said he will be talking to Enrile before President Benigno Aquino’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) on July 23 to coordinate their plans for Charter change.

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The Speaker’s confidence stems from his success in spearheading the impeachment in the House of two high-ranking officials in the previous Arroyo administration.

Belmonte put together 212 votes to impeach former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez in March 2011 (she resigned before the Senate could put her on trial) and 188 signatures in the impeachment of ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona in December 2011 (he was convicted by the Senate last June). The House has 285 members.

Suspicious motives

Since the Ramos presidency, Charter change has become a ritual for Congress members with every change of administration. But their efforts have all been frustrated because of lingering suspicions that they were more interested in extending their terms through a change from a presidential to a parliamentary system.

Attempts by Presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to amend the 1987 Constitution were similarly foiled by a vigilant public and the Supreme Court as they were seen as attempts to extend their terms of office.

Almost from the opening of the current Congress in July last year, Belmonte and Enrile started discussions on tackling constitutional amendments, but were careful to stress that these would be limited to the economic provisions of the Charter.

At a legislative summit last September, the House and the Senate agreed in principle to adopt a bicameral constituent assembly as the mode of amending the Constitution. This method would allow the two chambers to vote separately on the bills proposing amendments.

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Mr. Aquino is known to be cool to the idea of Charter change, even if limited to amending the economic provisions that constrains the entry of foreign investments, saying it is not a priority of his administration.

Following the legislative summit last September, the President said he did not think it was “a necessary move at this point” and that he did not agree that it was “the solution to grow the economy.”

Enrile leading proponents

It was Enrile who again raised the possibility of Charter change in a radio interview earlier this month in which he said he wanted the economic provisions amended, particularly the one that limits foreign ownership of property and control of investments to only 40 percent.

Enrile blamed this limitation set by the Constitution for the country’s failure to attract foreign investors, and for foreign investors’ resorting to dummies  to conduct business in the country.

He said he would also favor an amendment that would reorganize the schedule of the country’s elections.

“The frequent elections is a major reason why the government spends so much so we should address this. An election every three years (for national positions) is fine but we need to streamline the elections for barangays, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Sangguniang Kabataan, midterm elections and presidential elections so these would cost less,” Enrile said.

And again last week, in an interview with dzBB radio, Enrile cited the country’s  territorial dispute with China as a reason for amending the Constitution, to give priority to military spending in the national budget.

“But even if Sonny (Belmonte’s nickname) and I want Charter change, there are other centers of decision that need to participate before these things come to fruition,” Enrile said.

He said neither he nor Belmonte had discussed their Charter change plans with Mr. Aquino.

But once the President exhibits “signs of willingness, with the participation of Congress, we can do it,” he said.

“But he is not interested, we continue proposing. We (Belmonte and I) are not gods. We cannot command people, and we will raise it as an issue until people wake up,” Enrile said.

Early approval expected

But this early, Belmonte expects the House to approve the amendments well before the 2013 midterm elections.

He said he expected to get the mandatory two-thirds vote from the House to back up Charter change by focusing solely on changing the foreign investment caps by adding a single phrase—“unless otherwise provided by law”—to the economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution.

“It will still not be automatic as it will require a law, which means it will have to go through the lawmaking process where the President is the final arbiter,” said Belmonte who cited land ownership, utilities and media as the targets of his Charter change agenda.

He believes that being candid and single-minded about his true motives with regard to Charter change would bring in the required two-thirds vote.

“When I talk about Charter change, I refer to nothing more than the economic provisions. I don’t want to deal with any other aspect of it except that. That’s why for me, it’s not as difficult or complicated,” said Belmonte.

Should be everybody’s agenda

He said one other reason why Charter change failed in previous congresses was because of what he described as the “partisan” nature of the undertaking.

“I think that constitutional changes should not be a part of the agenda of anybody but it should be the agenda of everybody. I don’t look at it as anything partisan or the property of anybody. For me, this is for all of us,” he said.

He said previous Charter change efforts failed because the proponents were seen as “pulling a fast one” over the public.

“I want it done through a constituent assembly, voting separately, because it is faster. That was the very problem before … [the House and the Senate] said they were meeting as one vote, and voting as one. We can meet as one but we should vote as two separate entities,” Belmonte said.

Article 2, Section 19 of the Constitution specifically states that the State develop a self-reliant and independent national economy effectively controlled by Filipinos. It devotes the entire Article 12 on national economy and patrimony where it listed down equity restrictions on foreign ownership from zero percent (mass media, services, and small-scale mining) to 25 percent  (private recruitment and infrastructure development) to 30 percent (advertising) to 40 percent (public utilities, land ownership and mining).

‘Fear sets us back’

Enrile said Charter change efforts in the past all failed because of a prevalent fear that “somebody might take advantage of the situation for his own personal interest.”

“It is not laziness to examine the Constitution but fear that sets us back,” he noted.

“Fear that people would lose their privileges, their wealth, their influence.  Politicians like myself who might lose their businesses, control over land and industries,” he added.

He said “determination and political will” were needed to repair the political and economic structure of the country.

“Once people become hungry, and many are already hungry because the surveys indicate that it is hunger that forces people to leave for jobs abroad, is that not enough reason to convince people that there is a problem?” Enrile said.

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TAGS: 1987 Constitution, Charter change, Congress, Constitutional Amendment, Feliciano Belmonte, Government, Juan Ponce Enrile, Legislation, Politics, Senate
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