Now is the worst time to change the Constitution

March 13, 2024

by Sonny Africa

It’s the worst time to change the Constitution because the motive force behind the Charter change (Cha-cha) effort is the country’s ascendant political dynasty – and its motive is simply to keep power for as long as it can. If successful, the impact on the country will be more like the great leap backward when the 1973 Constitution was rigged than the tentative steps forward under the people power-driven 1987 Constitution.


There shouldn’t be any doubt that the Marcos-Romualdez clan is behind the Cha-cha moves today. In particular, it’s Pres. Ferdinand Marcos Jr following in the footsteps of daddy dictator Pres. Ferdinand Marcos Sr who was brazen enough to revise the 1935 Constitution simply out of self-interest.

Pres. Marcos Jr agreed to the grossly cynical “people’s initiative” that his cousin, House speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, put into play to give the House of Representatives (HOR) superpowers to change the 1987 Constitution. The president is also behind Senate president Juan Miguel Zubiri’s joint resolution on supposedly just tweaking some of the charter’s economic provisions, as well as the counterpart joint resolution subsequently filed in the HOR. The HOR’s version copies the Senate’s but predictably deletes mention of voting separately.

Cha-cha proponents are a disparate bunch and include dogmatic or misinformed globalizers, well-meaning federalists and unicameralists, petty politicians kowtowing to power, and all sorts of other folks. But the irreducible hard-core exponent today is the family that is currently at the top of the country’s dynastic heap – the Marcos nepotocracy. They are maneuvering against that other one, the upstart Dutertes, which is trying to claw its way back to the top.

Economic Cha-cha is just a trojan horse to get a charter change process going. The real intent is to change the political provisions through a constitutional assembly, through the so-called fourth mode (or Bernas formula) of simulating ordinary lawmaking, or through whatever other legalistic scheme they can think up.

Truth be told, the economic Cha-cha decoy is a flimsy one. It only has traction because of the motley crew of proponents producing an endless stream of fallacies and falsehoods, misinformation and disinformation, and denialism and dogma. Among the most basic errors of economic Cha-cha proponents, like those who insist on the pseudo-science that the earth is flat, is denying that the Philippine economy is already among the most open to foreign investment in the region. The 1987 Constitution is so flexible that ordinary laws have been used to bypass its supposedly restrictive provisions.

The global economy is also changing rapidly, but not towards the globalization that was in vogue in the 1990s and 2000s. That era is long past and the notion of a globalizing world should be put to rest as well. The Marcos administration can ask the United States (US), into whose fold it is so eager to return after the previous Duterte government’s flirtation with China. Over the last 15 years, the US has implemented the most new protectionist measures than any other country. Foreign investment restrictions and regulations have also been on the rise over that same period.

Obsolete free market belief blinds economic Cha-cha flat-earthers to growing protectionism by the industrial powers to develop semiconductors, renewable energy, and other critical technologies and infrastructure. National industrialization policy is even more pressing for the Philippines which has become so deindustrialized and underdeveloped by decades of neoliberal globalization.

Rebel baby

Every Constitution is a product of its time. The 1987 Constitution was drawn up after the 1986 People Power Revolution when the Filipino people, through collective action, ousted the Marcos regime. The anti-dictatorship struggle and mass movement were potent political forces and able to inject progressive notions into the constitutional drafting process – hence, a charter imbued with resistance against authoritarianism and the desire for genuine democratic reforms.

In stark contrast, the present political landscape is marked by populism and manipulated public sentiment, oligarch- and foreign-dominated governance, and political violence and repression.

The Marcos clan has spent decades mastering disinformation and making perception real. Filipinos are less and less able to engage in informed public discourse, much less hold politicians accountable. Foreign capital and oligarch power wield disproportionate influence over political and economic life. Poverty is pervasive and inequality is deeply entrenched.

Genuine democratic participation is thwarted. Dissenting voices are stifled and fundamental rights curtailed under the guise of countering terrorism. The ruling classes use political dynasties to perpetuate a system of elite capture with power concentrated in a few influential families.

This is a political environment for self-serving Cha-cha rather than for improving the collective welfare of the Filipino people. Changing the nation’s foundational document today will erode democratic institutions and further entrench elite power.

The defeat of the Marcos dictatorship was a moment of optimism and unity. However, the subsequent decades of development failure have produced today’s political divisions and polarization. These aren’t conditions to achieve consensus on substantive reforms reflecting the democratic will of the Filipino people and national aspirations for social equity and justice. If anything, the brazenly self-serving drive to amend the Constitution risks exacerbating social tensions and deepening political cleavages.

Rebel nation

Economic Cha-cha flat-earthers insist that Philippine economic progress depends on revising the Charter. However, it isn’t the Constitution that is the binding constraint to progress. The much bigger problem is that economic policymaking is fettered by obsolete free market globalization paradigm and does not have a vision for national industrialization.

The nationalism of the 1987 Constitution was exactly what the economy needed when so-called free market globalization started getting underway in the 1980s. The protectionism and state interventionism in South Korea and Taiwan, for instance, were by this time already bearing development fruit.

The charter’s call for a self-reliant and independent economy could have been an effective measure for developing Filipino industry. Instead, the economy kept on being opened up to foreign trade and investment which caused manufacturing to fall to its smallest share of the economy in 75 years and agriculture to its smallest in the country’s history.

The Constitution wisely called for industrialization and gave the means for this such as protection of Filipino firms, regulation of foreign investment, agrarian reform and rural development, and more.

Unfortunately, consecutive administrations bought into the globalization hype and went in the other direction. They spent more time finding ways to subvert the nationalist economic provisions instead of implementing them. This hollowed out the economy and is the reason for such chronic joblessness, poverty and underdevelopment.

The 36-year-old Charter recognized the need for active government intervention to transform the economy’s structures and make it more industrialized, equitable and sustainable. It doesn’t need to be updated and is more relevant than ever. If anything, it’s the series of laws passed to subvert the nationalist and protectionist spirit of the Charter’s provisions that need to be changed.

The 1987 Constitution’s foreign investment restrictions are time-honored and in no way obsolete. This is why so many other economies in the region still have foreign equity restrictions in ordinary law. Unlike in other countries, the drafters had the boldness and confidence to hard-code these in the Constitution. What they didn’t foresee though is the determination of economic Cha-cha flat-earthers and their creativity in using ordinary laws to bypass the charter.

The Marcos clan’s Cha-cha offensive today is driven by the arrogance of power. The effort of every president that has tried to extend his or her hold on political power always floundered as the people and the public stood firm. There’s every reason to expect that similar defiance today will be as successful in blocking what is ultimately just petty and self-serving ambition.