No global traction yet; shall we dance?

Congratulations to the new archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Tagle. Intellectually gifted, eloquent and truly humble, he can explain the most complicated theological questions in simple English or Filipino. Only 54, he will soon be elevated to the college of Catholic cardinals.

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No global traction yet. Bad news: the Philippines is still among the bottom dwellers in the recently released 2010 “Global Corruption Barometer” of Transparency International (TI). The good news is that its rank has slightly improved, from 139th in 2009 and 141st in 2008 to 134th in 2010. This is a very small consolation; we are tied in that unenviable 134th place with Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Honduras, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo, Ukraine and Zimbabwe with a common rating of 2.4, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest. It seems President Aquino’s “Kung walang corrupt…” had not yet gained global traction in 2010.

Topping the index and perceived as the least corrupt with a common rating of 9.3 were: Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore. Rated most corrupt with a grade of only 1.1 was Somalia, followed by Myanmar and Afghanistan with a common grade of 1.4. Representing the views of more than 91,500 in 86 countries, the TI barometer is the only worldwide public opinion survey on corruption.

Indonesia used to be the basket case in our region but, thanks to the reforms of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, it has risen to 110th place, bequeathing to us the embarrassing basket case title. Even Vietnam and Ethiopia (tied at 116) and Burkina Faso (98) outranked us.

TI is a global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption. Headquartered in Berlin, it has an international board of directors chaired by Huguette Labelle (Canada). It is financially supported by several governments (like Australia, Canada, European Union, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States), foundations (like Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Hewlett Foundation) and multinational entities (like Ernst & Young, Pfizer and Shell). Retired Judge Dolores Español is its Philippine representative.

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Shall we dance? Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said recently that Charter change (Cha-cha) would soon be on the legislative agenda. Sen. Frank Drilon, the prime Cha-cha mover, assures that only the economic provisions of the Constitution will be affected to allow more foreign participation in public utilities, natural resources, education, advertising, media and land ownership. For his part, President Aquino made it clear however that Cha-cha is not his priority. He wants no deflection from his anti-corruption and anti-poverty crusade.

I believe that without P-Noy’s support, nay, active leadership, Cha-cha will not succeed. True, the members of Congress are the Cha-cha dancers, but the President choreographs the steps, provides the music and hosts the food and drinks. Without his enthusiastic leadership, no dance party will be held.

While presidential approval is needed to pass ordinary legislation, chief executives have no legal authority to initiate or approve changes in our Charter. Nonetheless, in reality, no Charter change in our country has ever been approved without the say-so of the incumbent presidents. Cha-cha is a supreme political event; it cannot happen without the supreme political leader of the land.

Thus, the amendments to the 1935 Charter were crafted at the prodding of Presidents Manuel Quezon and Manuel Roxas. Similarly, the 1973 Constitution was created, and the amendments thereto approved, at the direction of President Ferdinand Marcos, while the 1987 Charter was cobbled at the call of President Corazon Aquino, who convened the Constitutional Commission of 1986.

Procedural hurdles. Apart from the absolute need of presidential support, two major procedural problems must be hurdled before substantive amendments can be approved. First, to change the Constitution, our legislative leaders have reportedly agreed to use the “bicameral constituent assembly” whereby the two chambers of Congress would meet separately on the proposed changes, as if they were enacting ordinary legislation, except that the vote required would be three-fourths of all the legislators.

Many constitutionalists, like retired Justice Vicente V. Mendoza, believe that the two chambers should not meet separately. Instead, they should convene and deliberate on the proposed amendments in a joint session called “constituent assembly.” Even though the constitutional text does not expressly mention it, the clear intention – Mendoza argues – is to have a joint session, not separate sessions for each house.

The second hurdle is whether the three-fourths vote required by the Constitution to pass amendments or revisions would be based (1) on the total membership of both houses, or (2) only on the membership of each house voting separately. Specifically, is the three-fourths vote to be counted from the total of 310, composed of 23 incumbent senators plus 287 incumbent congressmen, or from each of the two houses voting separately as they do in enacting ordinary legislation?

Given that the finest constitutionalists are divided, these procedural hurdles would surely be brought to the Supreme Court for final resolution. If only to have them resolved, perhaps Cha-cha could be started so that, when the proper time comes, the revisions or amendments could be deliberated on expeditiously without any litigious delays.

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