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January|February 2005
Identity Crisis By Andy Latack
Parliament of Dunces By James B. Goodno
The Fall of New Rome By Geoffrey Gagnon
The King of Plots By Aaron Dalton
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
Cases & Controversies

Parliament of Dunces

The Filipino constitution needs to change so that more competent legislators can be elected.

By James B. Goodno

PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT GLORIA MACAPAGAL ARROYO stood at the podium in the plenary hall of the Batasang Pambansa, or National Assembly, last July and delivered her first State of the Nation address as an elected president. The event was historic, but the reaction of the rest of the government wasn't. The top two leaders of the house of representatives and senate sat in oversized chairs on a stage above the lectern, sometimes staring into space like bored schoolboys. While the legislators in the well of the assembly applauded politely as the president went through her five-point economic plan, the speech stirred little excitement.

Most of the legislators were either members of locally powerful political clans or members of a motley group of children and grandchildren of presidents, actors, and former street activists. Vice President Noli de Castro, once a popular broadcaster, might have covered the event a few years before. On the floor, two members of the house—Imee Marcos, daughter of Ferdinand and Imelda, and Butz Aquino, brother-in-law of the ex-president Corazon—chatted amiably. Outside, among the riot police and left-wing protesters, a throng of supporters of the defeated presidential candidate and movie star Fernando Poe, Jr., claimed that their hero had actually won the presidential election in May.

Macapagal Arroyo moved steadily through her speech, turning at last to the nation's constitution, and to the most important issue facing her country. "Once we have proved to our people that we have done what we can within the present structure of government, we can move on to changing the system to one that enhances our freedom and flexibility to do more," the president declared. "I expect that next year, Congress will start considering the resolutions for charter change."

Looking around the room at the pathetic characters who currently make up the government, and thinking about the rowdy protestors outside clamoring in support of Poe, a man with almost no political experience or skills, reformers might have had another thought as the president concluded that speech: Constitutional change can't come too soon.

TWICE IN THE PAST 20 YEARS, Filipinos have resorted to street protests to drive a failed president from office. The first time, in 1986, when they steered dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power, was heroic. The second, in 2001, when they unseated Joseph Estrada and handed Macapagal Arroyo the presidency, was depressing, as it resulted from the failure of democratic institutions and government more broadly.

Government services remain mediocre at best. Rural communities lack paved roads and reliable access to water or electricity. Corruption, poverty, and insurgent violence are pervasive. Passing legislation is tricky, as many bills die amidst the bickering between the house and senate. Of the 2,749 senate bills filed during the most recent three-year Congress, only 34 became law. "Unless you change the structure of government, our democracy will not succeed," House Speaker Jose de Venecia said recently.

Fortunately for reformers, charter change is nothing new in the Philippines. Filipinos in their mid-30s and older have already lived under four constitutions—basic laws promulgated in 1935, 1973, and 1986, as well as 1987. (Two attempts to rewrite the constitution failed in the 1990s because the public saw them as ruses to extend the terms of sitting presidents.) But concern has grown about shortcomings in the current constitution, a document that reflects the political priorities and alignments of the early post-Marcos period.

While in power, Marcos eliminated the senate, stripping his most prominent foes of a platform. When the dictator was toppled, the senate was reinstituted, and was designed to have national scope, creating a platform, the framers imagined, for the Philippines' best and brightest. Now, each of the 24 members is elected by a nationwide vote. Last year, each voter was asked to select 12 favorites from a list of 48 candidates. With so many candidates on the ballot, however, it's no surprise that the winners are generally very famous, very rich, or both. The result is that retired soldiers, the country's most powerful political clans, and the basketball players, comedians, and action movie stars who make up a new breed of celebrity-politician now dominate the senate.

The current senate includes five relatives of former presidents, and, 8 of the nation's 12 presidents since the Philippines gained its independence in 1946 have had spouses or descendents in legislative office. The senate also includes three actors, four people married to actors, three retired generals, two broadcasters, and the son of a famous but unsuccessful presidential candidate.

Problems in the house are less colorful but equally significant. With weak political parties—29 are represented in the 236-member house—local political clans have their way in many districts. The 1987 constitution prohibits political dynasties as a matter of state policy, but the concept is tricky. How do you define and then ban a political dynasty in an open society? The problem is made worse because the people in charge of shaping the law come from the dynasties themselves.

The 1998-2001 presidency of Macapagal Arroyo's predecessor, the actor-politician Joseph Estrada, was a disaster. He ran the country like a mob boss and is now on trial for corruption. But by giving prominence to mediocre politicians, the country's electoral structure continues to encourage the election of people like him. Macapagal Arroyo will have to step down in two years, and her most likely successor is the owner of a highly undistinguished senate record, former broadcaster and current vice president Noli de Castro. Reformers have until then to make plain the dangers of conflating celebrity status with qualification for public office.

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