Cross of Charter impasse, unfolding economy

30 June 2009
With its representative institutions severely weakened by unscrupulous political machinations, the fate of our constitutional democracy will once again depend on the direct democracy of the streets

Though normalcy appears to reign, in fact the country is now in a highly volatile situation. This was brought home to me when a member of the majority of the House of Representatives I ran across at a recent wake asked me if I was really planning to be present at the president’s State of the Nation address at the Batasan on July 27. When I said, of course, he asked, “What if a constitutional assembly is called right there and then?” It was the kind of statement that was part joke, part threat. Constitutional Collision Course The truth is most members of Congress do not really know if after the President delivers her State of the Nation address to both Houses that afternoon, the Speaker of the House will not follow up the President’s address with a declaration convening a constitutional assembly, invoking the controversial House Resolution 1109 that was passed on June 2, before Congress went into recess. If he does, how will the senators react? If they walk out, a constitutional crisis will ensue, and once it does, the House resolution’s constitutionality will become a “justiciable” matter and it will certainly be brought to the Supreme Court. Then the country will face the question: how will the Court, the majority of whose justices have been appointed by Arroyo, rule? A positive ruling on the bill will render the political process completely unpredictable, bringing with it the strong possibility that the May 2010 elections might be cancelled. Twin Crises A big complication is that this brewing domestic political storm coincides with the global economic collapse. The “lag effect” of the international economic crisis is finally upon us: exports are collapsing, overseas workers dismissed from their jobs are returning, industries are contracting, with electronics, our top exporter, cutting back its work force by almost 50 per cent. The International Monetary Fund sees the economy registering zero growth while the World Bank declares it to be in “outright recession.” That things are bad and likely to get worse should not come as a surprise since our economy, like those of our East Asian neighbors, is among the most globalized in the world, with exports coming to more than 30 per cent of GDP. The country’s productive capacity and its ability to employ its rapidly increasing work force are greatly dependent on demand for our goods and labor in advanced capitalist economies, which have now spiraled into deep recession. Yet what is striking is that while most other governments have put themselves on economic war-footing, the Arroyo administration is either denying or downplaying the crisis. Consistently, our economic managers say that the international agencies are too pessimistic and we will register growth this year; that the impact of the financial crisis is not as bad as in other countries; that remittances will not drop that much, if at all; and that, as Labor Undersecretary Rosalinda Baldoz recently predicted, the “worst will be over by the end of the first semester.” Denying that the Philippines will be tossed about like a rag doll by the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression is almost like denying the law of gravity. Worse, the administration has hardly taken any measures to counter the crisis, with Albay Governor Joey Salceda, Malacanang’s special economic adviser, recently admitting that the much-touted Economic Resiliency Program has no stimulus component – that is, there is no new money in the budget to counter the recession, only the repackaging of already earmarked allocations into a “stimulus program.” Why the denial and the inaction? The answer is very simple. The administration has defined charter change as No. 1 priority, as the solution to the country’s problems, and it does not want to detract attention from it. Putting the country on an emergency economic footing will take attention away from the national focus on charter change that the administration desires and, in fact, weaken the already weak case for it since people will ask why one seeks to initiate such a complex process as changing the fundamental law of the land amidst an economic emergency. Deja Vous The problem lies in the twinning of the political crisis and the economic crisis. It is one thing to have a constitutional crisis in a period of prosperity. It is another to have it at a time of economic unraveling. We are confronted with a repeat of the period 1983-86, when the conjunction of the severe crisis of legitimacy of the Marcos dictatorship, an international recession, and the international debt crisis resulted in a veritable depression. In fact, this deadly combination led to the lost decade of the eighties, when the Philippines grew on average by one per cent per annum GDP growth rate while our neighbors raced ahead, registering 6-10 per cent growth a year. As we saw then, there was no possibility of even seeing an end to the economic crisis until the political boil had been lanced, and this came with the overthrow of Marcos and the reestablishment of representative democracy. Today, a conditio sine qua non for economic stabilization is an orderly and constitutionally legitimate transition of from President Arroyo to her successor and elections in 2010. Without that, the downward spiral into depression will only accelerate, bringing untold suffering to our country’s already impoverished millions. Needed: Direct Democracy...again The problem, of course, is how the country stops a desperate President bent on staying in power with the mercenary support of the House majority. On the fateful night of June 2, the whole country saw on television how the majority trampled the rights of the minority in its haste to get House Bill 1109 approved before the congressional recess. This is the kind of reckless determination that will not respect a boycott by the Senate and the House minority. There is only one thing that will stop Malacañang now, and that is the people taking to the streets in great numbers throughout the archipelago. The President and her allies know that con-ass is extremely unpopular, but their gauge of whether or not they will finally throw the dice is whether citizens are willing to lay their bodies on the line to stop it. Numbers are what Arroyo’s desperate gang respects, and if they see that a critical mass of citizens do not make the effort to take to the streets to stop it, they will move. With its representative institutions severely weakened by unscrupulous political machinations, the fate of our constitutional democracy will once again depend on the direct democracy of the streets. And so will our economic survival.