Thursday, March 30, 2006

Con Job

Rational Technology for April 2, 2006

What's the price tag for amending the constitution? The answer varies from place to place. In Valenzuela City, it's sacks of rice. In Davao City, it's porridge. And in our very own Dumaguete City, it's free snacks and door prizes. That's what they were offering for people to come to the Barangay Assembly.

While you can accuse me of resorting to hearsay when I mention Valenzuela and Davao, you cannot accuse me of the same when I talk about Dumaguete City. I was there.

I made it a point to attend the Barangay General Assembly (or Barang-Ass, as Arnie Kapilitan termed it) last Saturday because I thought it was something important. The day before, the news headlines and the blogosphere was abuzz with this new tactic. Since neither Constitutional Assembly or Constitutional Convention were likely to make any headway anytime soon, they -- that nebulous coalition of local government heads and congressmen, presumably following the wishes of the administration -- are resorting to what they call a People's Initiative.

Now this begs the question: can you rightly call it a People's Initiative if it is government that is initiating the move? And spending tax money in the process? Oh, right, maybe it was money from the fertilizer fund instead.

Be that as it may, the aim was to collect enough signatures to warrant a change in the Constitution. At the heart of it all is a shift from our present presidential system to a parliamentary system. Apparently, this matter is of utmost importance such that governors and mayors throughout the country had hastily to call for Barang-Asses last week.

And hastily called it was. Before the assembly, I chatted up the barangay secretary. She said that they were caught unaware by the People's Initiative, and that the whole week had been busy for them, with the governor holding meetings with the barangay captains. What could they have been meeting about, I wondered. I was to find out soon enough.

Amending the Constitution is not a task to be taken lightly. The constitution is the framework for the law of the land. It defines what how we as a people want ourselves to be, and what rights and responsibilities we ascribe to ourselves. As such, any moves at amendment require deliberation, careful thought, and even debate. Was this what I found at the Barang-Ass?

If the Barang-Ass had taken due care to outline to the pros and cons of the parliamentary system vis-a-vis the presidential system, with due care to establish the reasons for the shift, my faith in government might have been restored somewhat. That would have been an indication of sincerity and good faith.

Instead I found a mish-mash of innuendo and half-truths sugar-coated with promises so as to make the parliamentary shift easy to swallow without much thought. Perhaps I might have ascribed this to the overzealousness of our barangay captain (who is, after all, a family friend), were it not for the fact that he was reading from a mimeographed pop sheet.

According to the pop sheet, the parliamentary form of government is supposed to be the modern form of government in place in all progressive countries today. With that came a long litany of nations from Europe and Southeast Asia. What the pop sheet glosses over is the fact that the United States, arguably the most powerful and most modern nation on earth, still follows a presidential system. It also glossed over the fact that for a time have a parliamentary system courtesy of the late unlamented Ferdinand Marcos.

Furthermore, the parliamentary form of government is supposed to provide us with the stability of government by advocating a stronger party system. Presidents would no longer be removed by impeachment nor by popular revolt but rather by a vote of no-confidence. What the pop sheet conveniently ignored was the situation in Thailand which follows a parliamentary system but has nonetheless been rocked by demonstrations against Prime Minister Thaksin.

I found it sadly ironic the way our barangay captain explained to us how we would have better leaders under the parliamentary system. No longer would we select our leader based on popularity, he said, and therefore we would no longer have actors and newscasters sitting in office. And this to the very people who would elect actors and newscasters to the highest position in the land. In essence: you are not good enough or smart enough to choose your own leaders.

And finally, there was thinly-veiled contempt for the Senate, which seems to be the ultimate target of the parliamentary shift. The senate, the pop sheet said, was costing the Filipino people P200-M per senator in pork barrel funds, and by doing away with the body we would be saving money.

If I had to go with gist of the explanation, it could be summed up in this: a parliamentary system is heaven whereas a presidential system is hell. How much simpler can you get?

Except that it's not that simple. Yes, the unicameral-parliamentary system does have its merits but it has its own pitfalls; similarly, the bicameral-presidential system is not without its faults, but neither is it without its benefits (like checks and balances, for example). These are complex issues, and throwing the question for deliberation to Barang-Ass is, well, just asinine.

What did I just witness in last Saturday's barangay assembly? If someone offers you heaven but wants you to make a decision in a hurry, lest you lose the one-time offer, what do you call that? If someone offers you benefits but says nothing about your own commitment and responsibilities in return, what do you call that? See title above.

Let me go back to my original question: what is the price tag of amending the constitution? Rice, porridge, and door prizes, as I've said. You, dear sophisticated reader of the Dumaguete Metro Post, will most likely grin at the gullibility of poor folk. Very cheap, no? But there is something even cheaper than rice, porridge, and door prizes. It is so cheap that it cost the perpetrators nothing to move one step closer to their goal.

Your apathy.