Saturday, August 16, 2014

Aquino’s imperial presidency

During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in Bali, Indonesia, last October 6, 2013, Philippine President Noynoy Aquino was asked whether he thought of serving another term to ensure the country’s economic growth that seemed to prosper during his incumbency. Aquino was loudly applauded when he rejected the idea of a seeking a second term.
In explaining the rationale for the one-term limit for Philippine presidents, Aquino recalled how one of his predecessors was “first elected in 1965, got re-elected in 1969, and decided to stay until 1986.” Of course, Aquino was referring to Ferdinand Marcos who ruled the country with an iron fist for more than two decades. Marcos wasn’t contented with two terms: he had to invent a justification for declaring martial law to prolong his presidency beyond the constitutional limit.
President Aquino during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO
Summit in Bali, Indonesia, October 6, 2013. Aquino was applauded loudest when
he rejected the idea of seeking another term. AP Photo/Wong Maye-e.
What President Aquino failed to mention was this was the legacy of his mother, former President Cory Aquino, who helped restore democracy in the Philippines with the adoption of the 1987 Constitution that provided for a one-term president. A legacy the son is now prepared to desecrate and dishonour with his own ambition of running for another term by hinting that constitutional change may be necessary to amend the limit to the current presidential term of office and to clip the powers of the judiciary.
After his mother stepped down from the presidency in 1992, six years after the EDSA People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship, the next succeeding three presidents attempted to have the Constitution changed so they could run for another term. But each time, they would be rebuked, and popular support for Charter change never did actually prosper.
In speaking against another term when interviewed during the APEC conference, it wasn’t lost on President Aquino that the framers of the 1987 Constitution had Marcos in their minds when they fixed the presidential term to six years without re-election. The framers hoped that the country will never again see the day when another dictator will usurp his powers as president so he can stay in office against the wishes of the people.
Generally, term limits are viewed as necessary to curb executive ambition, as Thomas Jefferson had argued during the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. But Jefferson’s warning was drowned by the voices of Alexander Hamilton and many of the American Founders who thought term limits would invite mischief by ex-Presidents and argued against their inclusion in the U.S. Constitution. An unwritten rule was established by American presidents from the time of George Washington that they should only serve a maximum of two terms, with the exception of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was elected four times and served during the Depression years and the Second World War. It was only in 1951 with the ratification of the 22nd Amendment that the current limit to the president’s term of office has been incorporated in the U.S. Constitution.
The origins of executive term limits go back to the ancient republics. Aristotle listed as a key characteristic of democracy that “no office should ever be held twice by the same person.” The rationale for term limits in these early democracies was the idea of rotation of office. Democracy, in the view of ancient Greeks, required that citizens have the experience of both “ruling and being ruled in turn,” and this principle was best achieved by limiting tenure in public office, so as to maximize the number of citizens that could govern.
Notwithstanding some high-profile cases, modern-day presidents have observed term limits with remarkable frequency in consolidated or mature democracies. Those countries which have successfully amended or replaced their constitutions to facilitate term extensions have little to do with their presidents’ ideology or with the desire to continue the programs they started.

Jose Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe are examples of presidents who have amended their countries’ constitutions to allow them to extend their terms. Attempts to overturn constitutional limits to presidential terms are not restricted to Latin America. Other countries like Azerbaijan, Niger, Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Togo, Tunisia, and Uganda have also adopted referenda overturning term limits. Former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo tried several times to persuade Congress to call for Charter reforms but to no avail.
Vladimir Putin opted to step down from the Russian presidency in favour of an informally empowered prime minister, which provided him with an unlimited tenure, or at least one at the mercy of a sympathetic legislature controlled by his party. Term limits have recently been relaxed in Russia’s neighbouring countries like Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
All these successful attempts to overturn term limits have invariably ushered in robust authoritarian governments, including those that masked presidential ambitions through changes in political systems such as from presidential to parliamentary. President Noynoy Aquino will be joining the ranks of these autocrats should he become successful either in extending term limits or changing the government structure into a parliamentary system that would allow him to continue as head of government as long as his political party controls the legislature.
Aquino is banking on his popularity, albeit tarnished by his DAP debacle, that an extension of his term as president would enable him to continue strengthening the national economy and attacking graft and corruption like no other Filipino leader has accomplished in decades. Empowered by public opinion manufactured by a subservient media that no other or better alternative to him is available, Aquino’s hint of extending his term is very troubling, disquieting enough that he is reconsidering his position on Charter change to restrain the perceived overreach of the Supreme Court on his executive powers.

Is he the most popular president in Philippine history? Click link to view people's
protest against the Aquino administration through music, poetry and art.
Measured against the Filipino people’s experience under Ferdinand Marcos and on account of similar overturning of term limits in other countries, Aquino’s ambition of an imperial presidency will prove very costly to our fledgling democracy. With Aquino’s popularity, assuming that he is never tainted by the graft and corruption that surrounds his government particularly all the swirling allegations of misconduct among his key people, it would be easy then to install a kind of elective monarchy which in any event would not have a large quantum of power.
But the real impetus to the urgency of Charter change, however, is not about extending Aquino’s term of office, or about the endless debate on the pros and cons of term limits, or even replacing the current government with a parliamentary system. All this talk of allowing Aquino to run for another term is all a mirage.
Since day one, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte has always wanted to amend the patrimony provisions of the Constitution to allow more foreign ownership and control of the country’s economic wealth. To Belmonte this was necessary if the Philippines must join the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement under the auspices of the United States. The economic provisions in the 1987 Constitution that establish national patrimony have always been the major obstacle, and unless they were removed, the Philippines would never be part of the trade agreement.
Another reason for Charter change is President Aquino’s pet project, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), where the draft bill has been pending before Congress to the chagrin of the MILF partners in the peace initiative. Only an amendment of the Constitution can resolve all lingering questions of constitutionality of the proposed Bangsamoro law.
Of course, one more reason why President Aquino reversed his earlier position on Charter change is his own ego. He is still sore and he wanted to get back on the Supreme Court for invalidating his government’s Disbursement Acceleration Program, and he could accomplish this if the powers of the judiciary are clipped under an amended constitution.
As to extending his term of office which is prohibited by the Constitution, President Aquino knows full well the legacy of his parents. There is no credence to the idea being spread by his followers and the yellow media that there are no suitable replacements for him. It’s an open season for a long list of possible presidential candidates, from the incumbent vice-president to some aspiring members of Congress whose competency is beyond the president’s own qualifications when he ran for president.
The truth is, among the ordinary folks, workers, the poor, and other marginalized sectors, there is no clamor for more of Aquino’s presidency. People who are confronted daily with rising prices, growing inequalities and intolerable socio-economic conditions, are all fed up because only Aquino’s business friends and the wealthy classes are the ones enjoying the so-called economic growth under his administration.
Extending President Aquino’s term of office is a guaranteed formula for tyranny to flourish, a repeat of history under Ferdinand Marcos.
Filipinos therefore must be wary of an Aquino imperial presidency. As Simón Bolívar once said: “Nothing is more perilous than to permit one citizen to retain power for an extended period. The people become accustomed to obeying him, and he forms the habit of commanding them; herein lays [sic] the origins of usurpation and tyranny.... Our citizens must with good reason learn to fear lest the magistrate who has governed them long will govern them forever.”

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