Sunday, June 14, 2009

An article of faith

It’s a grave misfortune that Filipinos think of their Constitution as no more than a convenient tool to acquire political power. Every time an opportunity arises, revising the Constitution becomes the ultimate objective of those who wish to pursue selfish interests such as staying in power beyond a term limit.

For one, the current initiative by members of Congress to amend the Constitution, apparently under marching orders from Malacanang, is obviously aimed to postpone the holding of the scheduled presidential elections in 2010, overhaul the government, and impose a new political structure that allows the incumbent to remain in power.

Yet, the Constitution is not just an ordinary document. It commands the legislature and the State as a whole to give the highest priority to enact and implement laws that will protect and promote the right of the people to human dignity, reduce social, economic and political inequalities, and remove cultural inequities by equitably diffusing wealth and political power for the common good. The exact words lifted from the Constitution as enshrined in Article XIII.

Even years before the Constitutionally-mandated presidential election in 2010, the current government has already been plotting several schemes to alter the present political structure so the president and her minions could keep power indefinitely in their hands. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has all the time in the world to lead the country out of its economic doldrums when she took over from Joseph Estrada (who was ousted in 2001) and after her election to the presidency in 2004. Exactly nine long years, yet what has Gloria Arroyo accomplished?

Gloria Arroyo could have achieved so much in nine years if she had only been faithful to the Constitution. Unlike her predecessors who served only the term limit of six years, she has an extra three years to spare, more than the two terms a U.S. President could possibly have. If she only read Article XIII of the Constitution, she could have understood well the gravitas of the presidency of the Republic. Article XIII of the Constitution embodied everything that needs to be done: the protection of the rights of the people so that everyone can live with dignity and in equality, where wealth and political power are used for the common good. This was perhaps in the minds of the framers of the 1987 Constitution why they inserted this very important provision so every president elected after the dark period of the Marcos dictatorship will be guided accordingly.

For the past eight years Gloria Arroyo has chosen to ignore Article XIII and has focused her sights on staying in power longer than her term limit. Nearing the completion of her term, Arroyo continues to subvert the Constitution.

In addition to honouring the obligations of the State in Article XIII of the Constitution, Gloria Arroyo and her advisers could have also taken some time to read and heed the report prepared by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2005 on Poverty in the Philippines: Income, Assets, and Access. The ADB report is a country poverty analysis which identifies the structural causes of poverty in the Philippines and provides a roadmap for the government’s response to poverty.

Among the important highlights of the ADB Report are:

• The poverty incidence of families increased from 31.8% to 33.7% between 1997 and 2000, which means that there more hungry families.

• Sustained economic growth from 2000-2003 has not been pro-poor. Although there was sustained GDP growth from 2000-2003, there was a 10% drop in real average family incomes. The real average income of the bottom 30% of the population contracted by about 6% from 2000-2003, indicating an increase over 2000 poverty levels.

• Official poverty lines have not kept pace with inflation, thus poverty lines have been worth less and less in real terms since the mid-1980s.

• The proportion of Filipino families who rate themselves as poor is a great deal higher than the official poverty incidence.

• Access to various assets such as human capital, physical capital, natural capital, financial capital, and social capital, that can help reduce vulnerability and to keep people out of poverty is a major problem.

• Health challenges include high maternal mortality rates, a very high incidence of tuberculosis (ranked 8th in the world by the World Health Organization), and poor quality and inaccessibility of public health care services.

• Only 70% of the poorest households have access to safe drinking water.

• Forest cover has been reduced to less than one fifth of total land area, with logging, mining and encroachment of settlements in critical watersheds to blame.

• Urban air quality is very poor.

• The Philippines is ranked one of the five hottest “hotspots” on the planet, meaning one of the most threatened areas.

• The poorest are unable to save, so access to credit and remittances become important areas of financial capital. Despite high and growing levels of remittances, the poorest are largely excluded from the benefits of overseas migration. International migration and remittances may actually exacerbate the inequality problem in the Philippines.

What kind of picture emerges from all of these findings? Only one powerful but very depressing image comes across, that of a poor country.

A social weather survey was also conducted across various sectors nationwide in 2008 asking whether Filipinos think of themselves as poor. The survey showed that 79.3 per cent of the total respondents thought of themselves as poor, thus validating the earlier perception of most Filipinos in the ADB Report.

Yet, Gloria Arroyo and her loyal followers would continue to disregard the true conditions in the Philippines. Their answer to rising joblessness and poverty is to amend the Constitution in order to open up the economy to more foreign investors by allowing them equal ownership of our natural resources, and by overhauling the government structure and changing it with a parliamentary system that would make it possible for Gloria Arroyo and her faithful flock to remain in political power indefinitely.

In Development as Freedom, the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote: “Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedoms: poverty, as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerances or overactivity of repressive states.” Exactly the meaning and purpose of Sections (1) and (2) of Article XIII of the Philippine Constitution, which reads as follows:

Article XIII


Section 1. The Congress shall give highest priority to the enactment of measures that protect and enhance the right of all the people to human dignity, reduce social, economic, and political inequalities, and remove cultural inequities by equitably diffusing wealth and political power for the common good.

To this end, the State shall regulate the acquisition, ownership, use, and disposition of property and its increments.

Section 2. The promotion of social justice shall include the commitment to create economic opportunities based on freedom of initiative and self-reliance.

If ever a new President is elected in June 2010, he or she, together with all elected members of Congress, must be required in addition to the oath of office to recite the provisions of Article XIII as an article of faith and a fitting reminder of their solemn obligation to the Filipino people who have elected them.

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