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[In This Economy] Economic charter change is very unpopular – it’s time lawmakers listened

On March 27, Pulse Asia released the results of a new, nationally representative survey that could prove to be the death knell of recent moves to amend the 1987 Constitution.

Data from March 6 to 10 indicate that a whopping 88% of adult respondents said that the 1987 Constitution “should not be amended now.” A measly 8% said it should be amended now.

What’s more, 74% of respondents said “the Constitution should not be amended now nor any other time” (italics mine). The remaining 14% did not want amendments now, but conceded that the Constitution “may be amended sometime in the future.”

These survey results could stymie efforts by Congress to railroad economic charter change. On March 20, lawmakers in the House of Representatives approved with an overwhelming majority Resolution of Both Houses 7, which aims to amend the Constitution and liberalize three specific sectors: higher education, advertising, and public services.

It turns out that their efforts are not at all in line with what Filipinos want.

Lawmaker proponents of economic charter change are naturally in denial of the Pulse Asia results, and have already resorted to attacking Pulse Asia, calling its survey “biased.”

Said House Majority Leader Manuel Jose Dalipe of Zamboanga City, “Why include questions that people don’t want and are not related to the ongoing process in Congress? Is this black propaganda?” He added, “The people’s voice should be heard directly through a plebiscite, not through biased surveys.” Other lawmakers have issued their own acerbic remarks regarding the survey.

But perhaps these lawmakers will want to inspect the numbers more closely. It appears that Filipinos have leaned more heavily against constitutional amendments over the past year, from March 2023 to March 2024.

Over that period, the proportion of respondents saying the Constitution “should be amended now” dropped significantly, from 41% to just 8%. That’s a 33 percentage-point decline!

On the flip side of the coin, the proportion of respondents opposing any amendment almost doubled from 45% to 88%. And all of that stemmed from the proportion of hardliners saying “the Constitution should not be amended now nor any other time.”

Why so opposed?

What could explain these numbers? Why are Filipinos so opposed to economic charter change?

One possibility is that the respondents don’t even know what they’re talking about. Three-fourths of the respondents said they had “little to no knowledge” about the 1987 Constitution. Nearly half (48%) had “a little knowledge,” while 27% had “almost none or no knowledge at all.”

Only 25% said they had a “great deal to sufficient” knowledge about the Constitution, with 22% having “sufficient knowledge” and only 4% having “a great deal of knowledge.”

These numbers tended to be stable over time. But at least there was a 7 percentage-point drop in the proportion of respondents saying they had “almost none or no knowledge at all.” What this means is that some people are getting more educated, somehow.

But even if most respondents don’t know much about the Constitution, they seem to have strong opinions on the proposed amendments anyway.

Another good thing about the Pulse Asia survey is that they asked about specific amendments that have been the subject of charter change proposals, past and present.

Easily 68% were against amendments “allowing foreigners to own schools or universities,” 71% were against amendments “allowing foreign individuals and companies to foreign equity in mass media and advertising,” and 71% were against amendments “lifting the prohibition of foreign ownership on communications like cellphone and internet company.”

These three results are related to the contents of Resolution of Both Houses 7.

Interestingly, a lot were also opposed to possible term extensions for government officials (73%), shifting to a parliamentary system of government (71%), and shifting to a federal system of government (71%).

So lawmakers may want to think twice before tinkering with the Constitution’s political provisions as well.

Some lawmakers incensed with the “biased” Pulse Asia results said that the ordering of questions may have swayed respondents against economic charter change.

But as clarified by Ronald Holmes, president of Pulse Asia, “The sequence is we start with asking if they favor charter change, in general, then the specific changes proposed now and before are posed later.”

Yet another possibility behind the numbers is that people see no need to fix what isn’t broken.

Just look at past Pulse Asia surveys. In March 2018, for instance, only 3% of respondents said that “changing the constitution” is a national concern that deserves to be urgently addressed by the government. The same proportion was seen in September that year. In subsequent surveys, changing the constitution didn’t even make it to the list of most urgent national concerns.

Usually, what comes out on top of these surveys are “controlling inflation,” “creating more jobs,” “increasing the pay of workers,” and “reducing the poverty of many Filipinos” – economic issues that affect Filipinos in their daily lives.

What if lawmakers drop their dreams of economic charter change and just focus on these pressing concerns instead? Maybe they can get more brownie points they can use in the 2025 polls.

Change for another time

Of course, the Pulse Asia results by themselves don’t mean that the Constitution should never, ever be changed. Of course, it needs to change to better suit our current realities. But there needs to be a really good justification for doing so.

The recent position paper of UP Political Science professors offers a clue. They said that in the past, “Initiatives to change the constitution were made to break from the immediate past and usher in a new political order.” This happened for the 1935, 1973, and 1987 Constitutions.

They added, “While constitutional amendments may not require any special historical moments, revisions in practice were usually undertaken after some major upheavals like revolutions, coups, postcolonial wars, democratic uprisings, post-peace agreement managed transitions, or after a regime change…”

In the present proposals, we must ask: what “immediate past” are we breaking away from? Or what “new political order” are we ushering in? There’s no such thing.

Don’t tell me “Bagong Pilipinas,” because there’s nothing earthshakingly new happening now. In fact, in the aftermath of the 2022 polls, we decidedly went back to old ways – and in more ways than one. –

JC Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the UP School of Economics and the author of False Nostalgia: The Marcos “Golden Age” Myths and How to Debunk Them. He was recently named one of The Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) for 2023. JC’s views are independent of his affiliations. Follow him on Twitter/X (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ Podcast.

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