Solons prioritize federalism, but how about the BBL?

As the new year began, the leaders of both chambers of Congress have been talking of prioritizing the shift to a federal system of government by convening the Senate and the House of Representatives into a constituent assembly in January to revise the 1987 Constitution towards that end.

Perhaps reckoning how easily and swiftly, in joint sessions, the “super-majority” had twice extended the implementation of martial law in Mindanao (up to end-2018), the two leaders ambitiously target to complete the constitutional revision by May – yes, within four months. They plan to submit the revised Charter to a plebiscite along with the barangay and youth council elections in that month.

A number of senators, including majority leader Ralph Recto, have raised doubts that revising the Constitution could be done in such a short period. “For starters,” Recto admitted, “I have not read any details on federalism…” Voices of opposition have also been raised against various aspects of federalism as proposed in Congress. There’s strong disapproval, too, of the move for members of Congress to convene as a constituent assembly to revise the Constitution, preferring instead the election of delegates to a constitutional convention to do the job.

Likely to arouse widespread popular opposition is the idea, floated by both Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez Jr. and Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, of extending the term of President Duterte (during an unspecified transition period from the unitary/presidential to a federal system), with Alvarez suggesting doing away with the mid-term elections in May 2019, which would extend the terms of 12 senators, incumbent House members and elected local government officials.

(All previous attempts to revise the 1987 Constitution, from Fidel V. Ramos’ time, have failed because of strong public opposition to explicit or implicit term extension.)

Moreover, President Duterte himself acknowledged last Dec. 14, based on his observation in his visits across the country, that Filipinos were “not ready for federalism” in places where he had expected strong public support. “It does not ring a bell in the Visayas and Mindanao,” he told Malacanang reporters. If at all, he added, it rang a bell only among those who are “really dedicated and thinking Filipinos.”

So why are the President’s pointmen in Congress rushing the revision of the Constitution for a shift to a federal type of government?

Relevant to ask at this point is: What about the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which Duterte had asked Congress to prioritize and pass in a special session last December?

More than the federalism project – which uses as one rationale the attainment of peace in Muslim Mindanao – the BBL is supposed to embody the comprehensive peace agreement signed in 2014 between the government (under President Benigno Aquino III) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

On Nov. 27, thousands of people supporting the BBL gathered in Sultan Kudarat to push for its early passage by Congress. Passage of the BBL “would mean peace and coexistence in Mindanao,” declared Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, archbishop of Cotabato, because its “inclusivity” would end tribal biases and religious prejudices. Gov. Mujib Hataman of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which the BBL aims to transform into a larger and more autonomous regional government, claimed he was “a believer” of the latter’s embodiment: “true and lasting peace.” And Muslimin Sema, chair of one faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), expressed hope as he “looks back to the long armed struggle for self-determination, which dream and aspiration we find in the BBL.”

Addressing the Sultan Kudarat gathering, Duterte promised to call for a special session of Congress to approve the BBL. “I will work very hard for it,” he emphasized, “I said this is sacred… important and valuable. It would involve eventually, if the people wish it, a new structure for the entire country.” He was apparently alluding to the federal system.

Should Congress pass the BBL legislation, Duterte would appoint 80 members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), which would be constituted in 2019 to prepare for the first election of the officials of the new autonomous region in 2022. If Congress should fail to do so, Duterte said, “then let us work out a way as long as we make sure that we can give our brothers and sisters, especially the Moros, an arrangement that is acceptable.”

To the MILF, Duterte pledged cum warning was: “I support you. That is my promise. Do not ever, ever question me.” He said he wanted the BBL to be “inclusive” by addressing the concerns not only of the Muslims in Mindanao but also the Christians and Lumad (indigenous people).

While he stressed the need to “correct the injustice committed on the Moros and the Lumad,” he equally underscored the preservation of the unity of the Republic. “There must be one nation for all,” he said, “one republic for us Moros and Christians. That I cannot bargain away; I am doing everything to avoid breakage.”

On Nov. 29, leaders of the House assured Duterte the BBL would be passed by mid-March 2018. Per majority leader Rodolfo Farinas, Speaker Alvarez promised: “We will finish it before we adjourn on March 31, 2018.”

On Dec. 6, a schedule of new public hearings across the country on the consolidated BBL bill (collated from four versions filed) was set to be jointly conducted by three House committees: the committee on local governments (as lead panel), and the committees on Muslim affairs, and on peace, unity and reconciliation. The hearings would be held from Jan. 22-Feb. 16, 2018, and a joint committee report would be completed by March 9.

Then on Dec. 21, Duterte disclosed that he himself doubted if the BBL bill could withstand a constitutional challenge. He asked Congress to look for other ways to give the Moro people their own homeland in Mindanao. But isn’t it the Executive’s responsibility to have ensured the BBL bill can pass constitutional scrutiny?

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Published in Philippine Star
Jan. 6, 2018

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