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SHOWDOWN IN MANILA

A rally against extending term limits forces the president to back off. But the battle is not over

By Sangwon Suh and Antonio Lopez / Manila


Go to excerpts from former president Corazon Aquino's speech

Go to a street-level look at the demonstration

Go to an essay by Asiaweek's senior correspondent in Manila, Antonio Lopez

IT WAS AN APPROPRIATE, if curious, confluence of events. Sunday, Sept. 21, was the 25th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by Ferdinand Marcos, which ushered in 14 years of dictatorship. It was also the day when huge crowds took to the streets all over the Philippines to protest against the controversial constitutional amendment proposals that would allow President Fidel Ramos to serve beyond his mandated single six-year term. On that day, the country's past and future seemed to meld together, as the demonstrators remembered the dark old days and vowed that no one would be allowed to perpetuate himself in power again.

In Manila, more than 500,000 people packed into sprawling, bayside Luneta Park. The organizers from the Catholic Church had promised a second People Power Revolution. Unlike that epoch-making event 11 years ago, however, the atmosphere at the rally was more festive than tense. After all, there were no soldiers and tanks to face off. But the message was clear: no to Cha-Cha (the rhythmic short form Filipinos have adopted for "charter change"). Those who had gathered would tolerate neither the lifting of term limits nor the possibility of creating another dictator.

Speaking to the crowds at Luneta were two potent symbols of the anti-Marcos struggle: Manila archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin and former president Corazon Aquino. "We reject an immoral change of charter at this time," proclaimed Sin. "We reject any and all martial and military options to perpetuate any politician in power." Aquino was equally eloquent and forceful. "No way, and never again" was her message to those "who want to stay in power, by martial law or charter change." She reminded Ramos that "power intoxicates." To thunderous applause, she then declared: "The presidency is so great an honor, no one deserves to have it again."

To non-Filipinos, the passion aroused among anti-Cha-Cha forces may seem puzzling. Being able to run for re-election, after all, does not necessarily equate with the establishment of a dictatorship. But for opponents of constitutional change, the repression under Marcos's martial law regime is still fresh in their minds, and anything that could even remotely lead to the return of authoritarian rule is anathema. This is where the debate in the Philippines over amending the Constitution differs from that in Thailand, the other country in Asia currently discussing charter changes. The Thai proposals clearly make the political system more accountable.

In the Philippines, however, the perception is that democracy will suffer a setback. Keenly aware of the local sentiment, Ramos made a pre-emptive strike a day before the Luneta rally. Addressing a crowd of 50,000 in Davao City in southern Mindanao region, he maintained: "I will not run for re-election. Period. Period. Period." He also denied any dictatorial ambitions on his part: "I will not proclaim martial law, nor order the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police to undertake any operations that may be misconstrued as actions leading to martial law."

Few of his critics, however, are convinced by such reassurances. In the past, Ramos has flip-flopped over the issue, on one hand ruling out term extensions, on the other saying he would "keep [his] options open." Why the ambiguity? A big reason -- besides, possibly, the natural urge to stay in power -- may be that he does not want to be regarded as a lame-duck president.

At the Luneta rally, Sin joked that he had changed his draft homily eight times because Ramos changed his mind eight times. "I hope this is his last statement," said the cardinal of the president's promise in Davao. Meanwhile, Sen. Orlando Mercado found it strange that Ramos had to stress "period, period, period" in his no re-election vow. "In plain English, a statement followed by three periods is not done yet," he pointed out, only partly in jest.

For backers of the constitutional amendments, the reasons for their push are simple. The first: "The Constitution needs to be fine-tuned in order to make some of its provisions work for the national welfare," says Congressman Pedro Romualdo, author of Resolution 40, which now faces a vote in the 216-member House of Representatives dominated by Ramos's Lakas-NUCD party. The resolution seeks to convene Congress into a constituent assembly -- a necessary move before any changes to the charter can be considered. At least nine amendments are being sought. These include returning to a two-party presidential system or even shifting to a parliamentary one, and reducing the power of the National Police. But the bottom line, says lawyer -- and a drafter of the current Constitution -- Christian Monsod, "is to remove term limits."

Which brings us to the other reason: many want to see Ramos serve out another term. "The proposal for charter change started from one very simple, pragmatic issue," explains Budget Secretary Salvador Enriquez. "People thought that President Ramos had done a good job and they wanted an extension of his term." Indeed, Ramos's record is enviable. His presidency has seen an end to debilitating brown-outs, the revival of an economy once considered Asia's basket case, and the return of at least a shaky peace to the formerly strife-torn island of Mindanao.

But opponents are not convinced that national interest is the only thing on the minds of Cha-Cha supporters. If term limits are lifted, also benefiting would be eight senators and 87 congressmen who are currently barred from seeking re-election. "It does not leave a good taste in the mouth when the very people who will benefit from the amendment are the very people asking for the change," says Joaquin Bernas, one of the drafters of the present Constitution. At the very least, many Filipinos feel, the amendments should not be introduced until after next May's presidential election.

Sen. Francisco Tatad labels efforts to amend the Constitution as "a violation of the fundamental principle of lawmaking." He remarks: "You do not legislate for your own benefit." Counters Executive Secretary Ruben Torres: "Any charter change will always benefit the incumbent. If you do it now, it will benefit Ramos. If you do it next year, it will benefit the president next year. With this argument, you will never be able to amend the charter."

On Tuesday, Sept. 23, the Cha-Cha movement suffered a setback when the Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed by the People's Initiative for Reform, Modernization and Action, a pro-Ramos grassroots organization. The petition had sought to amend the Constitution through a signature campaign. While the decision has no bearing on Resolution 40, it effectively rules out the lifting of term limits by popular initiative.

Members of the cabinet contend that some of Ramos's opponents are playing up the Cha-Cha issue for their own political purposes. "The presidential wannabes realize that if Ramos is allowed to run again, it would be difficult to beat him and they won't have a chance to become president," says Budget Secretary Enriquez.

At the same time, the administration has accused the Church of straying from its role by getting involved in politics. In his Davao speech, Ramos, a Protestant, took Sin to task, charging that "the surest way to stir up national discord and to paralyze public life and, even worse, to foment widespread hatred and violence among the people is to substitute religious dogmatism for political debate." Officials also see a seeming alliance between the Church and the nation's wealthy clans, as indicated by the presence of prominent businesspeople at the Luneta rally.

The Church, for its part, has been co-opting the support of a power other than big business. At Luneta, the people were urged to pray for the wayward president, as speechmakers targeted Ramos. He, in turn, took a dig at this request for higher-level help, responding to Aquino: "Don't just pray, perform" -- a reference to the lack of results during her presidency. On that score, Ramos's record is hard to beat, Cha-Cha or no Cha-Cha.


'No Way, and Never again'

AFTER THE ASSASSINATION OF her husband, Ninoy, in August 1983, Corazon Aquino went from widowed homemaker to revolutionary to president in less than three years. Though her record in office was spotty, Aquino helped usher in a fresh era of democracy and openness for the Philippines. At last week's big Manila rally opposing constitutional change, she showed once again that she remains a national conscience by making a stirring speech. Excerpts:

Twenty-five years ago, the president of the Philippines blew out the light of democracy and covered the nation in darkness. Congress was padlocked and the Supreme Court put under the gun. Journalists were picked up, newspapers were shut down. The public was blindfolded and gagged, and the country robbed. Some of the best and brightest of our youth disappeared. Why? Because the president wanted to change the Constitution so he could stay in power beyond the legal term.

Today, there is a dark wind blowing across our country again -- the wind of ambition, a gathering storm of tyranny. That is why we are here -- to do what we should have done 25 years ago, and spared our country all the suffering that followed. That is why we are here -- to tell the people who want to stay in power, by martial law or charter change: no way, and never again. Do your worst; we will do our best to stop you. And we, the people, will prevail.

But we are here not only to fight charter change for term extensions. We are here also to fight the amnesia that will let the old enemies of democracy ambush it again. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance because the hunger of tyranny is never satisfied. We want to impress upon the leaders of today and tomorrow that we will come here as often as needed to remind them that they are the servants, not the masters, of the people.

Let us warn the [presidential candidates] of the greatest danger they will face when they succeed in their quest. Power intoxicates; too much power is addictive. There will always be power drug dealers who will feed your habit as president. They will say nobody can take your place, when what they mean is that they do not want to give up their places.

The presidency is so great an honor, no one deserves to have it again. To the man I supported in 1992, my friend, our president, Fidel V. Ramos, I say: No work is ever finished, and good work is hard to let go. You will be remembered for the stability you established, for the economic progress you achieved and, above all, for the confidence you restored in our country throughout the world. Trust the good people of our country to continue your good work. Trust in the Filipino.


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