Oct 232014


Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
2005-09-29 05:57
2011-08-30 01:44
Embassy Manila

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 MANILA 004662



E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/29/2015


¶C. MANILA 4140

Classified By: Acting Political Counselor Joseph L. Novak for
reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

¶1. (C) Summary: The perennial debate over possible changes
to the Philippine Constitution of 1987 is steadily heating
up. Jose De Venecia, the Speaker of the House, is pressing
the matter forward in Congress, urging that the current
bicameral, executive presidential system be changed into a
parliamentary one. Malacanang has indicated support for
possible change, recently taking steps to form a
“Consultative Commission” to look into the matter. That
said, President Arroyo is naturally not too keen to cut short
her term or otherwise curb her powers to allow an executive
prime minister to take over. The Philippine Senate, which
stands to be abolished under most proposals, remains highly
suspicious of De Venecia’s efforts. Given the scrum that
normally is Philippine politics, this debate will not be
smooth and the idea that all parties will be on board at any
time soon is a long shot. When asked, Mission continues to
make clear that political arrangements in the Philippines are
for the people of the Philippines to decide. End Summary.

House Speaker Presses Debate

¶2. (SBU) The perennial debate over possible changes to the
Philippine Constitution of 1987 is steadily heating up.
(Note: This debate often goes by the name “Charter Change,”
or more colloquially — and perhaps with a nod to the
debate’s confusing twists and turns — as “Cha-Cha.” End
Note.) Speaker of the House De Venecia, a long-time
proponent of change, is pressing the matter forward in the
House, urging that the current bicameral, executive
presidential system be changed into a unicameral,
parliamentary one. De Venecia and his supporters argue that
the current system has proven ineffective in meeting the
Philippines’ needs and a parliamentary system providing for
longer terms in office would be more responsible in nature
and less corrupt.

¶3. (SBU) At several times in recent years, De Venecia has
come up with various, confusing formulations on what he sees
as the way forward. (Note: We have been told that the
Speaker’s office prepared a draft Constitution clearly
encapsulating his ideas a couple of years ago and we are
trying to obtain a copy. End Note.) In a September 27
address before the Manila Overseas Press Club, De Venecia set
out a tangle of options, which basically range from: Arroyo
staying on until her term ends in 2010 but in a ceremonial
capacity while an executive prime minister runs the country;
to President Arroyo and a prime minister basically sharing
power until 2010; to Arroyo and all House and Senate members
stepping down in 2007, so a “fresh start” can be made with a
newly elected parliament, etc. (Note: De Venecia has also
indicated that he supports “federalism” as part of his
Constitutional change plans. He has not fully diagrammed his
plans in this area, saying he wants to move forward with his
proposal to form a parliament first. At various times, De
Venecia has also proposed other discrete changes to the
Constitution, such as a provision specifying an “open door”
for foreign direct investment and a provision punishing
politicians who switch parties — see ref b. End Note.)

¶4. (U) De Venecia has made clear that he would like to see
his proposals implemented via a “Constituent Assembly” of
sitting legislators from both the House and the Senate.
(Note: Another option would be the holding of a
“Constitutional Convention,” which would involve the direct
election of delegates by the public. De Venecia believes
this option would be too drawn out and expensive. End Note.)
Under a proposed bill which was successfully voted out of a
House Committee in March 2005, the House and the Senate would
sit together and review the draft changes to the
Constitution. Upon three-fourths of support in the assembly,
the changes would be approved and then subject to
ratification in a national referendum.

¶5. (C) The Senate is vehemently against this proposal,
believing that the Constitution makes clear that both the
House and the Senate, meeting separately, have to approve any
proposed changes by a three-fourths margin. In reaction to
the Senate’s fierce opposition, De Venecia has recently come
up with a complex formulation that would have the House and
Senate meeting separately within a Constituent Assembly, but
voting as one. Even he has admitted that the Senate is
unlikely to accept this new proposal. Regardless of the
problems his proposals face, De Venecia has made clear that
he plans to press forward and to hold votes in the House in
coming months as he seeks to make his dream of changing the
system into a reality.

Malacanang Plays Coy

¶6. (C) President Arroyo has often indicated that she
supports Constitutional change as a way “to revitalize” the
country, but she has not outlined her views on the matter in
detail. In addition, neither she nor her lieutenants have
ever indicated that she would agree to cut short her term or
curb her powers to ease the way for a parliamentary system.
Arroyo, however, does not want to offend De Venecia, who is
influential and recently came to her aid by helping quash the
Opposition’s impeachment complaint (ref c). In light of
that, Arroyo has made an effort to at least appear that she
wants to work with De Venecia on possible change. She has
made a similar effort to appease former president Fidel
Ramos, who also helped Arroyo during the recent political
turbulence and has put forth a Constitutional reform plan of
his own.

¶7. (C) When asked about Constitutional change by Acting
Pol/C during a September 26 meeting, Gabriel “Gabby” Claudio,
Arroyo’s chief political adviser, averred that his boss
“sincerely believes that changing the Constitution could help
the country’s economy and help heal its divisions.” He
allowed, however, that obtaining the agreement of the three
major institutions involved — the House, the Senate, and
Malacanang — would take “months of work and might not be
possible in the end.” He added that the President would
continue to study options and planned to monitor House
proceedings carefully. Malacanang has recently set up via
executive order a “Consultative Commission” meant to examine
possible Constitutional changes. The Commission is to have
50 members of which 43 slots recently have been filled. The
members include well-known lawyers and other professionals,
labor leaders, former diplomats, provincial leaders, etc.
The Commission is mandated to provide Arroyo with its
recommendations on possible changes by the close of 2005.

Senators Not Pleased

¶8. (C) The Philippine Senate, which stands to be abolished
under most plans currently on the table, remains highly
suspicious of the proposals. As a salve, De Venecia has
proffered various formulations wherein senators might be able
to extend their terms as members of a parliament, but he has
made little progress in changing minds. In a recent
conversation, Senator Maria Anna Consuelo “Jamby” Madrigal
told Acting Pol/C that she doubted that even three of the
Senate’s 23 members supported De Venecia’s proposals. Other
senators have repeated the same breakdown to Acting Pol/C.
Senators have made clear they will take the matter to the
Supreme Court if the House presses ahead without Senate

¶9. (C) Many senators — and many political commentators —
have asserted that the Constitutional change debate has more
to do with De Venecia’s political ambition to be prime
minister than any rational need to change the country’s
governing set-up. De Venecia, who lost the presidential
election in 1998, has denied that he wants to be prime
minister, but not very convincingly. In a body like the
Senate, which has many members who harbor political ambitions
of their own (Senators Roxas, Villar, Lacson, Pangilinan,
etc., all want to lead the country), there is a clear
disinclination to give a rival like De Venecia any opening.
For Malacanang, the opposition of the Senate to the changes
is fortuitous because it can point to it when pressed by De
Venecia as to why his proposals are not moving forward.
Nonetheless, the Senate does not want to appear to be a
roadblock to change: many senators have expressed support
for the convening of a Constitutional Convention, as long as
both the House and the Senate vote separately to approve its
formation. (Note: So far, polls indicate that the public is
not at all engaged on the matter of Constitutional change,
but there is widespread interest in improving governance. In
light of this, most politicians want to take a forward
position by favoring some sort of “change.” End Note.)


¶10. (C) Given the scrum that normally is Philippine
politics, this debate will not be smooth. De Venecia is
fully committed to changing the system and has promised to
launch a major public relations campaign in coming months
while the House moves forward on votes, which should keep the
issue on a lot of front pages. Malacanang, meanwhile, is
clearly not going to press hard on the matter, though it
wants to be seen as doing enough so as not to alienate De
Venecia (or Ramos). The Senate — which has poor relations
with the House and increasingly frayed relations with
Malacanang (ref a) — is unlikely to budge. Given this
situation, the idea that all parties will agree to changes at
any point soon is a long shot to put it mildly. When asked,
Mission continues to make clear that political arrangements
in the Philippines are for the people of the Philippines to

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