Who should draft new charter? Not Congress, Villegas says

MANILA, Philippines – Filipinos "free of vested interests," not Congress, should draft the new law of the land.

This was the moral position set by one of the Philippines' most influential bishops, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, as Congress prepares to change the Philippine charter.

The 1987 Constitution states that the charter can be revised either by Congress sitting as a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass), or by a Constitutional Convention (Con-Con), a body composed of elected or appointed delegates. 

"It is our moral position that if the outcome is to be a credible draft of a new Constitution, then the authors who draft the future fundamental charter of the land must be known for their probity and their intellectual acumen," Villegas said in a pastoral guide issued on Monday, January 15.

"They must be free of vested interests that may render suspect their handiwork as a document that embodies their own interests rather than those of the people," he said. 

"It is for this reason that it would be preferable to have a Constitutional Convention, not necessarily of elected delegates but of citizens with sufficient civic spiritedness, familiarity with the law and with the constitution, committed to human rights, and to the defense of civil and political rights, who have the fear of God in their hearts, that should craft the revised Constitution," the archbishop said.

Villegas wrote this in a letter primarily for his Catholic flock, the 1.13-million strong Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan in Pangasinan.

The archbishop, however, wields national influence as former president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, having ended his term only on November 30, 2017. He was also a protégé of the late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, who helped mount the 1986 revolt that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  

Duterte earlier said he prefers a Con-Ass to change the Constitution, even as critics said Congress cannot be trusted to do this.  

House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez wants the Con-Ass to convene this month and for Filipinos to ratify the new Constitution through a plebiscite by May 2018. Alvarez also proposed cancelling the midterm elections in May 2019.

Slamming term extensions

Facing the prospect of having no elections, Senator Francis Pangilinan warned of a 10-year term extension for Duterte and other officials during a transition period.  

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III also floated the idea of extending Duterte's term. The President said he is rejecting such proposals, but detained Senator Leila de Lima won't believe the President. 

In his pastoral guide, Villegas slammed these proposed term extensions.

"We, your pastors in Lingayen-Dagupan, are not unaware that reconfiguring the government may be used by the unprincipled as a pretext for the extension of their terms of office. There are many who even declare that term extensions are inevitable and necessary," Villegas said.

The archbishop said, "We find this opportunist and downright morally objectionable."

Villegas pointed out that "while the people are made to believe that the shift to a federal government is made with their advantage in mind, what its authors and schemers actually have in mind is circumventing the limits to terms in office established by the present constitution."

"I am not saying that this is so, but if it is so, it would be a grave moral wrong and a tremendous injustice," Villegas said.

The Catholic leader then urged his flock to stay vigilant. "It is our moral duty to know the issues." – Rappler.com