Duterte suggested amending party-list, economic provisions in Constitution – Sotto

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 7) — Talks of amending the Constitution were revived in November in a meeting between President Rodrigo Duterte and lawmakers on possible changes to the party-list system, Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III said Thursday.

Sotto said he did not want to divulge information from the “private” meeting that the President called, but he had to clarify that Duterte never mentioned the possibility of term extension.

“Ang malinaw na tinanong agad ng Presidente pag-upo, ay sinabi niya (It’s clear that the President immediately said), ‘I want this problem with the CPP-NPA solved… The best way is that we remove the party-list system or change it in the Constitution so we can call for a constituent assembly and amend that,’” Sotto said in an online interview with reporters.

Duterte referred to the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, New People’s Army which were tagged as terrorist groups by the Anti-Terrorism Council. Duterte insisted that some party-list lawmakers, particularly those from the minority Makabayan bloc are “sympathizers or connected with” communist rebels, Sotto said. The Makabayan bloc has denounced the red-tagging.

Sotto suggested amending the Party-List System Act instead, but Duterte replied this could be subject to challenges before the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, amendments to the Constitution could also cover some economic provisions, Sotto recalled the President as saying.

Revived charter change talks

Just a month after the President's meeting with lawmakers, Senators Francis Tolentino and Ronald dela Rosa filed a resolution seeking to convene Congress as a constituent assembly to introduce amendments to the Constitution. Talks will be limited to economic and party-list system provisions, Dela Rosa said.

In a constituent assembly, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate shall convene and decide on constitutional amendments themselves. This is different from a constitutional convention which requires nationwide elections to select delegates who will draft the amendments.

Efforts to revive charter change deliberations were revealed on Wednesday after AKO BICOL Party-list Rep. Alfredo Garbin Jr., head of the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments, posted photos of some congressmen meeting with the caption “gearing up for constitutional amendments.”

It was House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco’s directive to tackle “restrictive economic provisions,” Garbin said. Velasco earlier filed a resolution to allow foreign ownership of lands, educational institutions, public utilities, and mass media firms. Garbin said deliberations will be held on January 13.

The panel last held a hearing in February 2020, as it later suspended any deliberations on charter change due to the rising cases of COVID-19. The House is now under new leadership following the controversial squabble between Velasco and then Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.

Not a good time

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon called it a “sin” to be talking about charter change as the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus crisis, which has pushed the economy into recession. He said he and other minority senators will oppose it.

Members of the Makabayan bloc believe any talks to amend the charter could be used to keep Duterte and his allies in power, considering that there are less than two years left in his term.

Sotto agreed that pushing for constitutional change may be ill-timed because of the pandemic, but said there would be no problem if talks will be confined to certain provisions, no other political agenda.

He said the House and Senate should vote separately on the constitutional amendments. The 24-member Senate wants to make its voice count in a separate voting, and not be irrelevant in a joint voting with nearly 300 House representatives, he added.

In a separate briefing, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said the President has no intention of staying in power beyond 2022 and that the COVID-19 pandemic remains his top priority.

Duterte previously pushed for constitutional change that would allow for a shift to federalism, one of his campaign promises in the 2016 elections, but later admitted Filipinos are not ready for a federal form of government. Still, Duterte will not intervene with the affairs of Congress, Malacañang said.

CNN Philippines' Joyce Ilas contributed to this report.