Going into the the convening of the Constitutional Convention in 1971, the Philippines Free Press published this editorial cartoon, to express skepticism about the idea that constitutions are some sort of magic bullet to solve the country's problems.
Attitudes in official circles haven't changed, although the public, whether from conviction, past traumas, or ignorance, has consistently registered strong objections to the idea of constitutional amendments.
Joel Rocamora recently put together this chart of what the possibilities are, vis-a-vis a possible effort to pursue amendments before 2010.
For the purposes of this entry, the chart above is relevant only in that it brings up the possibility of a constitutional plebiscite, and that brings up the question of past plebiscites, and what they had to say about the eras in which those plebiscites were conducted.
With this in mind, I put together this chart, which lists the plebiscites on constitutional amendments that took place from 1935 to 1987. As a kind of frame of reference, I've also included similar data concerning presidential elections that took place soon before or after these plebiscites. And then, the figures, when available, for total registered voters and the figures for our national population as a whole.
A note on sources: aside from various sources I'll link to below, the main sources for the information above were J. Ralston Hayden's The Philippines: A study in national development (Arno Press, 1972) and Dapen Liang's Philippine Parties and Politics: A Historical Study of National Experience in Democracy (Gladstone, 1971).
I'd like to review our national experience with constitutional plebiscites, as defined by our current, and rather well-developed and fairly extensive, constitutional evolution since 1935, when the Philippine state as we pretty much know it today was finally fleshed out.
In broad strokes, the various proposals to amend the constitution can be described as either evolutionary, that is, to reform and improve the existing setup, or to make as clean a break with the previous constitutional order as possible or mark a distinct new chapter in our national life by means of promulgating a new constitution.
Proposals of an evolutionary nature usually came from officialdom, representing a combination of statesmanship or political self-interest; proposals of a revolutionary nature generally responded to a public clamor for changes or public opposition to officially-proposed changes; there is the curious case of officialdom hitting a wall in terms of public opinion and changing all the rules as a result, during martial law, too.
There are some trends that affected the ability of officialdom to propose changes, and the responsiveness of the public. The two most important, to my mind, was the acceleration of the expansion of the electorate that took place after 1935; and, a contemporary development, innovations in evaluating and reporting public opinion beyond the actual results of elections.
Regarding the first. In Elections and Democratization in the Philippines (p.46):
Only 104,966 Filipinos or 1.15 percent of the total population was qualified to vote in the 1907 elections. Later, the 1916 Jones Act extended voting rights to all males literate in any native language and who could also fulfill the property requirements already in place.This change brought the number of registered voters in the colony to a mere 9 percent of the entire population, according to Hayden, or only 7 percent in 1919 according to Simbulan. With the promulgation of the 1935 Commonwealth Constitution the property restrictions were dropped, but literacy and gender requirements were retained. The size of the electorate is said to have reached only 11 percent by 1935. Four years later, only the literacy requirement remained, but only 48 percent of the population over the age of 10 in the regular christianized provinces could read or write in 1939.
Regarding the second, in 1933, surveys began to appear on the scene; see Free Press straw vote will feature reelection, May 6, 1939.
The first truly nationwide straw vote on a large scale ever conducted in the Philippines was the Free Press poll on the Hare-Hawes-Cutting law, conducted in February and March of 1933. On that occasion, 10,000 ballots were mailed out and 65 percent of them were returned. Of the votes recorded, 56 percent opposed the Hare-Hawes-Cutting law. The first Free Press straw vote had accurately reflected public opinion.
Then, in August and September of 1937, shortly after President Quezon returned from Washington where he had flirted with the idea of independence in 1939, the Free Press sent out 12,500 ballots asking whether the people favored or opposed shortening the transition period. In this case, 67 percent of the ballots were returned. There was some raising of eyebrows when the final result showed 55 percent opposing and only 45 percent favoring the shortening of the transition period. Yet subsequent events showed that the Free Press poll had once more mirrored public opinion. Today virtually no one favors a shorter transition period, and quicker independence would not be accepted in the Philippines unless it were accompanied by substantial economic concessions.
In July, another article mentioned the results:
“Only a few days ago,” argued Gullas, “a straw vote conducted by the FREE PRESS, a non-partisan and widely read weekly in the Philippines was concluded. The result was against reelection. Of course, it is not an absolute indication of how the public will vote. But it clearly shows which way the wind blows. It is a barometer of the sentiment of the people. Like a finger on the pulse, it counted, as it were, the heartbeats of the nation."
If you look at the chart above, you'll notice that after 1935, the electorate expanded substantially, so that in a mere five years, it basically doubled. You will also see, however, the relatively low participation both in plebiscites and elections by those registered to vote (particularly by today's standards, but remarked on even by contemporary observers). Contemporary observers attributed this mainly to the predictable outcome of elections, because of the essentially one-party nature of politics at the time, and the decades-long dominance of national leaders. Since the electorate was still rather limited during the prewar period, it also suggests greater cohesion between the electorate and their leaders; having more in common, there was much less to be controversial enough to excite the electorate and drive them to the polls.
World War II and the rise of a new generation of leaders during that time changed that; and then population growth accelerated to the extent that within twenty years after the end of the war, the electorate basically tripled; and in the twenty years of the Marcos administration the electorate then basically doubled; and since the fall of Marcos, the electorate has nearly doubled again.
From 1935 to the present, the population has quintupled; and the electorate, which was 45,029,443 in 2007, has increased twenty-eightfold in the same period. This is a massive increase that the political class, much as it is almost unrecognizable today from the one in power in the 1930s (decimated by the influx of middle class challengers in the 1950s and 1960s, and guerrillas, warlords, and former rebels in the same period and to date), has had great difficulty coping with. One answer has been to engage in gerrymandering, atomizing the constituencies to keep them manageable; another, has been to learn mass media methods, as well as wholesale fraud instead of the traditional retail kind; and another has been to propose revising the rules of the political game by means of constitutional amendments.
But as a percentage of the public, and of the electorate, I wonder if even if it turns out to be a bigger per capita population of politicians than, say, in the 1970s or 1930s, and even if the political class has to be much larger today if only because the population is much larger today, the political class isn't even more isolated today than it was during past periods of constitutional experimentation.
Put another way, even if the political map divides the country into an ever-increasing number of provinces and cities, all of which have their ruling families, and all of whom represent a national distribution of politicians, from a national point of view, however these politicians cobble together national coalitions, the demographics have become so lopsided that whenever acting in national terms, the electorate by its national composition, is almost irredeemably at odds with whatever it is the political class decides within its own ranks.
Simply put: whatever the political class, composed of politicians from all the provinces and cities of the country want, the chances are high that their desires are not in keeping with what the national electorate will want. And that's because, for all intents and purposes, the national electorate is heavily skewed, by force of numbers, towards what the electorate in the National Capitol Region and Regions III and IV-A want.
Consider this NSCB Chart from 2007:
The chart shows registered voters, distributed regionally. Consider the national, and not local, political leanings of the NCR and Region IV-A, and how those opinions would be reflected in any national undertaking such as a presidential election or a constitutional plebiscite.
I've tackled what I believe are required for success in proposing constitutional amendments in my November 26, 2008 entry, "The worm within"; you may want to review that.
But this time, here is a rundown of the dates, the issues, and outcomes of past constitutional plebiscites.
May 14, 1935: Ratification of the 1935 Constitution
I cannot find figures on the number of registered voters, nationally. This was actually the first nationwide vote the country had, in which the nation voted as such and not just for provincial or regional leaders.
I can't say if there was any change in the four months between the plebiscite on the constitution and the first national presidential elections held that September; but what observers did point out was that only slightly over half of the electorate bothered to vote. Most observers commented that this was because the outcome was practically predetermined. It is remarkable that more people seemed to have participated in the plebiscite on the Constitution than in the presidential election (however, it also seems to have been rainy in many areas during the September election, then as now, possibly lowering turnout).
A possible reason for higher turnout was that the plebiscite on the constitution was also, in a sense, a plebiscite on independence (see Why they voted against the constitution, June 1, 1935). Hence the very lopsided result in favor of the new constitution.
April 30, 1937: Women asked if they wanted suffrage
This was an unusual plebiscite, in that the voting was restricted to women, only, who were asked if they wanted suffrage for themselves. The suffragette movement had been active from the 1920s and particularly in the early 1930s so women's groups were extremely well organized to get out the vote.
(300,000 affirmative votes required for approval.)
October 24, 1939: Plebiscite on Economic Adjustment
This is perhaps the least well-known of all our constitutional plebiscites. See Primer on the plebiscite, October 21, 1939 for a summary of the issue.
Hayden, note 53 pp. 869-870, summarizes the whole thing as Amendments to the Tydings-McDuffie Act by Public Act No. 300, 76th Congress, August 7, 1939; Amendments to "Ordinance Appended to the Constitution of the Philippines," proposed by Resolution No. 39, adopted September 15, 1939, ratified October 24, 1939. Per Resolution 53, Second National Assembly, Third Special Session, November 3, 1939.
June 18, 1940: Presidential re-election; Senate elected at large; creation of Comelec
See United behind Quezon, July 15, 1939 for the maneuvering from 1935-1939; essentially practically the whole prewar period was used up by the debates on the issues of presidential re-election and the restoration of the Senate (unicameralism had won in the Constitutional Convention, not because the majority of delegates actually preferred it, but because opinion between the bicameralists was divided on the question of a Senate elected at large or according to senatorial districts); it took another year after that, for the actual campaign to overcome public resistance to the proposed amendments.
Hayden, Note 58 p. 870 gives an insight into the mechanics of the plebiscite:
Commonwealth Act No. 517, April 25, 1940. Proposed amendments published in English and Spanish in three consecutive issues of The Official Gazette, at least twenty days prior to the election; and copies of the amendments in these languages and principal native languages posted and made available for examination in the voting places.
Note 60 provides the official returns of the election of June 18, 1940, on the constitutional amendments proposed:
Question One: Establishment of a bicameral legislature
Question Two: Presidential and Vice-Presidential terms (from six years, no re-election, to four years with one re-election)
Question Three: Commission on Elections (creation of)
The first elections under the amended 1935 Constitution were held in November, 1941, but before the new Congress could convene, World War II broke out.
March 11, 1947: The Parity Amendment
On the proposed Parity Amendment to the Constitution:
See Report on the Plebiscite, April 5, 1947
After Parity, proposals began to be made for additional amendments to the Constitution, including revisiting the question of the form of government; most notably, because of their reputation as political thinkers and the prominent role they'd played in framing the 1935 Constitution, by Jose P. Laurel and Claro M. Recto in the 1950s and by President Macapagal during his incumbency.
During this period, the electorate greatly expanded, the control of the old political leaders and their party machines began to be disrupted and to decline; and public opinion began to matter more and more,Sidel, etc., Philippine Politics and Society in the Twentieth Century, pp.29-30 note 12, points out a demographic change of significance, too, considering the logistical aspect of any administration or official-initiated proposal for constitutional changes:
The actual number of voters almost doubled between 1951 and 1969 (from 4,391,109 in 1951 to 8,060,465 in 1969). Interestingly the number of registered voters showed an even greater increase from 4,754,307 in 1951 to 10,300,898 in 1969, which points to a dramatically widening gap between registered and actual voters.
November 14,1967: Increasing representatives; Members of Congress to sit in Convention
On March 16, 1967, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed a Joint Resolution that proposed constitutional amendments. Subsequently, the Congress passed Republic Act No. 4913, providing that the amendments to the Constitution proposed be submitted at the general elections to be held on November 14, 1967.
The referendum was on the amendment to Article VI, Section 5 and 16 of the 1935 Constitution. The proposed plebiscite was apparently challenged in the Supreme Court; it declined to intervene. The plebiscite is under-reported but was a highly significant one, in that it was the first and only time, plebiscite questions resulted in a rejection by the electorate.
Question One: Increasing number of congressmen from 120 to 180
Question Two: Allowing members of Congress to serve in the coming Constitutional Convention without forfeiting their seats.
Details are slim. All I've found is a footnote in Liang, citing Nick Joaquin, March 16, 1968:
"Of the 65 provinces, 62 rejected both issues; of the 50 chartered cities, 44 voted 'no' as against 2 voted 'yes'."
The immediate outcome of the rejection of Congress' proposals was Republic Act No. 6132, prohibiting any political party and public officer from being represented in the Constitutional Convention, which was adopted in reaction to public opinion. See my April 27, 2009 column The elimination of public opinion for Raul Manglapus' summary of events and the political implications of the plebiscite defeat:
According to Manglapus, politicians began to consider abolishing the [president's] four-year term (with one possible re-election for another term) in 1949, because of the controversial elections of that year. By the 1960s, legislators were also keenly interested in two other Constitution-related proposals: first, that the membership of the House should be increased; and second, for elections to be synchronized to save time and money.
In 1967, fulfilling the provisions of the 1935 Constitution, Congress began sitting in joint session to consider these proposals, but no consensus could be reached on restoring a single six-year presidential term and on synchronized elections; there was agreement, though, to increase the number of representatives.
At which point, according to Manglapus, “someone said, ‘Since we cannot agree and we cannot keep on meeting in joint sessions because the public will demand that we cease this futile exercise, let us call a Convention.’”
But, Manglapus added, “the intention of course was that the Congressmen and the Senators were to control the Convention. And therefore when somebody said, ‘Let us call a Convention, anyway we can all be members of that Convention and we can control it,’ some other members of the House said ‘We cannot because we are inhibited by the present Constitution.’”
Clever colleagues proposed a solution: “All we have to do is amend the present Constitution at the same time that we pass the increase of seats in the House. We will say ‘However, a senator or congressman may be a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.’”
The problem was that any amendment had to be submitted to the people; Manglapus related that public opinion was disgusted with such a self-serving proposal, the result being “84 percent of them said ‘no.’ And the next morning the Senators and Congressmen woke up to find they had created a frankenstein monster. They had called a Constitutional Convention and they were not going to control it. And so they began to make noises that there was no need for the Convention, that [it] would be expensive… [and] cheaper and more convenient for the Senators and Congressmen to resume their work as a constituent assembly.”
Public opinion forced Congress to pass a Constitutional Convention Act, according to Manglapus, and deprived the political professionals of the fruits of victory twice over.
As I pointed out, as things turned out, robbing the political class of control over the 1971 Convention may have predisposed it to accepting Marcos' solution: to force the Convention to accept his own draft, while ensuring general compliance by offering delegates seats in a new parliament on condition they approved Marcos' draft.
1973-1984: The New Society Plebiscites
As for the Marcos "plebiscites" from 1973 to 1984, they were conducted in a manner entirely different from the 1935-1967 plebiscites and that held in 1987. So they are not part of a piece. What Marcos was trying to capitalize on was the familiarity of the public with referenda as a democratic process.
Marcos's political problem was that his 1969 term expired on December 30, 1973; and that, ideally, the extinction of the 1935 Constitution should be accomplished by means of the process set out in it. He seems to have been concerned that the Supreme Court might become the focus of resistance to his plans, as cases challenging martial law began to clog the court's docket. An additional problem arose, when some senators tried to organize a ruckus in Congress, in time for the 1973 Regular Session scheduled to begin on January 22, 1973.
The Constitutional Convention had approved a draft acceptable to President Marcos in late 1972 and presented it to him, formally, on December 1, 1972; he'd accordingly issued a proclamation calling for a plebiscite to ratify or reject the new Constitution.
It seems that Marcos got wind of the possibility public opinion had swung against ratification. So if he held a plebiscite, he might lose; and win or lose, Congress or at least the Senate if not the House, seemed hell-bent on challenging martial law when it resumed session on January 22; that challenge, among other things, might stiffen the spine of the Supreme Court. So something had to be done before January 22.
This concern is reflected in his December 23, 1972 announcement postponing the plebiscite; statements in December 29 in the state-controlled media warning of a "constitutional crisis" if senators insisted on convening in January, 1973; then, his decree creating Barangay Assemblies on January 5; then, having created a new mechanism, his January 7 order stating that the plebiscite originally scheduled for January 15 might be held on February 19 or March 15 as alternate dates; in other words, he postponed the only option, a plebiscite, to create two tracks, the barangay or citizens' assembly and plebiscite paths.
Prior to martial law, Marcos had been admiringly described by his critics as engaging in Ju-Jitsu, and he handled the possibility that Congress would convene, under the provisions of the 1935 Constitution, and the difficulty represented by a plebiscite in the old manner leading to the rejection of the new constitution, by scrapping the rules.
He lowered the voting age from 18 to15 and illiterates were allowed to vote. From January 10 to 15, a series of "citizens' assemblies" were held, in lieu of a plebiscite in the manner specified by the 1935 Constitution. The "results" of the January 10-15, 1973 were:
Question One: Whether to adopt the proposed (1973) Constitution:
14,976,561 (90.67%) Yes
743,869 (9.33%) No
Question Two: Whether the public still wanted a plebiscite to be called to ratify the Constitution:
With total valid votes at 15,720,430 (compare this figure with the 1967 plebiscite and 1969 presidential election figures; the Supreme Court itself, in its decision on the "ratification" of the 1973 Constitution, mentioned "the total number of registered voters 21 years of age or over in the entire Philippines, available in January 1973, was less than 12 million": this suggests the boost in voting numbers provided by relaxing voting requirements such as age or literacy; except that Marcos, as a shrewd and self-confident strategist, didn't rely on subordinates to scrounge around for a "will I win by 1 million" margin, but rather, created an infintely safer margin for himself of nearly 3 million votes!).
Two days later (January 17), President Marcos certified that the new constitution had been ratified. And then, he padlocked Congress, which he argued, was now defunct. All that was left was for the Supreme Court to declare the process valid. This, the Supreme Court did in Javellana v. Executive Secretary on March 31, 1973. Chief Justice Concepcion wrote the decision, stated his objections, and retired ahead of schedule in muted protest.
Marcos as a political strategist and tactician can be seen in his own diary entries, showing how in 1972, on September 24 (the day after he proclaimed martial law) he bluntly warned the Supreme Court that any effort to question his proclamation might provoke him into proclaiming a revolutionary government, which would mean shutting down the Supreme Court; September 26 (or three days after he proclaimed martial law) he was still telling subordinates that Congress and the Constitutional Convention would be untouched; and in 1973: January 13 (marshaling support among allies for his own draft of the proposed new constitution was what was going to be "ratified"), on January 23, he once again reviewed the option of simply proclaiming a revolutionary government; January 24 (citizen's assemblies instead of a secret ballot in a plebiscite), on January 27, expressing satisfaction with how everyone has fallen in line, and contemptuously noting the Justices of the Supreme Court seemed inclined to fall in line too, as long as he reassured them they could keep their jobs. And so, once success had been achieved, how the plebiscite route became his favored option for validating his rule; see May 5 and July 5-6.
And his self-satisfaction a year after proclaiming martial law, see September 22.
For my purposes, it's not relevant to rehash the Marcos plebiscites which you can find in Wikipedia.
Now another demographic change.
From the Marcos years to the present, the electorate has basically doubled. The NSCB chart below is taken from A Statistical Analysis of Voters’ Registration and Participation from 2004.
February 2, 1987: Ratification of the 1987 Constitution
The results were as follows:
17,059,495 (76.37%) Yes
5,058,714 (26.65%) No
That percentage, if you look at the surveys, has only dipped by about 10%; public opposition for amendments, and therefore a tacit endorsement of the 1987 Charter, has been fairly consistent at around 66% over the past eight years or so. Considering the conventional wisdom that people have generally been disappointed over things have turned out since 1986, this is a remarkably high retention of support for the Charter.