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Lawmakers start debates on Charter change

PHILIPPINE lawmakers will start debating in plenary on Monday proposed changes to economic provisions of a three-decade-old Constitution supposedly to attract foreign investment and help the economy recover amid a coronavirus pandemic.

“This is scheduled for sponsorship and debates tomorrow,” Party-list Rep. Alfredo A. Garbin, Jr., who heads the House of Representatives committee on constitutional amendments, said in a mobile phone message on Sunday.

The House body this month adopted a resolution allowing Congress to lift restrictive economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution.

Lawmakers agreed to insert the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law” in parts of the Charter that limit foreign ownership in certain Philippine industries, according to a statement posted on the House website.

This will allow Congress to pass a law later relaxing ownership limits.

Lawmakers agreed not to touch a section of the basic law that bars foreigners from owning land, the House said.

The changes will be made under three articles on the national patrimony and economy; education, science and technology; and general provisions, for a total of seven changes.

The voting coincided with the 34th anniversary of the ratification of the 1987 Constitution, which Mr. Garbin described as a “living Constitution” that is “far from being perfect.”

Mr. Garbin said congressmen would avoid touching any political clauses of the Charter that critics fear they might use to favor incumbent officials before the general elections next year.

Only the provisions on foreign equity would be revised, he said

The six-year term of President Rodrigo R. Duterte, who is barred by law from running for reelection, will end in 2022.

Plenary debates on constitutional changes had been postponed several times. Mr. Garbin earlier said he expects the debates to breeze through the House.

Speaker Lord Allan Q. Velasco, who authored the resolution, wants to liberalize the economic restrictions in the Charter and let Congress enact laws that will free up the economy to foreign investors.

Mr. Velasco said foreign investment plays a crucial role in the Philippine economy by supporting domestic jobs and creating physical and knowledge capital across a range of industries.

The Speaker last week said his resolution was backed by all major political parties and power blocs in the House.

Lawmakers who voted no said Charter change was “ill-timed” and would affect Filipino businesses.

Party-list Rep. Carlos Isagani T. Zarate has noted that if Charter change starts now, foreigners would gobble up what is left in the country’s liberalized economy.

But the House said lifting foreign investment restrictions could improve foreign direct investment inflows (FDI), particularly in restricted sectors.

Easing the restrictions could lead to an additional average annual FDI of P330 billion pesos ($6.8 billion) and generate 6.6 million jobs over 10 years, it added, citing Bicol Rep. Jose Maria Clemente S. Salceda.

Party-list Rep. Michael Edgar Y. Aglipay, one of the House leaders involved in the preparation for “Cha-cha” hearings, earlier said lawmakers would not try to change political provisions of the Constitution.

He said they wanted to form a constituent assembly by the end of the month. A plebiscite for proposed changes could coincide with the presidential elections in May 2022, he added.

Opposition senators last month thumbed down the fresh Charter change push at the House, saying it was likely to fail and waste lawmakers’ time.

Senator Franklin M. Drilon said Charter change has a zero chance of success in any administration that is already in the home stretch. President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s six-year term will end next year. He is barred by law from running for reelection.

Senator Francis N. Pangilinan, who heads the committee on constitutional amendments, had also questioned the timing of the Charter change push.

Harry L. Roque, Mr. Duterte’s spokesman, has said Charter change is the last thing on the President’s mind, adding that Mr. Duterte would rather focus on battling the coronavirus pandemic.

Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III earlier said Charter amendments would have a better chance of hurdling the chamber if these are limited to changing the party-list system and easing economic restrictions. — G.M. Cortez

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