Faced with the prospect of unending street protests, Malacañang on Friday clarified that President Benigno Aquino III was not supporting any moves to amend the Constitution during the remaining two years of his term.
The President never said in the much-analysed TV5 interview that he wanted Charter change (Cha-cha) to happen now, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said on Friday.
"I think we're getting a little bit ahead of ourselves. What I remember the President say was that he's thinking about it. He didn't say, 'Let's do this tomorrow.' He did not say anything about doing it tomorrow, doing it next week, doing it in the next few months," she said.
The Palace also distanced itself from administration lawmakers in the House of Representatives campaigning to introduce amendments to the Constitution.
The President never issued any go-signal to his allies to do this, said Valte.
"Those are their own actions and their own advocacies," she said, adding that this was "borne out of their own judgment." Neither is the President advocating clipping the powers of the judiciary, Valte said.
If at all, Mr. Aquino "indicated his openness to Charter change to restore the balance" between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, she said.
Valte said it would be best for everyone to just wait for TV5 to air the interview in full, possibly on Sunday, before commenting further. Aquino about-face
Mr. Aquino's comments in the one-and-half-hour-long interview with TV5 last Wednesday have been interpreted as an about-face on his previous opposition to Charter change, so that he was now advocating constitutional amendments in order to clip the powers of the judiciary, and to lift the one-term limit for the President so he can run for a second term in 2016.
He has drawn heavy flak for his comments, with senators, constitutional experts and the clergy saying that he would be undoing the legacy of his mother, the late President Corazon Aquino, and warned of street protests and court suits.
The Constitution was enacted during the administration of the President's mother, who became President after the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in 1986.
"You know, like the President said in the last Sona (State of the Nation Address), I think he is one of the best people to be aware of what the legacy of his parents are," Valte said of the criticisms.
Some senators yesterday doubted that Mr. Aquino would forsake his mother's legacy and push for Charter change during his term. "I seriously doubt if the President will cross the legacy of President Cory," said Senate Minority Leader Vicente Sotto III.
"I remember what Cory told FVR (former President Fidel V. Ramos) when he (Ramos) was pushing for Cha-cha: 'Eddie, do not believe people around you who say you are indispensable,'" Sotto added.
Sotto said he would never lend support to any move to change the Constitution. "No way, Sir," he said.
Administration ally Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara said he doubted that the President was "dead-set" on seeking a second term through Charter change.
"Expressing openness is not quite the same as saying one wishes to run again unequivocally. His own statements seem to say if there is a clamour he will consider, otherwise he will step down in 2016," Angara said in a text message.
Mr. Aquino's party mate, Sen. Ralph Recto, urged the government "to mute the Cha-cha music on changing political provisions" and focus on delivering basic services.
Given the negative reaction to the President's statements, Recto said it may not be prudent for the administration to push for Charter change now.
"It would be best to avoid political uncertainty at this point. Many are already jittery and there are a lot of problems needing greater focus-the power situation, possibly a water shortage next year, the poor state of airports, and mass transport, the inequitable tax system, the rehab of typhoon areas," he said.
Open to discussion Senators Antonio Trillanes IV, Bam Aquino and Grace Poe expressed openness to debating the President's proposals.
Trillanes said he was open to discussing the possible lifting of the single-term limit and clipping the powers of the judiciary, as long as these do not benefit Mr. Aquino himself.
"Personally, for as long as he would subject himself to an election in 2016, I don't see any problem," Trillanes said.
Otherwise, the Nacionalista Party, which is part of the administration coalition, would meet to come up with a party position, he added. Bam Aquino, the President's cousin, said: "Each and every point will have to be debated on and discussed thoroughly. We have a process for Charter change that we need to follow. We'll also have to discuss economic provisions which I think are just as important." Poe said she didn't view the President's statements in the interview as a marching order to push Charter change to make it possible for him to run for a second term.
"I don't read the statement of the President as a marching order for us to merely extend his term in office. I would like to remain hopeful that his statement will encourage a constructive debate on how we can make sure that the Constitution remains relevant," she said in a text message.
The Promotion of Church People's Response (PCPR) advocacy group said the President should focus on the vital issues and the problems in Mindanao instead of the 2016 elections.
"This early, our government's attention is unfortunately fixed on the elections in 2016," said PCPR secretary general Nardy Sabino in a post on the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) website.
The issues affecting the people of Mindanao are being sidelined because of the administration's premature obsession with the 2016 presidential election, he said.
The government must prioritize important concerns like the creation of a so-called "Bangsamoro" entity in Mindanao as part of an overall peace plan to solve the decades-old Muslim insurgency.
CBCP president Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas said he could not lend support to constitutional amendments that "merely serve the purposes of one office-holder or one class of persons."
Constitutional amendments are justified only when they "redound to the benefit of the nation and address long-festering problems arising out of ambiguities in the Constitution," he said.
Villegas said he is also not in favour of curbing the powers of the Supreme Court which serves as the only recourse of ordinary Filipinos against abuses by those in power.
"We cannot support the proposed curtailment of the power of judicial review. Against the heavy hand of the State or transgressions of the Constitution by politicians, judicial review is the only recourse of the hapless citizen," he said.
Aquino's frame of mind
Continuing to explain the President's statements in the TV interview, Valte said Mr. Aquino was now at the stage of "thinking" about Charter change in light of "judicial overrreach" and judicial reform.
This was his frame of mind when he sat down for the interview with TV5, she said.
"He's at that stage where he's just thinking about it, let's just make it clear, in light of recent developments. And two things I remember, judicial overreach and judicial reform. He was quite emphatic on that point," she said.
The administration is still smarting from the rebuff it suffered from the Supreme Court which voted 13-0 to strike down its so-called economic stimulus programme, the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) that was introduced in 2011.
Valte said that if the President had indicated an openness to Charter change it was to restore the balance among the three branches-the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
It was not about clipping judicial power, said Valte, who said she was present at the interview.
"He talked about restoring a certain balance between the executive, the Congress, and the judiciary. So, from what I understand from his answers they were far from saying that the power should be clipped. He gave particular examples to emphasise his point," she added.
Valte also said that there was no contradiction between Mr. Aquino's openness to Charter change and his intention to endorse a "friend" as a possible successor after he steps down in June 2016.