‘…for the two presidential elections that interest me, I equate the officeholders with the contractual workers so common in local enterprises, those we call “endo” because their contracts end at a certain point in time right before the law kicks in and makes them regulars. Trump in the United States, who is eligible for re-election, and PRRD here, who is not.’

    GEORGE Washington was a rare breed. The first president of the United States was voted into office at a time when there was no written limit on the number of terms anyone could serve. But Washington only served two terms from 1789 to 1797, and then chose not to run for a third. When he retired to his estate in Virginia, it set an unwritten practice in place that a US president would only serve for two terms.

    Franklin Roosevelt changed all that. Elected in 1932 at the time of the Great Depression, he easily won re-election in 1936 and a “three-peat” in 1940. During his term he was enjoying approval ratings of between 50 to 60%. But Roosevelt died just as his fourth term was beginning in 1945, and was succeeded by Harry Truman.

    With Roosevelt dead, the US Congress (led by Republicans) drew up Amendment No. XXII limiting a person to two elections as president with a term of four years each. In effect, a president could effectively serve 10 years in office; this can happen if a vice president succeeds a president with two years left in the latter’s term. Under the Amendment he or she can then run for a four-year term and run for re-election thereafter.

    While Amendment No. XXII exempted the incumbent (Truman) from its coverage, which meant that Truman could have tried for a second term in 1952 (and a third term in 1956 and so on) if he wanted to. But after being elected to the presidency in 1948, Truman did not run in 1952; the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson, who lost to Dwight Eisenhower of the Republican Party. Eisenhower, in effect, was the first US president who served under the two-term limit of the Amendment, and indeed he so served. He was re-elected in 1956, and in 1960 the Republicans nominated Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, as their candidate. Nixon, of course, lost to the Democrat, John F. Kennedy.

    Since Eisenhower, only five US presidents have won re-election (Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Obama) and only four (Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama) have served the full eight terms.

    In the Philippines, we have been used to term limits from the start. Under the 1935 Constitution, a president was limited to two four-year terms – and no president except Ferdinand Marcos was able to run for re-election and win. When Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, things changed:  the 1935 Constitution was replaced by the 1973 Constitution (as amended), creating a parliament and a prime minister but which kept the power in the Office of the President. People Power in 1986 overthrew Marcos and his Constitutional structure, and a fully-appointed Constitutional Commission revived the tripartite form of government that the 1935 Constitution had established, with one catch: the president was now only electable to a single term of six years. Since 1986, six (Cory, Ramos, Erap, GMA, PNoy and PRRD) have been elected president. Four (Cory, Ramos, GMA and PNoy) have served the full six-year term, with PRRD going to be the fifth. One (Erap) had his term cut short by People Power, and one (GMA) was able to serve almost 10 years after serving out the unfinished term of Estrada (2001-2004) and then her own six -year term (2004-2010).

    Here is the more interesting thing: since 1986, there have been two presidencies during which talks (or moves) were taken to amend the Constitution with the objective of doing away with the six-year term limit of the president. The first was during the presidency of Fidel Ramos; his supporters launched a “Pirma” campaign to get people to sign a petition calling for Charter Change. But the effort met stiff resistance, and the 1997 Asian financial crisis also weighed down on FVR during the end of his term. FVR in 1998 presided over the transition of the presidency to his vice president, Joseph Estrada.

    A second “attempt” was mulled during the GMA presidency, but nothing came of it for many reasons, including the ghost of the 2004 elections and the “Hello Garci” scandal plus a number of other issues related to corruption allegations. In 2010 GMA turned over the presidency to Benigno Aquino III.

    When Rodrigo Duterte was elected president in 2016 he made it clear that Charter Change was on his agenda. Ostensibly, the objective of Cha-Cha (as it is called) is to transform the Philippines from a central to a federal republic; federalism, its proponents suggest, is a major system correction that will spur development in regions that suffer from the centralized power of “Imperial” Manila.

    But, as in the past, critics of Cha-Cha center on fears that one result of the effort would be to do away with term limits. It doesn’t help proponents that some of the more vocal Cha-Cha advocates have actually pointed to term limits as a “problem.” There are those who argue that we should return to a two, four-year presidency – as is the case in the US and as was the case before Marcos. Others are even for a presidency of 12 years – the same length of service a senator has.

    Still others want to do away with the presidency and institute a parliament, lodging the executive power in the prime minister. Proponents argue that a parliamentary system makes it easier to remove an unpopular leader from office; all you need is a vote of no confidence among members of parliament and the prime minister is ousted.

    I think I’ve debated every side of every argument: for a six-year term, against a six-year term; for a two-four year term or against it. For a prime minister chosen by the members of parliament, and against a prime minister. Each side has its good points, as well as its dangers. One is not really “better” than the other. In any situation, a good leader can serve well under any set-up, and a bad leader can damage a country under any set-up.

    What to me is most important is securing for the people their ultimate control over he or she who has his hand on the levers of power, albeit for a temporary period of time, because George Washington IS a rare breed – a man who gives up power when no rule requires him to do so. It is too tempting for a leader to sit there and plot with his cabal to keep him there longer, if not for life; and when other elements of the government are corrupted (the courts, the military and the police) then the people will be hard put to resist.

    That’s why, for the two presidential elections that interest me, I equate the officeholders with the contractual workers so common in local enterprises, those we call “endo” because their contracts end at a certain point in time right before the law kicks in and makes them regulars. Trump in the United States, who is eligible for re-election, and PRRD here, who is not.

    I am personally looking forward to Trump coming to the end of his contract in November, making him an #endo2020 by the power of the voters; while I look forward to a smooth transition from PRRD to the next Philippine president in July 2022, making PRRD the #endo2022 by the force of the Constitution.

    Since there is only one George Washington, then let the voters through the ballot or the law through a provision in the Constitution determine that it is time for a leader to go.


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