MANILA, Philippines -- The conversation on charter change and federalism needs to continue despite national attention being on the May elections, and the conversation needs to be more inclusive so more Filipinos will buy in to the idea.


Dr. Julio Teehankee, professor of Political Science and International Studies at De La Salle University and a member of the Consultative Committee to Review the 1987 Constitution, said Friday that charter change should be an election issue as the Philippines prepares to elect new leaders and legislators.


It is not, however, and Ronald Golding, director general of the Senate Economic Planning Office, said advocates of federalism need to keep the discourse on charter change going, especially with a "new set of legislators who will decide if charter change is worth pursuing or not."


Both were speakers at the National Forum and Launch of the Policy Report on Prospects and Proposals for Charter Change and Federalism in Makati on April 5.


Dr. Sakuntala Kadirgamar--executive director of the Law and Society Trust, Sri Lanka--said the Philippines need to "localize" the process of writing a new constitution, both by considering how the changes will affect regular people and in getting them to participate in and contribute towards the new draft of the basic law.


"Today, citizens want to be consulted, but if they do not understand the process, they expect their government and civil society to explain it to them," she said in response to a point raised by legislative and policy consultant Atty. Michael Yusingco: That 75% of Filipinos have little to no appreciation of the 1987 Constitution to begin with.


Kadirgamar said the new draft constitution should be put in plain language to better explain it to the people who will decide on it at a referendum. "Find a way to explain it to people if you want them to vote for it and to live by it," she said.


"You have to ask yourself how it will transform the lives of the non-elites," she also stressed.


President Rodrigo Duterte made the shift to federalism a campaign promise in the 2016 polls and said in July 2018 that he is confident that Filipinos will support the shift despite a Pulse Asia survey in June of that year found 67% of respondents did not want the 1987 charter amended. Sixty-two percent of respondents also said they were against going federal.


Coupled with surveys suggesting charter change is not a priority for most Filipinos, the campaign for federalism faces a complex and complicated road ahead, a fact that panelists acknowledged.


Amanda Cats-Baril, an international lawyer and International IDEA's Constitution-building advisor for the Asia Pacific, said people can be made to understand that even if "charter change is on the bottom of a population's concern… a federal system could affect issues like job creation" that many consider a priority.


She said there should be more consultations during the constitution writing process since a "more participatory process improves engagement in the process."


Kadirgamar, who called charter change both a process and a dialogue, noted there is "nothing to stop local communities from listening to their people and provide a draft" of how they would like the new system of government to be. "I hope you seize the moment for that."


Although federalism is no longer in the headlines as much, Local Government Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya assured panelists and participants that the government's Inter-Agency Task Force on Federalism and Constitutional Reform has continued to work quietly on the Bayanihan Federalism draft that the ConCom submitted to the president in July 2018.


He said consultations are ongoing and that agencies included in the IATF are expected to submit data-driven proposals by May for consolidation. He added the work on the draft will be transparent and that reports will be "made available for everybody to scrutinize."


Malaya added that government is working on a draft that will withstand comments and criticisms earlier hurled at the ConCom's Bayanihan Federalism draft. "We should be ready to defend this in Plaza Miranda," he said.