122 years ago today, the First Philippine Republic was proclaimed with the ratification of its constitution, the one we now know today as the Malolos Constitution. Unfortunately, this constitution, along with the republic, did not realize its full potential with the outbreak of the Philippine-American War a month later which led to the country falling under American rule by 1901.
Unfortunately, the legacy of the Malolos Constitution was forgotten as succeeding constitutions sought inspiration elsewhere rather than from the one the Malolos Constitution established. Thus as the discussions on constitutional reform flare up anew, it is time to reexamine this constitution and see if we can derive from it.
Best and compatible inspirations to draw from
According to the constitution’s primary author Felipe Calderon, he drew inspiration in crafting the Malolos Constitution from the Spanish constitution of 1812, the French constitution of 1793, as well as the constitutions in force at that time in Belgium, Mexico, Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. This is in contrast with the succeeding constitutions of the country, which primarily drew inspiration from the United States constitution and not much else.
The fact that the Malolos Constitution took inspiration from such diverse sources indicated that the Malolos delegates were at the very least enthusiastic to learn from the examples of as many countries as possible. And they did not just look at random countries. They specifically looked at countries that share a history and heritage with ours, as was the case for Spain and various countries in the Americas that used to be Spanish colonies.
They also looked at those that have a well-established legacy of liberty and democratic values. And no, it is not the United States but France. Remember that the French Revolution is one historical event that piqued the interest of many Filipinos as they were beginning to consider the idea of independence from Spain, like Andres Bonifacio who famously had a book on that particular subject.
Suffice to say, the Malolos delegates were passionate about crafting a good constitution for the Philippines, one that espoused the ideals of democracy and liberty while meets the unique historical and cultural landscape of the country. And they weren’t shy of learning and taking inspiration from a variety of sources that they had available.
Concise and comprehensible document
Whether reading the original in Spanish or its translations in English or Tagalog, the Malolos Constitution is itself not a lengthy document. Granted the needs of a state were not as much then as they would be now and the constitution itself was vague or silent on important provisions, it was able to sufficiently cover what needed to be covered as concise as possible.
Also worth noting is that this constitution was written quite comprehensibly. Easy enough to read for even non-lawyers to appreciate. There were no legalese gobbledygook to baffle the common folk and it was as straightforward as it can get. That is an achievement in itself considering a sizeable portion of the Malolos Congress delegates were lawyers.
Foundations for parliamentarism
A striking feature of the Malolos Constitution is that while it envisioned a republican state with the President as head, it did not actually establish a presidential system that we have today. Instead, what it established was sort of a parliamentary government, in which the President of the Republic is actually to be elected by the legislature, which the constitution calls the “Assembly of Representatives of the Nation.” This also meant the President would be answerable to the Assembly ensuring greater accountability unlike in the present presidential system.
Interestingly, while the President of the Republic is considered the head of state, the executive powers of a head of government lies with him as well. However, he does not hold all the powers of the executive. Instead these powers are exercised by the Council of Government, headed by a President of the Council, which scholars consider as the equivalent of a Prime Minister, and the cabinet secretaries.
Another power structure established in the constitution is the Permanent Commission, which has some of the powers of legislature and that of a head of state. The commission’s powers include:
- Declare whether or not there is sufficient cause to take legal action against the President, the Representatives, the Secretaries of Government, the President of the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Solicitor General
- Convene the Assembly in “extraordinary session” in certain cases.
- Act on unresolved matters as may be determined accordingly
- Substitute the Assembly in performing the Assembly’s powers except in creating and passing laws.
One can imagine that had the First Philippine Republic survived longer, the structure of government have been amended further to make the structure somewhat simpler. It might probably go by the French example which had the full parliamentary system in place by then (before Charles de Gaulle made the French government a semi-presidential one). In any case, a parliamentary system of some form would have made the difference for the country.
No (restrictive) economic policies
Another sensible thing the delegates of the Malolos Congress did was to make sure there were no restrictive economic policies that were included in the constitution they drafted. Come to think of it, that constitution had no economic policies stated…at all. And that is because the delegates knew all to well that a constitution should focus on establishing the basic foundations of a state, particularly the identity of the state, the rights of the people, and the form of government that shall administer the state.
It must also be noted that at the time, the Philippines was experiencing economic growth thanks in part to foreign-owned businesses that set up shop in the country. As an example, it was a British trading firm, JM Fleming and Co., that provided employment to Andres Bonifacio before he went on to establish the Katipunan. The influx continued after the Philippine Revolution ended, with the likes of Swiss businessman Frederick Zuellig establishing Zuellig Pharma in the country in 1903.
Room for growth
While the Malolos Constitution itself was a short document and lacked some important provisions, it was neither a restricted nor restrictive constitution. In fact, there is room for further growth and evolution for this constitution had the First Philippine Republic managed to survive beyond the Philippine-American War. Considering that the First Philippine Republic envisioned the Mindanao, including the Moro-held areas as part of the country, it can be assumed that some arrangements would have to be made in order to fully integrate the area into the country. And a federal arrangement would have been one of the considerations to be made.
In fact, the federalism question was already raised during the time the constitution was being drafted, as the revolutionaries in Iloilo were keen on having a decentralized government in which Panay would be a federal state under the Philippine Republic. And while the Philippine Republic under President Emilio Aguinaldo did not oppose the foundation of that federal state that ould be known as the Estado Federal de Visayas on December 2, 1898, the constitution would not have a provision for a federal system. Eventually, the Malolos central government seemed to have instigated the fall of the federal state later in 1899.
With all its shortcomings and its limited scope compared to subsequent Philippine constitutions, the Malolos Constitution remains the standard not only because it is the constitution of what is considered as the first republic in Asia. It was an example of a constitution that emulated not only the best of what the world had to offer but also the ones that were well-suited to the political, cultural, and economic conditions of the country. to the Moreso, it was a constitution that did not restrict itself and the country it is written for and made room for the continuing evolution and development of the country.
It is high time we look again at the Malolos Constitution and draw from its legacy a way for the Philippines to move forward and onward with a better constitution that we deserve.