POSTSCRIPT / March 11, 2001 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Voters’ registration is feasible -- if we want it

THE law itself is the serious obstacle to the registration at this late date of around 4 million youths who have failed to sign up. The election law prohibits registration within 120 days of an election, and it is only 63 days before the May 14 polls.

To go around this, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as well as other taxpayers and organizations have suggested the holding of a special session of Congress to amend the law and allow late registration.

It seems to the Commission on Elections, however, that even the calling of a special session may not be able to fast-track the proposed registration and other preparations in time for the May 14 elections.

* * *

ASSUMING Congress could meet and amend the law, the Comelec says that the polls may have to be pushed back, possibly to August. This could result, it says, in our not having new officials between June 30 when the incumbents bow out and the proclamation of the winners in August.

We’re not ready to swallow this dire scenario being peddled by the Comelec. If Congress could pass the amendment this coming week, and with everybody cooperating, we could schedule another one-day registration within this month.

After the law is amended, all that is left is purely a management process. If the Comelec needs help along this line, there are many expert managers from the business community who would gladly help the poll body.

* * *

BUT if Congress, especially the bigger House of Representatives, cannot convene fast enough for a special session, we see as fallback the forging of an informal agreement, actually a conspiracy of sorts, among the major elements involved in the process.

Counting Congress out of the action plan (if it is too late to convene it anyway), the elements that must agree to the, huh, conspiracy are Malacañang, the Supreme Court, the Comelec, and the major political parties and coalitions.

* * *

THIS is roughly how we see the plan working:

  1. Acting on the class suit of a UP coed asking to be allowed to register, the Supreme Court rushes a favorable decision substantially saying that such a late registration does not violate the spirit of the law and ordering the Comelec to give the petition due course.
  2. The Comelec says okay and asks Malacañang for funds. The Palace releases the money and a one-day registration takes place. For expediency, Malacañang and the Comelec should prepare the paperwork even while the coed’s petition is being heard.
  3. Political parties must agree not to object or move to derail the special registration of voters. Just one serious objection and the action plan fails.

Remember, we are assuming all the elements involved agree to cooperate.

* * *

WE start thinking of such unusual remedies, because the legal fact is that if the letter of the law were to be followed strictly, no more registration could take place between now and May 14.

That would deny some 4 million youths from exercising their right to vote. Yes, but what can we do? That’s the law. Those who had failed to register may not claim ignorance of the law.

However, the law is what the Supreme Court says it is. Now if the tribunal would say that another registration would not violate the spirit of the law and would in fact give flesh to the mandate of the Constitution on suffrage, what can we do?

Again invoking the highest law which is public welfare, the Supreme Court could break new ground and display some creative thinking and statesmanship.

* * *

OBVIOUSLY, we can pull off this plan only if there is an informal agreement (or a spontaneous meeting of the minds) of all the elements involved. If we all want to hold a special registration of voters, it could be done within the law.

The money part of the problem has been ironed out with GMA promising that the government would produce the money somehow.

To compress time and rule out snafus, somebody has to orchestrate the action plan.

Since there is mutual suspicion between Malacañang and the opposition, non-government sectors that are not identified with any political party or candidate could play the role of go-between.

* * *

SO far, the serious objection we have heard from the opposition to giving young voters a chance to register arises from its suspicion that the youth are disposed to side with the People Power Coalition.

This probably arose from their observation that many students participated in Edsa II that led to the departure of ex-President Estrada.

We beg the opposition to disabuse its mind of this fear that the young voters would rally around the PPC candidates. We’ve talked to many youth leaders and we see them as discerning and not easily swayed.

Our assessment is that nobody controls the youth. They are fiercely independent and may even display at times a tendency to be oppositionist. There is no reason for the opposition to fear the youth.

If we are to nurture their concern and encourage their continued interest in public affairs, the best thing we could do is to involve them in the electoral process.

* * *

MANY people have asked why former First Lady Loi Ejercito, a very private person, suddenly thought of running for the Senate when her husband Erap Estrada was removed from the presidency.

The answer may lie in Section 10 of Article IX (C. Commission on Elections), which says: “Bona fide candidates for any public office shall be free from any form of harassment and discrimination.”

Interpreted liberally, this could cloak a candidate like the former First Lady with some form of untouchability during the campaign at least. This could come in handy if push comes to shove in the processing of charges being filed against her and her husband.

* * *

THIS could also explain partly why presidential crony Mark Jimenez, whose extradition is being demanded by the United States, is running for a congressional seat.

It’s not a sure-fire shield against legal action and harassment, but it helps if one is a candidate, then probably a senator or a congressman.

There is also the other point of immunity from arrest as enshrined in Section 11 of Article VI (The Legislative Department) which is music to the ears of legislators:

“A Senator or Member of the House of Representatives shall, in all offenses punishable by not more than six years imprisonment, be privileged from arrest while Congress is in session….”

Nothing is said about extradition and facing charges in a foreign court. But this and other provisions of law, plus the traditional influence of lawmakers, will help.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 11, 2001)

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