POSTSCRIPT / December 20, 2005 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Parliament setup shuts out Pinoy voters abroad?

DISENFRANCHISED: Expect questions, or even howls of protest, from overseas Filipino voters on the proposals submitted by the Consultative Commission on changing the government setup to a unitary parliamentary system.

Under the Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003 (RA 9189), qualified Filipinos working or residing abroad are allowed to vote only for the president, vice president, senators and party-list representatives — meaning officials with national constituencies.

In the Con-Com proposals submitted last week to President Gloria Arroyo, the President and the Prime Minister are to be elected internally by members of Parliament from among themselves.

Also under the Con-Com proposals, Cabinet ministers — who are national officials in a sense, because their work and concerns are national in scope and character — are to be appointed, not elected.

So, whom will overseas Filipinos vote for under the proposed system? NOBODY! Unless, of course, we now hurriedly amend RA 9189.

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GALES OF PROTEST: The key officials who will be elected under the proposed unitary parliamentary system are only the members of Parliament.

Since MPs are in fact local representatives, like our congressmen are now, they are not national officials who can be the object of absentee overseas voting under RA 9189.

After lobbying mightily for about 15 years and finally winning an overseas absentee voting law, the estimated seven million qualified Filipino voters abroad would be deprived suddenly of their newly acquired right?

Many of them have not even used this right because the cumbersome and badly timed administrative requirements inserted into RA 9189 had prevented their being able to vote in the 2004 presidential election.

Filipino voters abroad have not used their newly won right of suffrage, and now it would be taken away from them? Expect protests reverberating from across the seas.

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SAME-SAME: The MPs are to be drawn from parliamentary districts, which are like the present congressional districts, except that there may be reapportionment later of areas and populations to constitute new political configurations.

I inserted the adjective “political,” because gerrymandering or the reallocation of voting districts is usually a game of politicians scheming to gain control of legislative seats and target constituencies.

But the proposed amendments adopted the 250,000-population rule in the present Constitution as basis, among other criteria, for determining what would constitute a viable parliamentary district.

On this basis, the present congressional districts are likely to be carried over as the same parliamentary districts under the new setup.

And since there is no disqualification of incumbent congressmen, the current representatives are likely to emerge as the bulk of the incoming members of Parliament.

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MASS BRIBERY: The proposed transitory provisions suggest that incumbent congressmen and senators be automatically the members of the interim Parliament the moment the changeover starts with the cancellation of the 2007 elections.

Critics have described this indiscriminate absorption of all lawmakers into the interim Parliament as mass bribery. Really, is their automatic membership an inducement for them to approve the proposed switch to a new system?

The carrying over of congressmen appears logical, although undeserved in many cases, but what about of senators who are mere paper leaders or floating politicians who cannot anchor their supposed strength to any local bailiwick?

Although proponents of parliamentarism may console senators with the fact that it is not only the Senate but also the House of Representatives that faces abolition, senators who are without solid local constituencies may feel threatened.

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SUGGESTIONS ONLY: The recommendations of the 55-member Consultative Commission created by President Arroyo are just that — recommendations.

Since a Con-Com is not among the bodies provided under the Constitution for initiating the amendatory process, it is presumed that the Con-Com is proposing amendments only to the President who created it.

While there are three modes of initiating constitutional amendments — the Con-Com not one of them — the cards are stacked in favor of converting the Congress into a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass) and proceeding from there.

The Congress, assuming it would convene into a Con-Ass, may choose to ignore the Con-Com proposals. But President Arroyo said anyway that she would forward to Congress the Con-Com proposals.

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SENATE VOTE: To block its abolition resulting from a shift to a parliamentary system, can the Senate stonewall and refuse to play along a compliant House of Representatives?

There are many views on the matter, but it is significant that the entire Article XVII (Amendments or Revisions) of the Constitution does not speak of the Senate and the House voting separately to arrive at a decision to convene as a Con-Ass or to call for a Con-Con (a Constitutional Convention where fresh delegates are elected in a special election).

Section 1 of Article XVII says: “Any amendment to, or revision of, this Constitution may be proposed by: (1) The Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its Members;…”

Also, Section 3 of the same Article says: “The Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of all its Members, call a constitutional convention, or by a majority vote of all its Members, submit to the electorate the question of calling such a convention.”

These are the only sections in Article XVII where a required congressional vote is mentioned — and in both cases, the charter speaks of a vote “of all its members.” In contrast, other Articles pertaining to other matters speak of the two chambers voting separately.

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JOINTLY OR SEPARATELY?: An entirely different scenario emerges if the Senate were to vote separately and determine its own plenary decision separately from the House.

In this scenario, a No vote by three-fourths of all the senators should be enough to neutralize a possible Yes vote in the House — and the proposal to initiate a Constituent Assembly is thereby shot down.

But if the votes of ALL the members of the Senate and the House are lumped together (as it would seem under Section 1) and counted together, the measly 24 votes of the Senate can be swamped by a House bent on convening into a Con-Ass or calling for a Con-Con.

What if the Senate simply does not put the question to a vote? Will its non-vote be recorded simply as zero in the total all-Congress calculation, or will its refusal to take up the matter cripple the intended initiative since the charter speaks of an entire Congress acting and voting?

The question requires an act of both chambers and not of just one. But how is the joint decision determined?

For a deeper insight into the intent of the commission that wrote the 1987 Constitution, the experts will have to go into the minutes of that body. Even assuming that expert opinion has been advanced already, the question requires a re-thinking.

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WIN-WIN RUSE?: Plunging into this discussion may just be falling for a ruse, if some readers are to be believed. The first email-sender unreeling this line was Perry Hugo of 361 F. Roman St., San Juan, who said:

“GMA’s Con-Com is designed to fail. Although it was hinted of in the SONA (as with other motherhood statements), it was fast-tracked because of the Garci scandal. The main objective was to mollify a nation who wanted to oust her. Precisely, it was an accommodation for FVR and JDV not to join the ouster calls.

“Indeed, many fell for the ruse. Now they want to put in the very unpalatable condition of term extension. For GMA and her lackeys (politicians) and apologists (the media, including some columnists), it should be a win-win strategy.

“If the people will not approve of the Con-Com proposal, GMA stays. If the people approves (with the full campaign support of politicians who want a free ride extension), GMA stays longer. Either way, GMA’s term is not cut short. Tuloy ang ligaya.

“We don’t need a new Constitution to pull us forward. We need to get rid of the politicians that drag us down.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 20, 2005)

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