POSTSCRIPT / March 26, 2006 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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It's a 'Palace Initiative,' is divisive and wasteful

ASSEMBLIES SET: Who supervises barangays? It must be the Department of Interior and Local Government headed by Secretary Ronaldo Puno, who incidentally made his mark with his masterful assembling and counting of the votes in past elections.

But if we trace the line farther, we end up at the doorstep of Malacanang. Then this appeal about barangays being misused is best addressed to President Gloria Arroyo. I hope she will stay still for a moment to catch a little of what we are saying.

Barangays are being mobilized nationwide to hold weekend assemblies. Members are to be plied with arguments and appeals for them to support charter change and sign an “initiative” to shift from the present presidential system to a unitary parliamentary setup.

This mobilization is one of those crazy things that somebody high up in government is sometimes misled by desperation into doing.

The saner people around the President should advise her to order it stopped.

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WASTEFUL SPENDING: With some 45,000 barangays all over the islands spending for these assemblies, can you imagine the millions bring wasted on an exercise that is sure to fail?

The government is scrounging around for scrap (what is left after government crooks had ransacked the treasury), yet Malacanang has no qualms throwing away precious pesos on an exercise reminiscent of the Marcos-type barangay assemblies that ratified viva voce his martial Constitution.

The millions could be used for essential services and vital infrastructure on the barangay level, but Malacanang would rather spend the money for something called People’s Initiative designed to prop up a lost cause.

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WHOSE INITIATIVE?: To begin with, what is going on is not a “People’s Initiative” — one of the three ways spelled out in the Constitution for amending or revising the charter under Article XVII.

(The other two methods are through a Constituent Assembly [Con-Ass] which is being pushed by congressmen along a parallel route and a Constitutional Convention [Con-Con] with which nobody seems to bother.)

This supposed “initiative” is not a spontaneous action from the grassroots. This is actually the Palace’s Initiative as it started and is funded and directed from up there.

Anybody who has the time and patience to trace the flow of the funding and the stream of instructions will be able to prove the controlling role of Malacanang, and destroy the claim that it is a People’s Initiative.

The shift to PI, as it is sometimes referred to in coded messages, shows that President Arroyo is not so sure about her and her runners in Congress being able to push the idea of a Constituent Assembly working out charter change within their timetable.

* * *

U.S. TRANSPLANT: People’s Initiative is a process that was borrowed from the United States and inserted into our Constitution as an additional “democratic” mode of rewriting the charter.

It is basically a signature-gathering procedure. In the US, when there is a legislative initiative ongoing, active citizens go from house to house and sometimes place tables in plazas and on sidewalks to solicit signatures.

Americans were ahead of us in the game, but they have not reached the sophistication of Marcos-type barangay assemblies where a wholesale signing up is done with a minimum of time and a maximum harvest of signatures.

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CHARTER PROVISIONS: People’s Initiative, the third route for charter change, is laid out in Section 2 of Article XVII this way:

“Amendments to this Constitution may likewise be directly proposed by the people through initiative upon a petition of at least twelve per centum of the total number of registered voters, of which every legislative district must be represented by at least three per centum of the registered voters therein.”

Four paragraphs below, the charter adds: “Any amendment under Section 2 hereof shall be valid when ratified by a majority of the votes cast in a plebiscite which shall be held not earlier than sixty days nor later than ninety days after the certification by the Commission on Elections of the sufficiency of the petition.”

It will be like the 2004 presidential elections all over again, the big difference being that Puno — not a Garci — will be the key operator. We can be sure Puno will do a neater job of producing the number of signatures per district that the Constitution requires.

* * *

CLUMSY COMELEC: The big question is: How can the clumsy and corrupt Commission on Elections — or even Puno — assure the ever-doubting public that each and every signature on those pieces of paper is genuine and was voluntarily affixed?

Any opposition-minded group can throw a monkey wrench on the nationwide process by challenging every signature every step of the way.

Imagine an army of lawyers examining around 5 million signatures (at least 12 percent of an estimated 40 million registered voters) one by one with each challenge lasting for hours or even days. Unless they railroad the results, they will not be able to resolve the questions in two years.

* * *

DEEPER DIVISION: And then, if there is even just one district that will not collect enough signatures to comprise at least three percent of its total registered voters, the entire national exercise fails.

What if some persons decide to detour and go to court, then elevate adverse decisions all the way to the Supreme Court?

The rigmarole will be worse than the midnight final tabulation of the certificates of canvass in the presidential elections of 2004.

Instead of healing wounds, the alleged “People’s Initiative” will just divide the country deeper.

* * *

PROLONG THE AGONY: If the opposition (to charter change) is organized and determined, it can prolong the verification of the signatures and upset the timetable of President Arroyo’s campaign to stay in office until 2010.

We are talking here only of the signature campaign and the verification. There will still be a plebiscite to follow 60 to 90 days after the Comelec certifies the sufficiency of the signatures gathered.

There will be need for more billions. And there will be the side issue of the Comelec being incompetent and unprepared to do the exacting job of verifying 5 million signatures — and holding the nationwide plebiscite later.

The team of Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos is expected to try redeeming itself by doing better than during the 2004 elections. But with the same characters operating in the same den, how can its verdict be more credible this time?

The political opposition, btw, has been demanding that its nominees be made to fill the vacancies in the poll body. Maybe they should not insist, not only because the Comelec is a nonpartisan — not a bipartisan — body, but because their involvement might just validate the Comelec’s verification of the signatures.

* * *

UNINFORMED PUBLIC: The grassroots signature campaign came so suddenly. Surely, there will be questions on whether the barangay members called to sign the petition have been fully informed of the issues involved.

Have the pros and cons been discussed? Is it fair and good for democracy that government officials using public funds are pushing only in one direction — for charter change — and not giving a rounded picture?

Local officials have been primed to campaign for signatures for a People’s Initiative by their having been assured of No-El (no election) in 2007. The No-El idea was imbedded into the process so local elective officials will work mightily for charter change.

Is this good for the country? Has this no-election proposition been discussed thoroughly on the barangay level? Has opposition groups been afforded the chance to present their arguments to the community?

* * *

WIN-WIN FOR GMA: I keep saying that People’s Initiative will not prosper, that its result will be shot through with holes, that it will not be able to hold water.

But that is of no moment to President Arroyo.

If charter change fails, she stays on as President until 2010. If charter change prospers and a parliamentary setup is adopted, she will stay on as interim President with basically the same powers.

It is a win-win proposition for her. The big noise about charter change is just a distraction, alas, an expensive and divisive one.

This is okay as Philippine politics goes, but look at the time and money being wasted on a crazy exercise. Then we complain that the country is divided, that we do not have money for this and that, that everything is tainted with politics, et cetera.

Cannot the President for once please take the high ground and stop this foolishness?

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 26, 2006)

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