POSTSCRIPT / March 30, 2006 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Comelec can validate 5M signatures? How?

ALMOST THERE?: In this country, gathering 5 million, or even 10 million, signatures is easy. Especially if the promoter has enough legal tender to entice people longing for change into signing a piece of paper advertised as their ticket to a better life.

A group collecting signatures for a People’s Initiative to amend or revise the Constitution claims to have gathered around 4 million signatures already — a heave-ho away from the 5 million needed to start the Initiative rolling.

To complete the act, the Commission on Elections is itching (aside from salivating) to step in to validate those signatures and thus pave the way for, hold your breath, holding a P3-billion plebiscite to ratify the Initiative results.

So, are we any nearer to shifting to a parliamentary system with congressmen and senators carried over as members of a transition Parliament and President Gloria Arroyo installed as holdover President with a brand-new Prime Minister helping out?

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QUESTIONS GALORE: We have to point out this early, though, that filling the 5-million signature requirement (12 percent of an estimated 40 million registered voters nationwide) is not as simple as railroading the national canvass of a presidential election.

First of all, the Comelec has to find out if all those 5 million signatories were responding to THE SAME QUESTION(S) posed to them in the barangay assemblies held over the last weekend.

Only those voter-signatories responding to the same questions should be added together. This is important.

For instance, those who said Yes (by signing) to the question “Are you in favor of charter change to improve your life?” should not be lumped together with those who said Yes to the question “Are you in favor of changing our presidential setup to a unitary parliamentary system?”

Were there other barangays whose members were asked instead if they wanted President Arroyo to carry on in case of a shift to a parliamentary system? And was the question of elections being cancelled in 2007 ever asked in other places?

With variations galore, you can imagine the number of combinations and permutations in the grouping (addition) of the signatures that the promoters of People’s Initiative seem bent on submitting to the Comelec to jump-start charter change.

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EXTRA WORK: Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos is saying that the validation of the signatures will not mean additional administrative expenses for his men in the field since that is part of the work for which they are already being paid.

That means extra work, but no extra pay. This may seem okay if we assume that Comelec personnel, including the commissioners lolling in the head office, are a bunch of patriotic civil servants who would plod on whenever duty calls.

But if you ask me, I think they should get extra allowance for that extra, out-of-season, work. You see, it is not an easy chore even for the stout-hearted.

For instance, they will have to verify if the signatures submitted were written by the same registered voters they purport to be. Since they are not hand-writing experts, I cannot imagine how Comelec registrars can do this. Lalu na if there are oppositionist lawyers needling them.

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LISTS RELIABLE?: Chairman Abalos said on radio that his people would use the poll body’s registers of voters to counter-check the signatures. They have no choice since that seems to be the easiest and fastest way to do it.

But are the Comelec registers of voters reliable? Have the dead, the fake and disqualified voters been purged? What about the legitimate voters who are not on the lists, but who might have been moved to sign the barangay Initiative forms?

On the other hand, what do we do with those who came forward and usurped the identities of genuine voters who did not show up at the barangay assemblies because they had better things to do that day?

And then, how will the overworked Comelec registrars classify and collate the signatures according to the question(s) asked the signatories? How will they know what each signatory was asked before he signed the document? Will they summon the voters and ask them to testify under oath?

That is just the stage of verifying and counting the millions of signatures gathered and it already looks complicated.

My barber offers a gem of a solution. He said Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez could be pulled out temporarily from the justice department, issued a gavel made of hardwood, and appointed as chief of a superbody tasked to count and validate the signatures.

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SEATS FOR OFWs: I proposed last Tuesday that 10 percent of the seats in the proposed Parliament be given to overseas Filipino workers because at 8 million they comprise 10 percent of the population and they richly deserve such representation.

There were varied, but mostly favorable, reactions, especially from Filipinos laboring abroad.

But one overseas reader, Paul Dalde of Beaumont, Texas, disagrees. He says that OFWs deserve more seats than just 30 of the 300 estimated Parliament seats. He says in an email:

“You are right in equating 10 percent of the slated Parliament to the 8 million OFWs. The fact is, this number may be bigger now owing to the daily outbound of Filipino workers deployed across the globe. To justify OFW representation in the Parliament is unnecessary because, you said it, they are recognized as modern-day heroes. Giving them 10 percent of the seats is a mere little gesture for a hero, isn’t it?”

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INSULT, INJUSTICE: Filipinos abroad are generally better educated and of a higher economic standing than the average Filipino. They remit home some $13 billion (repeat: Billion!) annually, the biggest block of foreign exchange helping keep the economy afloat.

If only for this, OFWs must be considered as one quality constituency and granted parliamentary seats corresponding to their number.

Since the Constitution assigns one district seat for each political community of 250,000, Parliament seats will number 300 more or less. Overseas Filipinos should have 30 of those seats (10 percent of the total).

As Postscript has been pointing out since December last year, a shift to a parliamentary setup will rob OFWs of their newly acquired right to vote for national officials under RA 9189, the absentee voting law.

If only to compensate for this gross insult and injustice, OFWs should be given seats in the new legislature.

Let us hear from the proponents of charter change and the adoption of a parliamentary system. What is their stand on this proposition?

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CON-CON EXPENSE: I also said last time that I am for charter change and that my preferred mode is though a Constitutional Convention, except that that route is quite expensive.

Comes in reader Casper V. Inocalla, disputing my statement that a Con-Con — which entails electing a group of “wise men” to write a new or amended Constitution — is expensive.

His arithmetic is clear and impressive, if I may say so. Follow it:

“Assume that there are 300 delegates with salary of P2,000 per day of attendance with one secretary with salary of P800 per working day and one driver with salary at P600 per working day, and office supplies at P500 per day per delegate.

“That would add up to: 300 delegates x P2,000 = P600,000 per day; 300 secretaries x P800 = P240,000 per day; 300 drivers x P600 = P180,000 per day; and 300 delegates x P500 per day = P150,000 per day — for a subtotal of P1,170,000 per day.

“Multiply this by 300 working days, and you get a subtotal of P351,000,000.

“Then add these expenses: 300 computers with chairs & table at P50,000 each = P15,000,000; 300 sets of furniture and fixtures at P100,000 each set = P30,000,000; rental of Philippine International Convention Center at P100,000 per day x 300 days = P30,000,000; miscellaneous expenses at P100,000 per day x 300 days = P30,000,000.

“Total expenses for staging the Con-Con for 300 days = P456,000,000.”

On the other hand, Casper said that just the pork barrel of 236 House members and 24 senators adds up to P21.3 billion for one year (P16.5 billion for 236 House members and P4.8 billion for 24 senators).

Add to that the huge administrative cost of Congress convening as a Constituent Assembly, as a number of congressmen are insisting on.

(But when I said that a Con-Con is expensive, I had in mind mainly the cost of holding a special election for the delegates. With the Comelec usually using a budget on the high side, the cost could be staggering, running into billions.– fdp)

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 30, 2006)

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