Senate President Vicente Sotto III receives a copy of the draft federalism constitution from former chief justice and consultative committee chairman Reynato Puno and former Senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr. at the office of the Senate president in Pasay City yesterday.
Geremy Pintolo
Senate President Tito Sotto says ‘no-elections’ in 2019 possible
Marvin Sy (The Philippine Star) - July 13, 2018 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — A no-election (“no-el”) scenario in May 2019 is possible under the present Constitution as suggested by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez in order to facilitate the administration’s effort to change the form of government from unitary to federal, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said yesterday.

Sotto, who earlier said an amendment of the 1987 Constitution would be necessary to postpone the 2019 midterm elections, told members of the consultative committee (Concom) tasked to draft the federal charter that Congress could just pass a law for this purpose.

He cited Article VI Section 8 of the Constitution, which states that “unless otherwise provided by law, the regular election of senators and the members of the House of Representatives shall be held on the second Monday of May.”

“Therefore, we do not need a plebiscite to postpone the elections. By law, both houses of Congress shall be able to postpone the elections,” Sotto said after he was presented a copy of the draft federal
 constitution by the Concom.

Just the other day, Alvarez said the 2019 midterm elections may have to be canceled if the intention is to get the amendments to the Constitution done at the soonest possible time.

Alvarez noted how Congress would be tied up in its work immediately after President Duterte delivers his third State of the Nation Address on July 23 because they would have to start its deliberations on the proposed P3.757-trillion national budget for 2019.

By October, the legislators who will run for re-election will have to file their certificates of candidacy and in February next year, start their respective campaigns.

Sotto noted that Duterte has expressed his desire for Congress to prioritize the shift to federalism during the meeting with legislators at Malacañang the other day.

He said the President did not directly tell them to fast-track the process, but said that if it were possible, they should work on it already so that he could step down from office.

Sotto, however, said Congress would first have to agree to convene as a constituent assembly to discuss the proposed amendments to the Constitution before they can even talk about a “no-el” scenario.

“If we call for a constituent assembly, this is my opinion, this is not written in stone, if we did pass a joint resolution calling for one, then we can decide if we can finish it by December or not and postpone elections. Then, we can pass a law postponing the elections,” Sotto said.

“We will have to make time. The way I am hearing it from the (Concom) and the President, this is indeed a priority,” he added.

Sotto said he would call for an all-senator caucus before July 23 to discuss these issues.

Getting the senators to agree to convene as a constituent assembly and to cancel the elections is another thing altogether.

Sen. Grace Poe rejected the no-election scenario, saying “the public should not accept this.”

Poe said there is no need to rush the amendments to the Constitution, especially at this time when the midterm elections are just around the corner.

“We are reasonable here but I believe we don’t want to railroad this issue. It gives a bad impression about our country. What are we trying to do?” Poe said.

Sen. Francis Escudero challenged the interpretation of Sotto on Article VI Section 8 of the Constitution, which he said only pertains to the date of elections, which could be moved through legislation.

The elections, however, cannot be canceled because Article VI also contains separate provisions about the terms of senators and members of the House of Representatives and the exact month after the elections that they would assume office, according to Escudero.

The senator also noted that it is only for the barangay officials that the Constitution specifically allows Congress to set their term of office.

Like Poe, Escudero said the proposed amendments to the Constitution should not be rushed because of its importance as the fundamental law of the land.

While he personally agrees that amendments to the 31-year-old Constitution are worth studying, Escudero said he does not see any valid reason why the process should be rushed.

He also aired his doubts about the proponents of the cancelation of the elections and the extension of the terms of the elected officials getting the required number of votes from the Senate to support this.

Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito, who is eligible for re-election next year, said he does not support the cancelation of the elections even if this would result in an extension of his term.

“Though I stand to benefit from the no-election proposal being a re-electionist, elections are a referendum of public officials. People look forward to electing their leaders. It will be very hard to justify postponement,” Ejercito said.

“Running in a national election is very tedious, exhausting and, not to mention, very expensive. Who wouldn’t want a freebie for a term extension? But it will be hard to explain to the people why elections will not be held next year,” he added.

Stand back

Malacañang yesterday distanced itself from Alvarez’s proposal to cancel the 2019 midterm polls to enable lawmakers to discuss proposals to amend the Constitution.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said next year’s election would push through as long as the 1987 Constitution remains in effect.

“None. As we have repeatedly said, the President implements our Constitution. Unless the date of the election stated in our Constitution is changed, the election in 2019 would push through,” Roque said at a press briefing when asked whether Alvarez’s proposal had the blessing of Malacañang.

“The only possibility (that the elections will not push through) is if the proposed new constitution is ratified earlier than expected, in which case the 1987 Constitution would cease to have legal effect. But while there is no new constitution, the President will ensure that there will be an election,” he added.

Roque said Alvarez does not need to explain his proposal to Malacañang because Congress is an independent branch of government.

“And the lawmakers are also aware that the President has the obligation to implement the Constitution and other laws,” the spokesman said.

Alvarez, an ally of Duterte, has said canceling the midterm elections would allow Congress to focus on bills to amend the Constitution.

If the 2019 elections push through, Alvarez said Congress may not be able to muster a quorum for the Charter change (Cha-cha) deliberations because lawmakers would be busy campaigning. 

Palace upbeat on new charter

Malacañang remains optimistic that a new constitution would be ratified next year even if some senators said Cha-cha is not a priority of the chamber.

“The President has said if it is finally ratified by the people then he will step down. And he is hoping that both the consultative committee and Congress will adapt his suggestion calling for a transitory provision, providing that the transition leader will be elected,” Roque said.

The Chief Executive, according to Roque, has enough allies in the Senate who can convince their colleagues to prioritize the discussions on constitutional amendments.

“I think we have a very good working relationship with many of our senators,” he said.

Roque said Duterte has not asked senators to fast-track the passage of bills seeking to establish a federal government.

“Anyway, the SONA (state of the nation address) will be there. So, the SONA will be the proper venue for him to lay out his legislative priority, and I’m sure it will include Charter change,” he added.

Comelec unfazed

Meanwhile, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is unfazed over efforts to postpone the 2019 midterm polls, saying its mandate is to prepare for the exercise.

Comelec spokesman James Jimenez noted in an interview that they want to focus more on the preparations, especially since next year’s elections are less than a year away.

“The commission remains focused on the task at hand, which is to prepare for the May 2019 national and local elections,” he maintained following Alvarez’s pronouncement.

Jimenez’s statement was echoed by National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) secretary-general Eric Alvia, who underscored the need to hold elections regularly as part of the democratic process.

 “We should adhere to periodic and genuine elections,” Alvia said.

Workers oppose ‘no-el’

Workers yesterday strongly opposed plans to postpone the 2019 midterm elections, which they claimed could lead to chaos and anarchy.

Members of the Federation of Free Workers (FFW) further claimed that the postponement of elections is tantamount to defiance of the Constitution.

“The proposal… is an invitation to chaos and anarchy in the streets, as it is dangerous and has no legal basis,” the FFW said in a statement.

“With due respect,  the proposal… is an alteration of the Constitution without authorization, by amendment or revision,” it noted.

FFW stressed that the Constitution is the supreme law and all public officials, no matter how high their offices are, must bow to and not defy its mandate.

The labor group expressed its preference for constitutional convention in amending the 1987 Constitution.

The group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) yesterday also hit Alvarez’s proposal, saying it will be rejected by the people.

“Speaker Alvarez has provided the best argument to oppose Cha-cha. We will fight against term extensions and the lifting of term limits,” Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes said, adding Cha-cha efforts are being used as basis for a coup by those wishing to stay in power indefinitely.

“We cannot allow such efforts to succeed. The public is encouraged to join the nationwide actions against Charter change on the day of President Duterte’s State of the Nation Address,” he added. – With Alexis Romero, Sheila Crisostomo, Mayen Jaymalin, Rhodina Villanueva

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