Marcos Jr.: Cha-cha plebiscite before 2025 polls costly

Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star
Marcos Jr.: Cha-cha plebiscite before 2025 polls costly
President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. graces the 2024 General Assembly of the League of Municipalities of the Philippines at a hotel in Pasay City on February 27, 2024.
PPA Pool photos by KJ Rosales / The Philippine STAR

MANILA, Philippines — Holding the Charter change plebiscite before the 2025 elections will be “very costly” and hard, President Marcos said yesterday, as he confirmed that he prefers the referendum to be conducted alongside the May 2025 midterm polls.

Marcos said holding the plebiscite on the proposed amendments to the 1987 Constitution simultaneously with next year’s midterm elections is being studied carefully as it would mean huge savings for  government.

“If we separate the election and the plebiscite, it is like holding two elections, which is very costly,” the President told reporters at Villamor Air Base in Pasay before leaving for Australia.

“It really comes down to a practical thing... because a plebiscite is also an election. So you will hold an election and then hold a plebiscite – it’s very hard also to have a plebiscite before the election because it will jeopardize the preparations for the polls,” Marcos said.

On Monday, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said Marcos had informed senators that he wanted the plebiscite on the proposed Charter changes to be held simultaneously with the 2025 elections.

Zubiri, whose chamber was initially cool to Charter amendments, quoted Marcos as saying that holding the referendum before the May 2025 polls would require the government to spend P12 billion to P14 billion.

The House of Representatives, which is dominated by Marcos’ allies, is aiming for a plebiscite by July this year. The chamber is also seeking to approve the amendments to the economic provisions of the Constitution before the Holy Week break on March 22.

Despite Zubiri’s statement, administration lawmakers stood by their timetable last Tuesday, preferring to hear Marcos’ stance on the matter directly from him.

Asked to react to the House’s timetable, Marcos said he would talk to Speaker Martin Romualdez about it.

“If the House or the Senate is finished, it doesn’t mean that we need to hold the plebiscite already. We can wait and hold it together with the local elections,” the Chief Executive said.

“There’s some legal consequences because... plebiscite is different from an election. So, if we are able to incorporate the two exercises together, as a practical matter, I think it would help.”

Noting that the Charter change resolutions are progressing in the House and the Senate, Marcos said the administration is thinking about the possible mechanisms for holding the plebiscite. ?Earlier this month, Marcos clarified that the administration is only seeking amendments to the economic provisions of the Constitution, allaying fears that term limits may be lifted and perpetuating officials in power.

Long lines seen

A long queue of voters is expected when the proposed simultaneous plebiscite and May 2025 national and local elections pushes through, Commission on Elections Chairman George Garcia said yesterday.

“Voting will take longer because the machines are new. Casting the votes may not be as easy, it may take time,” Garcia said.

The Comelec is introducing the use of the Full Automation System with Transparency Audit/Count or FASTrAC in the May 2025 polls.

Aside from the new machines, each voter may also take longer to cast their votes because they also have to vote for the plebiscite, Garcia noted.

The Comelec previously expressed readiness to hold the plebiscite for the amendment of the economic provision of the Constitution, simultaneous with the national and local elections.

To ease the long lines at polling stations, the Comelec is eyeing to adopt early voting hours, especially for persons with disabilities, the elderly and heavily pregnant voters.

In the last 2023 barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections, the Comelec pilot-tested early voting hours in the cities of Naga and Muntinlupa. The Comelec is also looking to allow voting in malls and public buildings.

‘5 years, no initiative’

Members of the Constitutional Commission appointed by the late president Cory Aquino to draft the 1987 Constitution wanted to protect the country from foreign interests only for five years, or at least until 1992, before changes can be implemented, according to retired Supreme Court justice Adolfo Azcuna.

“We wanted no change by initiative. There’s a five-year period. We wanted the economic framework to work for at least five years. We did not expect it to be un-amended for 37 years. So the time frame in mind is five years,” Azcuna told House lawmakers during the discussions for Resolution of Both Houses No. 7 aimed at amending three economic provisions of the Charter.

Azcuna served as chief presidential legal counsel and press secretary of Aquino in the late 1980s. He was also part of the 48-member Con-Com appointed by Aquino.

“But these are economic policies and economic policies should not be frozen in time for a long period,” Azcuna explained, adding that they were open to amending the Charter after five years. “But the problem is we never had any amendment on the economic provisions for 37 years.

“That’s why we did not want it then to be changeable so we did not want to put ‘unless provided by law’ on these economic restrictions at that time,” he said.

The former SC jurist concurs with the decision of Congress – the Senate and the House – to deliberate on each of their versions, the Resolution of Both Houses 6 in the Senate and RBH 7 in the House, and introduce changes to at least three economic provisions in the Charter.

Meanwhile, Camarines Sur 3rd District Rep. Gabriel Bordado Jr. said there is no need to amend the Charter as reforms are attainable even under the current economic constitutional provisions.

He pointed to existing mechanisms, citing the recent amendment of the Public Service Act (Republic Act 11659) as a prime example. This legislative milestone effectively fosters foreign investment and promotes competition without necessitating changes to the Constitution.

Bordado emphasized that ensuring access to quality education for Filipino children and fostering global competitiveness do not hinge on foreign ownership of educational institutions, but rather on leveraging existing resources to empower local schools and students.

Plenary debates eyed before SONA

The Senate plans to finish its committee deliberations on economic Charter change and set it for plenary debates before the President’s third State of the Nation Address, according to Sen. Sonny Angara.

In an ambush interview yesterday, Angara said he was glad the President agreed with the proposal to hold the plebiscite on Charter change simultaneous with the midterm elections.

Under the plan, a rider question will be printed on the 2025 elections ballot asking the public if they are in favor of easing the foreign investment limits on public utilities, higher education and advertising.

During the Kapihan sa Manila Bay forum yesterday, Sen. Francis Tolentino said the “Bernas formula” – named after the late constitution framer Fr. Joaquin Bernas SJ – would be a middle ground that would allow both the House of Representatives and the Senate to separately tackle economic Charter change.

The Bernas formula is seen as a solution to end the conflict in Congress over the mode of voting if ever it convenes in a constituent assembly. The Senate wants a separate vote on Charter change, while the House is for a joint vote.

President Marcos’ plan to have the referendum for economic Charter change done simultaneously with the May 2025 elections may be “economical,” but it may pose some problems with the Comelec, House deputy majority leader Mandaluyong Rep. Neptali Gonzales II said yesterday.

“Under the Constitution, once the Comelec receives the approved amendments, then it is mandated to schedule a plebiscite not earlier than 60 days nor later than 90 days,” he explained.

The push for a plebiscite in 2025 to amend provisions of the 1987 Constitution will only worsen the economic crisis in the country, militant group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) for its part said.

“It aims to tighten foreign control over the Philippines, making us a perpetual neo-colony and tying us to the geopolitical maneuverings of the United States and China,” Bayan president Renato Reyes said yesterday. – Delon Porcalla, Mayen Jaymalin, Emmanuel Tupas, Marc Jayson Cayabyab

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