Who outfoxed who?

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Accusations have been literally flying thick and fast between and amongst the protagonists and antagonists in the Charter change (Cha-cha) controversy. Senators vowed to block the snowballing signature drive to carry out Cha-cha allegedly through the House-led people’s initiative (PI). Allegations ranged from charges of coercion to claims that sums of money were reportedly distributed out of congressional “ayuda” programs or cash subsidies to people who signed the petitions in favor of Cha-cha.

The unlikely protagonists caught in the middle of the Senate-House feud are the seven-man Commission on Elections (Comelec) headed by Chairman George Erwin Garcia. As the head of the poll body, Garcia conceded the Comelec is not in an enviable position to this raging Cha-cha debate.

As of late, it would seem there is now a tug-of-war between the Senate and the House of Representatives as to which Chamber of the 19th Congress will lead the Cha-cha. Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri was earlier counting on the previous agreement reached with House Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez during their meeting in Malacañang Palace.

After that meeting, Zubiri filed Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 6 seeking to lift certain restrictive economic provisions of the country’s 1987 Constitution by legislation. As proposed by the senators, the economic Cha-cha by legislation will amend the specific economic provisions with the conditional phrase: “…unless otherwise provided by law.” Thus, these bills will still go through the regular legislative process that would be voted on separately by the Senate and the House.

Zubiri recalled President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (PBBM) impressed upon them during that meeting that indeed, the Senate can take the lead in doing Cha-cha. In fact, Zubiri noted, all agreed on the need to amend existing constitutional restrictions like the 40 percent of foreign ownership on the education, advertising and public services industries.

As soon as the Senate President filed RBH No. 6, the Speaker issued a press statement that the Lower House welcomed this as in consonance with their push for the 19th Congress to convene as a constituent assembly (con-ass). Obviously, the Speaker had a different understanding of the Senate’s counter-proposal. 

The Senate’s proposed 4th mode was tried by previous legislative attempts but failed to muster support in congresses past. But so far, this 4th mode has yet to be tested if it is even legal and constitutional. The con-ass, the PI and the constitutional convention (con-con) are the only three mandated modes of Cha-cha in the Philippines.

The struggle over the Cha-cha took a turn for the worst as the 24 senators unanimously signed a Manifesto last week that rejected the PI as mode of Cha-cha over claims of bribery and pay-offs. Presidential sister Sen.Imee Marcos last Friday accused the office of the Speaker as allegedly the source of as much as P20 million for each legislative district in the signature gathering effort. A first cousin of the Marcoses, the Speaker immediately dismissed such allegation as nothing but “Marites” (rumors).

Since the launching of the PI signature drive on Jan. 2 this year, leaders of the People’s Initiative for Reform Modernization and Action (PIRMA) announced in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum last Wednesday they have been able to gather so far about 2.5 million signatures over the past three weeks. As required in the PI mode, PIRMA must secure at least 12 percent, or about eight million, out of the total of 67 million registered voters all over the country.  

Buoyed by what they call the “momentum” of their nationwide signature drive, Noel Oñate, PIRMA lead convenor, expressed confidence of securing the mandated 12 percent of all registered voters to sign their Cha-cha petition within the next two to three months.

The Comelec Chairman though challenged PIRMA “to prove the worth” of their PI in full transparency. 

To date though, PIRMA has yet to complete and submit to the Comelec certification the PI signatures from the remaining 70 out of the 254 congressional districts nationwide. The PI mode requires three percent signatures of registered voters per congressional district. 

 The next phase for the PI process – verification of signatures – kicks in only after PIRMA files a formal petition as the “trigger point” to start  Cha-cha, Garcia cited. These are the steps stated in the 2020 Comelec implementing rules and regulations of Republic Act (RA) 6735, otherwise known as the enabling law for the PI to amend the Constitution, he added. 

As the chief proponents of the PI, the PIRMA lead convenor told the Comelec Chairman they would file the petition as soon as they achieve the 12 percent “threshold.” 

Offhand, the PIRMA convenor admitted having “coordinated” with the congressmen as mandated by law for the gathering of the required signatures. But Oñate clarified this was merely for “administrative” purposes since the signatures of the registered voters come from their respective congressional districts. Oñate vehemently denied persistent allegations on the PIRMA signatories having been bribed or paid off to sign up for Cha-cha.

The Comelec chief underscored all of these issues will have to be settled by the Supreme Court (SC) if these controversies are brought for judicial review. Except for anti-Cha-cha statements issued to the press during the past few days, not one senator or no particular group yet has filed any petition to stop the ongoing signature drive for the PI.

“The final say will come from the people of Padre Faura,” the Comelec chief pointed out. It is in particular allusion to the 15-man body headed by Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo who all hold office at the SC in Padre Faura, Manila.

Garcia also strongly took exception to Comelec’s allegedly being complicit to the P12 billion provided for the holding of plebiscite this year for Cha-cha. 

Sen. Imee questioned the surreptious “insertion” of this amount to the Comelec’s 2024 budget. After the Senate and House versions of the 2024 budget bills removed this much, Garcia himself was surprised that Comelec got back P12 billion. It was restored by the bicameral conference committee (bicam). Garcia noted the P12 billion came from the realignments of the Comelec projects such as the “internet” voting for overseas Filipinos. The bicam is composed of senators and congressmen. So why accuse the Comelec? 

“Remember, the Comelec enjoys fiscal autonomy,” Garcia quipped and smiled. “The Comelec can be trusted to do its job,” he assured us.

So who outfoxed who? We bet on the Comelec’s independence and autonomy as a constitutional body.

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