Can Arroyo reign beyond 2010?

PRESIDENT MACAPAGAL-ARROYO’S PRESENT term expires on June 30, 2010. Can she legally extend her reign beyond that date? My answer: Yes, if our Congress, Supreme Court, Commission on Elections and people will agree to a revision of our Constitution.

Failed Cha-cha bid. Let me begin my thesis by recalling the most recent bid for Charter change (Cha-cha). In 2006, during my term as chief justice, the allies of the President, led by then Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., launched a “people’s initiative” to alter our form of government from presidential to parliamentary.

Armed with the alleged signatures of 6.3 million voters, the initiative’s visible proponents—the “Sigaw ng Bayan” and the Union of Local Authorities in the Philippines (Ulap)—asked the Supreme Court to compel the Comelec to authenticate the signatures and to schedule a plebiscite to ratify their proposal.

However, the Court—by a close 8-7 vote—refused. It described the Sigaw-Ulap initiative as “a deception” and “a gigantic fraud” because the signatures were gathered “without first showing to the people the full texts of the proposed amendments.” Equally important, a change from the presidential to the parliamentary system is a “revision, not a mere amendment” that cannot be authorized by an initiative.

The decision was penned by Justice Antonio T. Carpio, concurred in by Justices Consuelo Ynares-Santiago, Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez, Ma. Alicia Austria-Martinez, Conchita Carpio Morales, Romeo J. Callejo Sr., Adolfo S. Azcuna, and yours truly. Since then, three (Gutierrez, Callejo and I) of the eight have retired.

On the other hand, the dissenting opinion was written by Justice (now Chief Justice) Reynato S. Puno, joined by Justices Leonardo A. Quisumbing, Renato C. Corona, Dante C. Tinga, Minita V. Chico-Nazario, Cancio C. Garcia and Presbitero J. Velasco Jr.

Initiative—as a means of overhauling the Charter—is indeed problematic. Hence, I believe the Palace allies will not repeat the mistake of launching a new one. Neither will they avail of the more tedious constitutional convention (Con-Con). Furthermore, the Cha-cha proponents may not be able to elect enough partisans into the Con-con, due to the low popularity rating of GMA.

Weapon of choice. I think their new weapon of choice will be the constituent assembly (Con-ass). Under this method, the shift to a parliamentary system shall be proposed by “Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its Members.” Per Article XVII of the Constitution, the proposal “shall be valid when ratified by a majority of the votes cast in a plebiscite which shall be held not earlier than 60 days nor later than 90 days after the approval of such revision.”

The big question is whether the two houses of Congress shall vote jointly or separately. Voting separately, the Senate will—I believe—turn down the parliamentary shift. However, if the voting is done jointly—meaning that the votes of the senators and the representatives would be added and thereafter the three-fourths count obtained from the total—then the shift may get the needed majority.

How? GMA’s ruling coalition lists more than 200 of the 240 House members. Hence, in a joint vote, even if all the 24 senators would align with the House’s puny minority, the required “three-fourths vote of all Members” could still be obtained. Will the Senate agree to convene a Con-ass? It seems so. Sen. Aquilino Pimentel has already proposed to the Senate to tackle his plan for a federal system. Once convened, nothing prevents the Con-ass from dancing the parliamentary Cha-cha.

The Supreme Court will ultimately decide the validity of a joint vote. Considering that the eight justices who rejected the “Sigaw” initiative have been decimated by three retirements (four by Feb. 6, 2009 when Justice Azcuna turns 70) and considering further that GMA has lately been winning controversial cases, the high court may affirm a “joint” vote. It may wash its hands and say: Let a plebiscite be held to determine whether the people want the parliamentary system.

Ideally, a plebiscite determines the peoples’ choice. However, the voting process here will be easy to manipulate. Voters will simply choose between “Yes” and “No.” In fact, the Marcos Constitution was approved by a mere raising of hands during “citizens” assemblies, a scandalous voting process validated by a compliant Supreme Court.

Expect the GMA administration to use its full resources to secure a resounding “Yes” from the Court and from the people. Hence, the Comelec’s role in counting the ballots (and those of Namfrel and PPCRV in guarding them) will be critical.

Sufficient time for change. Will there be enough time to approve the parliamentary shift? Yes, under this timeline: congressional approval by Dec. 31, 2008, Supreme Court decision by June 30, 2009, and plebiscite in September 2009.

The elections scheduled on the second Monday of May 2010 will then be held for members of the new Parliament, not for president, vice president, or senators. GMA will secure a parliamentary seat in Pampanga and then become prime minister in a Lakas-Kampi-dominated Parliament after her term as president expires on June 30, 2010.

Theoretically, it is possible to revise the Constitution and enable GMA to continue her reign after June 30, 2010. But will our Congress, Supreme Court, Comelec and people allow her? Realistically, can GMA—unlike Ferdinand Marcos—extend her reign without martial law?

See my answer next week.

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