Will Charter change derail 2010 elections?

Despite the many scandals plaguing the administration, I think our people are not outraged enough to jam our streets and plazas a la EDSA People Power 1 and II. Much less are they ready to support military adventures to topple the government. Instead, recent polls show that Filipinos are looking forward to the May 2010 elections as the grand opportunity to change our leaders and to revitalize the nation. However, schemes and plots to alter the Constitution persist. Angry readers ask: Will these plots derail the 2010 presidential election?

Nograles decoy and the real McCoy. There are two major Charter change (“Cha-cha”) resolutions. One is authored by House Speaker Prospero Nograles allowing aliens more access to the economy. Since this proposal is going through the normal legislative process, it would have to hurdle the Senate after it passes the House. On this basis, I believe the Nograles resolution is hopeless; the Senate will surely dump it. Far too many senators are against any Charter change at this time. I think it is a mere decoy to deflect attention from the real McCoy.

The other Cha-cha resolution is sponsored mainly by Rep. Luis Villafuerte, top honcho of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Kampi party. Although 175 congressmen have signed it, the proposal has not been filed in the House of Representatives. Thus, its contents are not publicly known.

However, its proponents brag that, though still shrouded in secrecy, the resolution expressly prohibits term extensions for the president (and other officials) and bars the postponement of the 2010 elections. Allegedly, it will merely provide a “justiciable controversy” to enable the Supreme Court to decide whether the three-fourths vote required for constitutional revisions via a constituent assembly (con-ass) should be obtained from both houses of Congress voting jointly, or whether each house should convene and vote separately from the other.

If this were the only aim, why has this much-talked about resolution not been filed officially considering that to convene a constituent assembly (“con-ass”), only a majority vote is needed? Obviously then, there is a more important (or more sinister?) reason why it is still in limbo. Anyway, we hope to know its content when it is filed on April 13, as announced by Speaker Nograles.

Parliamentary shift is true goal. In any event, at the sidelines of the Tony Blair symposium held last March 23 at the Sofitel Hotel, former House speaker Jose de Venecia told me that Representatives Mikey Arroyo and Martin Romualdez met him earlier this month to seek his help in securing “about 20 to 25” more signatures to the Villafuerte resolution but that he declined.

De Venecia recalled that after the Supreme Court rejected on Oct. 25, 2006 the administration juggernaut to institute the parliamentary system via the peoples? initiative, he immediately crafted a new resolution to achieve the same parliamentary goal via another mode, the Con-ass. By December that year, he had gathered enough signatures in the House of Representatives to satisfy the “joint” three-fourths vote.

However, he desisted from pushing Charter change any further due to horrendous public opposition. “I did not want to plunge the country into chaos,” De Venecia confessed. The Villafuerte plan is “similarly worded as mine. It will evoke the same public vehemence,” he added.

“Con-ass” problems. To succeed, the Villafuerte proposal faces many formidable odds. First is the question of numbers. At present, there are 238 congressmen and 23 senators or a total of 261 incumbent members of Congress, three-fourths of them being 196.

The proponents theorize – wrongly, in my view – that 196 congressmen, even without the vote of any senator, are sufficient to approve amendments. They argue that each chamber of Congress need not convene and vote separately because the Constitution merely requires from “Congress – a vote of three-fourths of all its members.”

Consequently, once the signatures of 196 legislators are obtained, the House will ignore the Senate and convert its lonesome self into a con-ass where the “similarly worded” resolution would be approved pronto. Although Villafuerte vowed no term extension and no election postponement, notably, he has not vowed to bar the parliamentary system.

Comes now the second obstacle. Several senators have publicly pledged they would not sit idly while the Senate is by-passed. They would elevate the issue of “separate or joint vote” to the Supreme Court. Ultimately, this epic legal battle would test the leadership of Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno as well as the independence and integrity of the Court.

The third problem is time. The Constitution mandates the Commission on Elections to call a plebiscite to ratify the amendments within 60 to 90 days from their approval. Considering that Congress will resume sessions only on April 13 and that the filing of certificates of candidacies for the 2010 elections had been advanced to November, barely six months are left to have the Villafuerte resolution (1) deliberated and approved by at least 196 votes in the House; (2) heard and decided in the Supreme Court; and (3) voted and ratified by the people in a plebiscite.

The fourth hurdle is the toughest: the people’s aversion to any Charter change at this time, as well as to the parliamentary system and to term extensions under any guise. They want to elect their president, not members of parliament. Expect massive demos and incessant protests. Forcing the Cha-cha now could be the tipping point.

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