MANILA, January 14, 2003 (STAR) By Jess Diaz And Efren Danao  - A parliamentary form of government with a strong president should be in place by the middle of next year, Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. said yesterday.

"The elections we will hold in May 2004 should be for officials under a French-type parliamentary system," De Venecia told dzBB’s Mike Enriquez.

"Pagod na ang mga tao sa kasalukuyang sistema (People are already tired of the present system)," he said.

De Venecia said constitutional reforms can take effect next year only if the Senate agrees to the House proposal for Congress to convert itself into a constituent assembly to consider Charter change (Cha-cha).

He said the two chambers, sitting as a constituent body, can finish the job within the year. Convening of a Con-con means that amendments would take effect only in 2010 or even 2013, he noted.

Both the Senate majority and minority, however, decided in separate caucuses yesterday that there would be no amendment to the Constitution before the 2004 elections.

Senate President Franklin Drilon, who presided over the majority caucus, said they also approved the election in 2004 of delegates to a constitutional convention (Con-con) that will propose amendments or craft an entirely new Charter.

Opposition Sen. Edgardo Angara said the minority also decided during its own caucus that any Charter amendment could wait until after the general elections in 2004.

"The president and senators elected in 2004 would want to serve their full six-year term. The senators to be elected in 2007 would also want a six-year term," he explained.

De Venecia said the proposed shift to a parliamentary government is being supported by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry through its president Sergio Ortiz Ruiz, the organization of 130 city mayors nationwide, the organization of 1,600 municipal mayors and 500 non-government and people’s organizations.

Yesterday, Concurrent Resolution 16, which urges Congress to convert itself into a constituent body, was included in the House order of business under the heading "business for the day," indicating that the chamber is really on a fast-track mode on Cha-cha.

Sources said the leaders of the majority were asking the minority if they could schedule the resolution for floor debates this week.

Minority leader Carlos Padilla (LDP, Nueva Vizcaya) said they won’t agree, since they are opposed to tackling Cha-cha at this time.

He said the recent survey showing that majority of the people are against constitutional changes should prompt the majority to junk its Cha-cha initiative.

"We should be focusing on economic reforms, not Cha-cha," he said.

‘Only by Con-con’

Minutes earlier, Drilon told the same radio program that his chamber would agree to amending the Constitution only if it would be done by an elected constitutional convention (Con-con).

He said senators and congressmen cannot do the job because people will suspect that they are being driven by self-interest, that they will scrap the provisions limiting their terms of office, and that they would consider constitutional changes that would favor themselves.

To minimize cost, Drilon said the election of Con-con delegates can be held together with the 2004 presidential elections.

Besides, he stressed that politicians should respond to President Arroyo’s call to shun politics by not discussing politics and focusing on economic reforms.

He said his chamber would devote its time to approving the proposed P804 billion 2003 budget, amending the Anti-Money Laundering Law to make it more acceptable to the international community, and some economic bills that the House passed last year.

Asked by Enriquez to comment on Drilon’s insistence that Cha-cha should be done by a convention and not by Congress, De Venecia said the House is open to the proposal.

However, he said Congress should first determine whether the people prefer a Con-con or the House-suggested constituent assembly. But De Venecia did not say how Congress would do that.

He said Drilon and his colleagues should tell the public that their Con-con idea would mean that constitutional changes would take effect in 2010 yet since the president to be elected next year should be allowed to finish his or her six-year term.

"Under our proposal, Charter reforms will be in place next year. The elections will push through but these will be for a strong president and members of parliament," he said.

Some opposition congressmen have expressed the suspicion that Mrs. Arroyo’s Lakas allies are pushing for Cha-cha because they want to scrap the 2004 presidential elections and extend her term of office together with those of other officials up to 2007 when a new system of government would be in place.

And since Mrs. Arroyo has promised she would not run for president in 2004, she could be preparing to run for president under a parliamentary system in 2007.

After the majority caucus, Drilon said Cha-cha through a constituent assembly is already out of the question because the people would oppose it.

Seven senators, including Drilon, oppose the constituent assembly mode of amending the Charter. This meant that proponents of the mode could get only 16 votes at the most, or less than three-fourths (18) votes required.

"We are amenable to have an election of Con-con delegates simultaneous with the 2004 elections and have the Con-con after the presidential elections, probably in 2004 or 2005," Drilon said.

Angara, however, differed from the majority view that a Con-con is a better mode than constituent assembly.

"I was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1971 and I can say that a constituent assembly is better. I feel a constituent assembly is a more transparent, a more efficient way of amending the Constitution," he said.

He rejected the argument that there would be no partisanship if the Charter is amended by a Con-con rather than by senators and congressmen convened as a constituent assembly.

"If there is an election, relatives and friends of politicians would win," Angara predicted.

He said he is a true believer in Charter change. Even before the 2001 campaign, Angara was already espousing amendments of constitutional provisions that hinder the entry of foreign investors in capital-intensive industries like mining, infrastructure and telecommunications.

Meanwhile, Metro Manila mayors said Cha-cha would further strengthen and empower local government units (LGUs).

Metro Manila Mayors’ League president Lito Atienza of Manila said there is already a consensus among local executives in the metropolis to push for changes to the Constitution.

"We in Metro Manila feel that genuine development could only be attained if we empower LGUs," said Atienza, who explained that LGU empowerment could be done by introducing provisions that would devolve powers and resources to local government units under the principle of local autonomy.

Atienza added that with Cha-cha, local officials can also push through with the restoration of their control and supervision over the police. — With Cecille Suerte Felipe

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