Manila, Jan. 23, 24, 2003 (By Joan Dairo) - A plot to "hide" controversial provisions approved by the bicameral conference committee on the absentee voting bill was the reason for the news blackout imposed on deliberations on the measure.

Sources from the Senate and foreign affairs department said yesterday this was the reason that the final version will not be made public until next week.

One of the sources even said the lawmakers have "no plans" to reveal controversial provisions.

In fact, he said, the lawmakers plan to "just insert" the controversial provisions in the final draft of the measure "when nobody is looking."

The secrecy, the sources said, was also aimed at cushioning the expected negative backlash over the "inserted" controversial provisions.

One of these is the non-inclusion of overseas workers in Saudi Arabia and immigrants and illegal workers all over the world from enjoying voting rights.

Saudi Arabia has the biggest number of OFWs, about 900,000, working as household helpers, factory workers, office clerks, sales ladies, teachers, among others.

There are more than seven million Filipinos abroad, counting immigrants and illegals, but only about half of them are qualified under the absentee voting bill.

Another controversial issue being kept confidential by bicameral committee is the provision that would limit voting and registration through mail only to those in the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan.

In other countries, only personal voting and registration would be permitted.

Many overseas Filipinos have clamored for both modes of voting and registration, depending on what would be more convenient for them.

The overseas Filipino workers, contract workers in particular, told senators during their public consultations abroad that their work load, location, and the cultural settings of their host countries would decide on whether they could register and vote personally.

The Senate version allows for registration and voting through mail and personal appearance before Philippine embassies and consulates abroad.

The House version calls only for personal voting and enlistment.

Senate President Franklin Drilon said bicameral committee members have informed him that the bone of contentions is whether or not green card holders would be allowed to vote, and whether or not to adopt the "sunset" clause in the House version.

Under the sunset clause which is being pushed by the House contingent, the absentee voting measure would lapse after the 2004 presidential and national elections. If a need is seen to allow overseas Filipinos to participate in future elections, another bill will be enacted.

On green card holders, concerns have been raised because the Constitution says that only permanent residents of the Philippines should be permitted to participate in the electoral process.

On the issue of non-inclusion of OFWs in Saudi Arabia, Drilon said this would be more a concern with the implementation of the law and not a matter of policy.

"The policy as embodied in the law is that overseas Filipino workers, contract workers, included, are eligible to vote," Drilon said.

The implementation of the law, he said, is "before the Comelec (Commission on Elections) to handle. But in any case, that is not insurmountable."

He noted reports that the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Jeddah are planning to launch "embassy on wheels" which would bring embassy services to places far from the consular post.

The final consolidated version of the absentee voting bill is expected to be submitted for ratification next Wednesday.

A "styling" sub-committee has been tasked to finalize the "rough edges" of the working draft being used by the bicameral committee.

The sub-committee is composed of Senators Edgardo Angara and Aquilino Pimentel and Reps. Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Didagen Dilangalen.(Malaya)

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