Manila, Feb. 7, 2003 -- Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. dismissed fears yesterday that Charter change (Cha-cha) through which a parliamentary form of government can be adopted will void the absentee voting rights of overseas Filipinos.

President Arroyo is set to sign into law next week the Absentee Voting Bill as soon as the House of Representatives ratifies the reconciled version of the bill approved by the bicameral conference committee last Tuesday.

The proposed law allows maids, seamen, entertainers, professionals and other Filipinos living overseas to cast their ballots in national elections, starting with the May 2004 polls.

The Senate ratified the final version of the bill Tuesday but the House has yet to ratify it as of yesterday afternoon.

Pimentel, a principal author of the measure, told The STAR that the President can sign the bill into law on Monday if the House ratifies it in time.

He also brushed aside speculations that the enactment of the absentee voting law would nullify an initiative of lawmakers to change the form of government from presidential to parliamentary.

Pimentel was reacting to the opinion aired by lawyer Romulo Macalintal that the right of overseas Filipinos to vote for the president, vice president, senators and party-list representatives will be rendered void if and when the parliamentary system is adopted.

He noted that the absentee voting act merely addresses the present needs of overseas Filipinos to be allowed to vote for nationally elected officials and party-list representatives.

The adoption of a parliamentary system, according to Pimentel, is merely a proposal at this point.

"It has not moved an inch and therefore should not be used as an argument against the adoption of the absentee voting bill," he said.

Pimentel noted that if and when the parliamentary form of government is adopted, "then lawmakers (in case Congress is converted into a constituent assembly) or constitutional convention members and the people will have time to modify the absentee voting bill if necessary so they can vote for members of parliament instead of for senators."

Mrs. Arroyo had promised overseas Filipino workers that she would immediately sign the absentee voting bill into law as soon as Congress approves a harmonized version of the measure.

About seven million Filipinos are based abroad, remitting an officially estimated $8 billion to the Philippine financial system every year, an amount nearly equivalent to the country's agricultural output.

Pimentel said the prevailing sentiment in both chambers of Congress, which is shared by Mrs. Arroyo, is not to disrupt the 2004 elections and to deal with Charter change afterwards.

If constitutional convention is adopted as the mode for amending the Charter, Pimentel said the plan is to elect delegates to the convention simultaneously with the 2004 national and local elections.

This clearly indicates, he said, that the 2004 elections will proceed as scheduled and overseas Filipinos will be able to exercise their absentee voting right for the first time.

The bicameral committee that prepared the final version of the draft law said overseas workers of voting age, including permanent residents of the United States, will be allowed to vote under certain conditions, said Sen. Edgardo Angara, chairman of the Senate contingent in the committee.

The committee managed to sway the House members of the body, which had favored a more restrictive law that would have excluded permanent residents of other countries. Their choices would also have been limited to electing the president and vice president.

Emigrants will have to execute a deposition declaring their intent to establish actual fiscal residence in the Philippines within three years of casting their votes, Angara said. This would satisfy the residency requirements for voters stated in the Constitution.

Filipinos based abroad will have to register in person at embassies and consulates, while those based in Britain, Canada and Japan would have the option to send their votes by mail instead of casting them in ballot boxes at Philippine missions.

The proposed law gives seamen 30 days before the actual balloting to cast their votes, and gives everyone else two weeks.

In Hong Kong, where more than 100,000 Filipinos are based, Philippine groups gave a lukewarm response to the laws.

"The laws are a good move as they are a long overdue right of Filipino migrant workers," said Ramon Bulbron, a spokesman for the Asian Pacific Mission for migrant Filipinos.

Bulbron noted that though the laws will give overseas workers a more direct participation in political affairs, but "with the current state of Philippine politics, it is not 100 percent guarantee whether their voices can be heard." (By Sammy Santos, Star)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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