Malacanang, June 23, 2003 (Star) Charter change (Cha-cha) is not on President Arroyo’s priority list.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said yesterday that amending the 1987 Constitution is not the President’s priority right now. "She’d rather concentrate on political, economic and electoral reforms," he said.

Bunye made these statements in reaction to reports that the Palace is tacitly supporting moves to amend the Charter.

It was reported that, despite the fact the President is distancing herself from the issue of Charter change, Malacañang is still exerting all efforts to bring about changes in the Constitution.

"I am talking about the position of the President on this matter," Bunye said when told that presidential adviser on special concerns Norberto Gonzales was quoted saying that Malacañang supported Cha-cha.

Mrs. Arroyo earlier said she would rather wait for Congress to decide on the final outcome of the Charter change proposal.

Meanwhile, Rep. Prospero Nograles (Lakas, Davao City) said in a statement that the tacit support of the President, "albeit noncommittal," has removed "all stumbling blocks... hindering the process (of Charter change)."

Nograles referred to Gonzales’ statement that the President formed a study group of leading constitutionalists last year who were tasked to come up with specific amendments to the Charter that will be presented to Congress soon.

According to Nograles, Gonzales’ revelations have removed "the most crucial stumbling block for the move to amend the Philippine Constitution... It’s really a relief for all of us who risked (exposing) ourselves (to) public criticisms, because we know this is the right thing to do. At least now we know that the President is on our side."

Gonzales said his target is to have the proposed Charter amendments passed and ratified in a plebiscite in time for the May 2004 national elections.

"This move to amend the Constitution is the only option left for our country to move forward and emerge from this economic and political see-saw that we are experiencing right now. Now that we know that the President is making her own move towards that direction, I’m optimistic that the Senate would do the same as soon as we resume session," Nograles said.

House Concurrent Resolution No. 16, which seeks to amend the Constitution by convening the House and Senate into a constituent assembly, is now facing stiff opposition in the Senate. Should the resolution be approved by a majority in the Senate, it would then be the subject of debate on the floor.

Charter amendments can be done either through a constituent assembly or by the election of delegates to a constitutional convention.

The constituent assembly is the faster and cheaper method of Charter change, but it does not allow the public to choose who will make the amendments to the Constitution. The constitutional convention method takes longer and costs more because of the need for two poll exercises — to elect delegates and ratify the new Charter — but it give the people the power to select the men and women who will make changes in the basic law of the land.

The bone of contention between the House and Senate is not whether the Charter should be amended but rather, the method by which the Constitution will be changed.

The House, led by Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., is pushing for the constituent assembly mode, citing lack of time and funds.

The Senate, led by Senate President Franklin Drilon, is pushing for a constitutional convention, citing the need to be careful and thorough in the endeavor of amending the Charter.

A constitutional convention, Charter change proponents said, would cost the country P8 billion and could expose the Constitution to more revisions than needed. Sen. Joker Arroyo earlier said a constitutional convention would allow second stringers and has-beens to tinker with the Charter.

Nograles said he expects the senators who are allied with the administration but are resistant to the House Resolution 16, including Drilon, will change their position and begin tackling the House proposal.

If not, Nograles said, he at least expects Drilon to let the Senate conduct a free and spirited debate on the proposal and present it to the senators for approval.

House Concurrent Resolution 16 seeks to amend certain political and economic provisions of the Charter, including shifting the Philippines’ mode of governance from presidential to parliamentary, with provisions for the installation of a federal system after 10 years.

The House approved the resolution in March by an overwhelming majority. Senators Edgardo Angara and Robert Barbers also filed a concurrent resolution calling for Charter amendments and their resolution is now under discussion by the Senate committee on constitutional amendments.

Earlier, the ruling Lakas party endorsed the move to amend the Constitution following similar, strong endorsements from the League of Provinces, League of Municipalities, League of Cities and the Liga ng mga Barangay.

Some private groups, non-government organizations (NGOs) and members of academe also pushed for Charter reforms via the constituent assembly mode, Western Samar Rep. Antonio Nachura said.

Only two more votes are needed from the Senate to approve both resolutions proposing Charter change.

De Venecia and Malacañang gave assurances that the May 2004 national elections will push through as scheduled, even with Charter amendments. Mayen Jaymalin, Paolo Romero

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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