KNP SENATORIAL BETS ASK SC TO DISQUALIFY, COMPEL GMA TO STEP DOWN

MANILA, March 18, 2004  (STAR) By Aurea Calica - President Arroyo is facing yet another disqualification suit after two female senatorial candidates in the ticket of her chief rival Fernando Poe Jr. asked the Supreme Court yesterday to either disqualify her or compel her to step down to prevent her from using government resources in her campaign.

Malacañang was quick to react, branding as a "harassment suit" the petition filed by Ma. Elisa "Boots" Anson-Roa and Amina Rasul-Bernardo, who cited conflict of interest in a sitting president seeking a full six-year term in the May 10 elections.

The petition was filed through lawyers Luis Dado, Jose Laureta and Roberto Lara.

In the petition, Poe’s senatorial candidates said the 1987 Constitution prohibits Mrs. Arroyo from continuing to perform the functions of a president after filing her certificate of candidacy with the Commission on Elections (Comelec) last year.

But Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said there is no legal basis for the petition for prohibition and mandamus for the Supreme Court to make the President resign or go on official leave during the remainder of the 90-day campaign period.

"We have our unique situation where we have our President who is a candidate for the first time," Bunye said. "This is something that we have to adjust to and the President will continue to govern even as the campaign period has started."

"We believe this is pure harassment," he said.

Bunye said they "expect more suits of this nature" from the opposition with less than two months to go before the polls.

The petitioners called the case a landmark one since this is the first time since the 1986 people power revolt that the country has a sitting chief executive who is running in a presidential race.

In his daily press briefing, Bunye pointed out that the latest suit against Mrs. Arroyo was filed after a disqualification case was lodged against her with the Comelec by a lawyers’ group identified with the opposition.

Bunye was referring to the case alleging that Mrs. Arroyo exceeded the 120-minute limit on political advertisements broadcast on television.

Bunye insisted the President’s political ads on TV remain within the limit imposed by the Comelec rule of 120 minutes per TV station.

The surge in the President’s ratings in recent public opinion surveys is seemingly what’s keeping the opposition uneasy, he said.

"What we know is the President is clearly a front-runner (and) I believe the opposition will do everything they think is needed to stop (her) momentum," he said.

The petitioners said the framers of the 1987 Constitution did not closely look at the scenario of a Chief Executive continuing to hold office despite being a candidate.

The Charter prohibits a former president from seeking reelection.

In Mrs. Arroyo’s case, however, she filed her COC in a bid to seek a full six-year term as president as she only took over the three years left in term of her predecessor, President Joseph Estrada, who was ousted in 2001 by a military-backed revolt.

The legal suit filed against the President might raise more questions on how applicable the provisions in the Constitution still are.

Some sectors led by Congress have been pushing for amendments in the Constitution either via constituent assembly or constitutional convention. Debates have died down for the meantime amid the election season.

"While it is clear that the respondent may not be prohibited from seeking a second term, it is likewise clearly the intention of the framers of the Constitution that a succeeding president, such as respondent, should not be allowed to continue to hold office and take advantage of the vast powers of the presidency in support of her bid for her own term," the petition read.

Therefore, the petitioners said the Supreme Court should declare Mrs. Arroyo resigned and prohibited from exercising the powers and prerogatives of the presidency.

They said Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr. should be ordered to take his oath as president or acting president. Guingona announced over the weekend that he has accepted Poe’s invitation to be one of his advisers on election concerns. The Vice President left the administration party last year amid differences of opinion on key issues with Mrs. Arroyo.

Unless the President voluntarily yields the functions and duties of her office to the Vice President as provided under the Constitution, the petitioners said the Supreme Court should direct the Comelec to disqualify her by canceling her certificate of candidacy.

"No president may campaign and govern at the same time. There is no hybrid specie of ‘candidate-president’ within the contemplation of the Constitution," they said.

In the alternative, the petitioners said the President should be considered on official leave.

They said she should transmit to Congress a written notice of her incapacity to exercise the duties and functions of her office as provided for under the Constitution.

Poe’s allies further sought that the executive secretary be stopped from implementing the orders and directives of Mrs. Arroyo.

They added Commission on Audit (COA) and National Treasurer Mina Figueroa should refrain from recognizing the President’s authority to disburse government funds.

Electioneering

In the guise of fulfilling her duties as president, the petitioners said Mrs. Arroyo is actually committing election offenses such as vote-buying, conspiracy to bribe voters and coercion of subordinates.

They also accused the President of using public funds and money deposited in trust, and utilizing equipment, facilities owned and controlled by the government for her campaign.

One violation, they said, is the President’s distribution of free health insurance to the people through Philhealth cards during campaign sorties.

These health cards bear Mrs. Arroyo’s photograph, they said.

The petitioners noted that the health insurance scheme is a government project since it was funded by the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office and the state.

"The same act of distributing free health insurance during (the) respondent’s campaign sorties likewise constitutes vote-buying," they said.

Another obvious election offense, they said, is the President’s use of official government land and air transportation in her travels to and from her campaign sorties nationwide.

The petitioners likewise accused the President of grossly violating the Fair Elections Act.

They said Mrs. Arroyo is trying to get media mileage by making street sweepers wear blue uniforms emblazoned with her name through a project under the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Blue-colored road signs are scattered all around the country’s sidewalks attributing the completion of projects to Mrs. Arroyo, the petitioners lamented.

All these for P1.3 billion, they said.

"Incidentally, this Honorable Court may be interested to note that these uniforms and road signs are reported to have cost the government, particularly the DPWH, a staggering amount of P1.3 billion," the petitioners said.

The petitioners argued that if the Comelec would strictly enforce its rules limiting a candidate for president to spend only P10 per voter or P400 million for the estimated 40 million voters, Mrs. Arroyo is "already guilty of overspending."

This election violation is punishable by disqualification from the presidential race, according to the petitioners.

Apart from these, they said the Arroyo government has engaged in a massive media campaign of its accomplishments through advertisements of the PCSO and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

They pointed out the Department of Agriculture even purchased full-page advertisements in various newspapers promoting "Gloria Rice" - again with photographs of Mrs. Arroyo.

This ad even included the photo of the President receiving the "Ceres Award" from the Food and Agriculture Organization.

All of these are political propaganda and are in violation of the Fair Elections Act, they stressed.

But the President’s spokesman stressed that while Mrs. Arroyo is deep into her campaign activities, she remains focused on the performance of her duties on governance.

"What the President said is that governance does not stop even in campaign period," Bunye argued.

"So if it’s really a basic program that has to be pushed through, especially if it is a program promised during her SONA (State of the Nation Address), then the President will continue to pursue this," he said.

One Big Political Party

"The candidate-president, in effect, has converted the executive branch of government into one big political party geared towards ensuring her victory in the May elections," the petitioners said.

"The wisdom of the constitutional injunction against the use of public funds by a president to assure election thus becomes crystal clear," the petitioners said. "They can be no honest and credible elections if the constitutional injunction is disregarded and set aside."

They further pointed out the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of laws is being violated by Mrs. Arroyo herself by campaigning and "governing" at the same time.

They said Mrs. Arroyo is taking undue advantage of her position to the detriment of the other presidential contenders.

While Mrs. Arroyo’s rivals have to abide by the poll body’s strict standards, the petitioners said, the President is enjoying a shield - her incumbent presidency.

"Most important of all, all other presidential candidates cannot take advantage of any government agency to pay for their campaign expenses," they said. — With Marichu Villanueva


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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