MANILA,  May 31, 2004
By Nikko Dizon And Jess Diaz  -  The opposition Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) is set to question the constitutionality of the canvassing of votes by a joint Congress committee, contending that the Constitution provides that the canvassing should be done in plenary session.

The issue of the constitutionality of the canvassing by committee "will be taken up by KNP lawyers at the proper forum," KNP spokesman Mike Romero said, but did not specify whether the forum he referred to would be the Supreme Court.

Romero also clarified that the opposition did not really accept the canvassing ground rules.

"Opposition senators and congressmen voted to reject the rules because the Constitution says the canvassing should be done in a plenary session," he said.

But in the meantime, Romero said the opposition "will live (with the canvassing rules) pending the (resolution of the) issue on the constitutionality of the joint committee because we were outnumbered."

In cases where certificates of canvass (COCs) are deemed questionable, the KNP wants to refer to the election returns and statements of votes that accompany the questioned COCs.

KNP chairman Sen. Edgardo Angara earlier proposed that the rules should state that COCs should be accompanied by the statements of votes from cities and municipalities, as well as election returns from the precinct level. Angara’s proposal was rejected by the majority during the debates on the rules of canvass.

Romero reiterated that the KNP finds "solace" in the fact that Republic Act 7166 specifies that the COCs submitted to Congress in a joint session should be accompanied by the statements of votes and election returns.

"The opposition and the majority can refer to the law and invoke the law when there are questions about the COCs," he said.

The opposition intends to scrutinize all COCs, instead of focusing on just 10 to 15 COCs in areas where it claims its standard-bearer, Fernando Poe Jr., was cheated.

"Because allies of President Arroyo in both the Senate and the House are bent on railroading her proclamation, my colleagues in the opposition are now planning to subject all COCs to a fine-toothed comb," Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said yesterday.

He said the obstinate refusal of the majority in both chambers to accept "safeguards" against a hasty canvass and proclamation when they promulgated their canvassing rules meant that "they want to proclaim Mrs. Arroyo forthwith."

"The approved rules will not allow the truth to come out because the majority is afraid of the truth," he said.

However, Senate President Franklin Drilon said the rules of canvass "are fair to all the protagonists."

"They are given the widest latitude to examine the COCs and express their views and objections within the context of a pre-proclamation controversy," he said.

As for the matter of the truth being suppressed under the approved rules, Drilon said the opposition "does not have a monopoly of the truth because the other side can also claim the truth."

"There are two sides to this truth, but where do you ferret out the real truth? Is it in Congress or the Supreme Court acting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (where an election protest can be filed after the winners are proclaimed)?" he asked.

Drilon, a staunch ally of Mrs. Arroyo, said it is his view that it is the high court which can ultimately determine the truth.

He said politicians cannot be an impartial and a credible judge of the truth.

For his part, Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan said opposition fears of railroading are unfounded.

"If the lengthy debates of last week are any indication, if there was railroading, it’s been a horribly slow train," he said.

The opposition’s change of tack in examining the COCs came on the eve of the start of canvassing of votes by the Senate and the House.

Drilon will open the ballot boxes containing the COCs this morning before handing the certificates to a bicameral committee that will do the tabulation.

Pimentel said he and his colleagues will invoke their rights under the Constitution, the canvassing rules and the law governing the count, Republic Act 7166, even if Mrs. Arroyo’s allies outvote them at every step of the way.

He added that in case they discover erasures or alterations in the COCs, they intend to resort not only to the accompanying statements of vote but also to the election returns that were sent to the Senate in separate ballot boxes.

Upon Pimentel’s request during the joint session last week, Drilon has ordered that the ballot boxes containing the election returns (ERs) be brought to the Batasan complex in Quezon City where the canvassing will be done.

Drilon disagreed with Pimentel that the opposition can readily resort to the ERs.

"There are conditions in the law and in Section 17 of our rules before the returns can be examined. One of these is when the votes involved will affect the result of the election. If the votes will not affect the election result, then resorting to the ERs is not (an) available (option)," he said.

He reminded the opposition that "this is a pre-proclamation contest, not an election protest."

Besides, he said the canvassing committee does not have the power to examine the returns.

"That power belongs to Congress in joint session," he added.

Drilon also said he intends to perform his constitutional duty this morning of opening all COCs in plenary session in the order that the Senate received them.

He said under the Constitution, only he is empowered to do the task, although the canvassing rules allow him to delegate it to the Senate or House secretary.

"We will open the COCs tomorrow morning and we hope to start the tabulation in the afternoon or evening," he said.

Pimentel said the proposal of some House leaders for a "ceremonial opening" of five COCs by Drilon and the subsequent turnover of the job to the joint committee is not allowed under the rules.

Drilon said "if the rules are properly applied, we can finish the canvassing in two weeks."

He said the appointment of the members of the 22-member canvassing panel would also be done this morning.

The majority representatives in the Senate panel are Pangilinan, Joker Arroyo, Ralph Recto, Manuel Villar Jr., Juan Flavier and Ramon Magsaysay Jr.

The opposition will be represented by Pimentel, Angara, Vicente Sotto III, Luisa Ejercito, and Sergio Osmena III. The alternates will be Reps. Didagen Dilangalen, Jacinto Paras and J. V. Bautista, and Senators Gregorio Honasan and Teresa Aquino-Oreta.

Under the rules, the Senate minority is allowed to nominate opposition congressmen as alternates with no voting power.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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