MANILA,  May 31, 2004
By RAYMOND AFRICA  -  As Congress starts today the canvass of votes for president and vice president, President Joseph Estrada yesterday appealed to both administration and opposition leaders "to let democracy take its course."

Estrada said while he identifies with the concerns of the opposition, he advised them not to resort to extra-legal means of redress.

The Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino has been saying the administration robbed Fernando Poe Jr. of victory through massive and systematic fraud. Some groups supporting Poe have been threatening to stage mass protest actions.

Estrada issued the following statement:

"Three weeks after the national elections, the canvassing of votes for president and vice president has yet to begin. I am one among the Filipino people who await the final and official results. But at the rate things are going, it seems like we are in for a long, hard wait. The country's many problems that need immediate solutions have been left unattended, as politics has taken centerstage far more than its regular run.

"It is in this light that I appeal to our political leaders, whether they are from the administration or the opposition to let democracy take its course.

"While I identify with the concerns of the Opposition, I nonetheless urge them to seek redress within the bounds of law. There can be no substitute to due process, transparency, and the rule of law.

"Now is the best time for our country's leaders to pull together and water down the anguish that is immobilizing our economy and dividing our nation.

"Finally, I urge all parties to wait for the results of the canvassing of votes and upon its completion, for the proclamation of the President and Vice President. This should be the first big step towards our much-desired national healing."


Congress, sitting as the National Board of Canvassers, starts canvassing today after nearly a week's delay caused by debates over rules governing the tabulation.

The canvass rules include provisions on the formation of the 22-man joint committee to conduct the canvassing, the issuance of interim reports by the committee, and the basis of ruling on the due execution and authenticity of the certificates of canvass (COCs).

Canvassing will be eight hours starting 10 a.m. Monday to Friday.

The process will start with the ceremonial opening of ballot boxes by Senate President Franklin Drilon.

The 1987 Constitution provides that the national canvass should be completed before June 30.

To ensure transparency, Drilon said the marathon proceedings would be broadcast live by the government-run Nation Broadcasting Network (NBN-4).


The main bone of contention when canvassing starts this morning is whether or not to open the 250,000 election returns (ERs) as proposed by opposition lawmakers.

Romulo Macalintal, President Arroyo's chief electoral legal counsel, said the proposal goes against the Constitution because it would just delay the canvass for years even if each return would take only 10 minutes.

"It will take 14 years for the joint committee to finish the canvassing (if election returns are opened)," he said.

He said that under the 1987 Charter, only certificates of canvass (COCs) are to be examined by the 22-man canvassing body and election returns would be consulted only where there are erasures and other irregularities on the face of the COCs.

Macalintal said the KNP should have objected at the precinct, municipal and provincial levels when the votes were still being tabulated, if indeed there were irregularities in the process as claimed by the opposition.


Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. named Reps. Raul Gonzalez (Lakas, Iloilo) and Florentino Abad (LP, Batanes) as chairman and vice chairman, of the 11-man House contingent.

Appointed as members were Reps. Constantino Jaraula (Lakas, Cagayan de Oro City), Eduardo Antonio Nachura (LP, Samar), Prospero Nograles Jr. (Lakas, Davao City), Salacnib Baterina (Lakas, Ilocos Sur), Arthur Defensor (Lakas, Iloilo), Antonio Cuenco (Lakas, Cebu), Marcelino Libanan (NPC, Eastern Samar), Joseph Francis Escudero (NPC, Sorsogon) and Kim Bernardino-Lokin (Party-list, Cibac).

Escudero is the lone opposition member in the group although majority members said they expect Lokin to side with the minority because Cibac is affiliated with the group of Bangon Pilipinas! presidential bet Bro. Eddie Villanueva.

Villanueva's supporters have joined the KNP in accusing the administration of perpetrating massive fraud in the elections.

Also named were 12 alternates - Reps. Oscar Rodriguez (Lakas, Pampanga), Clavel Martinez (Lakas, Cebu), Mauricio Domogan (Lakas, Baguio City), Eduardo Veloso (NPC, Leyte), Rene Velardo (Party List, Buhay), Edgar Valdez (Party List, Apec), Fredenil Castro (LP, Capiz), Gerry Espina (NPC, Biliran), Satur Ocampo (Bayan Muna), Suplicio Roco (Aksiyon Demokratiko, Camarines Sur), Agapito Aquino (LDP, Makati), and Prospero Pichay Jr. (Lakas, Surigao del Sur).


Opposition leaders questioned the non-inclusion, even as an alternate, of Maguindanao Rep. Didagen Dilangalen who was considered the "most prepared" among congressmen.

Dilangalen had bitterly fought the creation of the joint canvassing committee, insisting the process be done by the entire Senate and House sitting as the National Board of Canvassers.

His filibustering earned him the ire of a member of the audience who sent him a note that read. 'Shut up! You are just wasting the taxpayers' money!"

Dilangalen himself voiced disappointment that he was not picked and said it is part of the majority's scheme to railroad the canvassing.

WHY 22?

Rep. Francis Escudero, Poe's spokesman, said De Venecia would have to explain his criteria for choosing the members of he House contingent to erase suspicions he is part of a Malacaņang-hatched plan to rig the vote canvass.

He said De Venecia also has to explain why there were 22 members.

In the 1992 tally, he said, there were 14 members because there were seven presidential candidates.

He suggested that each of the five presidential candidates now should be allowed to nominate at least one member of the House and one Senate member of the canvass committee, like in the 1992 canvass.

The Speaker's office said that under the rules of canvassing approved by Congress in joint session, the authority to appoint members of the House to the joint committee was vested on the Speaker, hence it is De Venecia's sole prerogative who to choose as long as both sides are represented.

Opposition leaders from both houses of Congress will hold a meeting at the Sulo Hotel in Quezon City this morning before the 10 a.m. start of the canvassing to map out last-minute strategies.

The Senate contingent is composed of Juan Flavier, Francis Pangilinan, Ramon Magsaysay Jr., Ralph Recto, Joker Arroyo and Manuel Villar for the majority and Pimentel, Vicente Sotto III, Sergio Osmeņa III, Tessie Aquino-Oreta and Edgardo Angara for the minority.


Macalintal and his associate legal counsel, Albert Agra, presented to media their tally of the presidential and vice presidential race.

According to their tally, Arroyo got 12,859,806 votes and Poe, 11,740,962 votes or a winning margin of 1,118,844 votes.

Noli de Castro got 15,068,421 votes against the 14,164,416 votes of KNP bet Sen. Loren Legarda.

Macalintal scored opposition lawyers for seeking the exclusion of COCs from some provinces. He explained the scheme would result in massive disenfranchisement of millions of voters.

Macalintal said their tabulation of the 176 COCs was the most reliable guide as to the outcome of the May 10 polls.

He said the basis for their tally were the certified true copies of Comelec of the 176 COCs, the same ones that was canvassed by Comelec for their proclamation of the 11 winning senatorial candidates, five of whom were from the KNP.

The remaining uncanvassed COC from Cotabato City, Macalintal said will not "materially affect" the outcome since the registered voters in the area was only placed at 121,398.

"These are certified true copies of the 176 COCs that were duly-authenticated by the Comelec," Macalintal said.


Senate President Franklin Drilon dismissed as "a political campaign hangover" the opposition's claim that the rules of canvass would "favor" Arroyo.

He said the rules, which were approved after five days of contentious debates, were basically the same rules that were used to proclaim Joseph Estrada in 1998 and Fidel Ramos in 1992.

During the debate on the canvassing rules, Drilon explained that a number of proposals presented by the opposition were voted down because of the lawmakers' desire to avoid redundancy and delays in the counting of the votes.

"Some of the proposals were voted down because they were already found in the existing law, R. A. 7166, and therefore the majority bloc found it no longer necessary to incorporate them in the rules," Drilon said.


Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the opposition could not complain about the approved rules because there was enough time for deliberations.

Bunye expressed confidence winners would be proclaimed by June 30.

Asked what government plans to do in case Congress fails to proclaim the winners by next month, Bunye said, "Let's just hope for the best." (Peter J. G. Tabingo and Jocelyn Montemayor)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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