[(PHOTO AT LEFT) WE’RE OUTTA HERE: Spectators from the southern gallery of the House of Representatives walk out of the plenary hall in disgust over the filibustering of opposition Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., which lasted more than seven hours yesterday. - Photo By Fernan Nebres ]

MANILA,  JUNE 9, 2004 (STAR) By Paolo Romero  -  A walkout by more than 200 spectators who attended the canvassing in Congress did not stop opposition Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. yesterday from filibustering, effectively halting the already snail-paced tabulation of votes for president and vice president.

The spectators, mostly residents of Quezon City, said they had been closely monitoring the proceedings since May 25 but walked out in disgust yesterday because they could no longer stomach the dilatory tactics by lawmakers allied with Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr.

"My vote for him was wasted," said a middle-aged woman who identified herself as Marisa Caniego of Barangay Commonwealth.

Edith Numio, a 53-year-old reflexologist, admitted to reporters that while she voted for independent presidential candidate Sen. Panfilo Lacson, she could no longer bear Pimentel’s filibustering.

"Nothing has been happening here and we’ve been here since day one and they cannot stop arguing," she said.

Mayette Nacional, 48, who claimed to be a member of the Alyansa ng Kapayapaan at Pagkakaisa, voiced the same sentiment as she admitted having voted for President Arroyo.

Security personnel at the House of Representatives said the people who walked out often stayed in the upper south gallery.

Poe’s election lawyers, however, charged that the spectators were "hakot" or part of a paid crowd, as evidenced by the packed lunch they left behind.

Romulo Macalintal, Mrs. Arroyo’s election lawyer, said the walkout only showed that the people were already fed up with the opposition bloc’s maneuverings.

"The Filipino people are tired," Macalintal said. "Enough of dagdag-bawas (vote-padding and shaving) allegations, what they should do is daldal-bawas (less talk)."

Administration lawmakers were seen laughing or shaking their heads as Pimentel began his filibustering — a recognized parliamentary recourse for senators if they want to interminably delay proceedings to stop a certain bill or ruling.

Pimentel has been threatening since Friday last week that proceedings by the joint committee may be delayed if the majority bloc insists on keeping the opposition under its thumb.

The session resumed at 10:45 a.m. yesterday with Commission on Elections (Comelec) lawyer Betty Pizana being grilled over a discrepancy found in the certificate of canvass (COCs) from absentee voters among soldiers, policemen, teachers and foreign affairs personnel.

As members of the committee, particularly Poe’s allies among congressmen and senators, were about to wrap up their questioning shortly before 1 p.m., Pimentel took the floor and said Pizana should not be let off easily.

Pimentel’s "long, lengthy peroration," as Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan described it, was provoked by remarks made by Pangilinan who in effect blamed the opposition for delaying the canvassing.

Pangilinan said the joint canvassing committee had already spent nearly six hours on the question of whether to tabulate the votes in the COC for "local" absentee voting, which Poe’s lawyers claimed Monday night was defective.

Knowing that the canvass was being covered live by at least two television networks, Pangilinan said he would like the public to know that the majority blocs in the joint committee wanted the issue resolved as soon as possible.

Pimentel resented the implication of Pangilinan’s statement and immediately launched into what Pangilinan — who was presiding over the canvass with his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Iloilo City Rep. Raul Gonzalez — alternately labeled as an "extended peroration," "a long-winding peroration," "a soliloquy," and "filibustering."

He addressed himself, not to his colleagues in the canvassing panel, but to "my dear people, mga minamahal kong kababayan."

The exchange between the Mindanao senator and the two presiding officers became so nasty that Pangilinan and Gonzalez rejected Pimentel’s request for a break so he could take his lunch.

Several members of the joint committee tried to interrupt Pimentel, but the two presiding officers did not want the "filibusterer" to be interrupted — hoping he would get tired, embarrassed or lose his voice.

The Iloilo City congressman, who had previously tussled with Pimentel, said the Mindanao senator could speak "till kingdom come."

"Very well, I will exercise this right till doomsday," the senator shot back.

Gonzalez later asked that Pimentel and Pizana, who was already fidgeting, be given some soup.

Sen. Joker Arroyo was seen passing around peanuts to Pangilinan, Gonzalez, and Batanes Rep. Florencio Abad. Lawyers of presidential candidates had left the chamber.

"We will give him (Pimentel) all the rope to hang himself in public," Gonzalez later told reporters.

In his extended talk, Pimentel said he and his opposition colleagues are using all legal means available to them to ferret out the truth, particularly in the case of "defective" COCs containing absentee votes cast by soldiers, policemen, teachers, and foreign affairs personnel.

He said the principal reason for his peroration is that he could already see that majority blocs in both chambers of Congress will reject every request the opposition will make for the precinct-level election returns to be opened.

On Monday night, Poe lawyer Harriet Demetriou, a former chairwoman of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), brought out the discrepancy in the total number of votes cast by the local absentee voters for presidential candidates and the number of voters who actually voted.

She said the votes, totaling 5,826 for all presidential candidates, exceeded the number of voters by 116 votes. It was a clear case of vote-padding and shaving, Pimentel claimed.

Pizana explained the discrepancy, telling the committee that her staff committed an "honest mistake" by writing the total number of those who voted as 5,710 instead of the correct figure of 5,923.

"There was no malice here," said Pizana, who chaired the special board of canvassers for local absentee votes. She added that she was taking responsibility for the error.

In the course of his peroration, Pimentel spent more than an hour reading and explaining the KNP’s petition filed before the Supreme Court, contesting the constitutionality of the canvassing by joint committee. The high tribunal threw out the petition yesterday.

Pimentel was the chief proponent of a joint plenary canvass that involves the participation of all members of Congress.

Pimentel also reiterated his denunciation of National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) secretary-general Guillermo Luz, claiming that Luz is a Canadian and cited his alien certificate number as proof. He said he was awaiting confirmation from the Bureau of Immigration before filing a complaint against Luz, who has denied the charge.

The wife of Serge Remonde, one of Mrs. Arroyo’s media handlers and the head of a sequestered television station, did not escape Pimentel’s wrath after she issued statements in support of Luz. The senator said these statements were uncalled for, and accused her of being a foreign national.

Pimentel also called on businessman Jose Concepcion Jr. to quit as Namfrel chairman for being a supporter of Mrs. Arroyo.

Several times during his speech, which started at 1:15 p.m., Pimentel said the KNP is not delaying the canvassing. He ended his speech at 4:06 p.m. and proceeded to question Pizana.

Davao City Rep. Prospero Nograles, who is also a member of the joint committee, lamented that KNP congressmen and senators have successfully diverted the committee from its main task of canvassing.

Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin said Gonzalez was Pimentel’s lawyer during martial law and that Pimentel had complained Gonzalez’s lawyering did not save him from serving time in jail.

Locsin said Pimentel is used to "fighting alone," referring to his unpopular move of filibustering. He also asked television networks to shorten their live coverage of the proceedings so the members of Congress "won’t talk too much."

Negros Oriental Rep. Jacinto Paras said Pimentel’s move is just part of the opposition’s "fiscalizing."

In a related development, the League of Municipalities of the Philippines urged Congress yesterday to speed up the canvassing "to forestall a massive government paralysis and avert a national crisis."

In a two-page resolution, the group said it is "no longer fair game" for the opposition to block the proclamation of the winning presidential and vice presidential candidates "through unreasonable arguments that will only incite violence or trigger an upheaval." — With Jess Diaz, Delon Porcalla, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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