MANILA,  JUNE 15, 2004
By Ma. Theresa Torres and Maricel V. Cruz , Reporters -  MALACAÑANG is bracing itself for a walkout by the opposition from the joint congressional committee canvassing as early as today as President Arroyo’s lead over the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) standard-bearer, Fernando Poe Jr., is expected to widen with the canvassing of votes from Iloilo.

A Palace source said the “critical period” in the canvassing of votes at the Batasan Building will start today with the counting of more “controversial” Certificates of Canvass (COCs).

The source said this is why administration lawmakers are expected to delay the canvassing of No. 118 COC today to make sure that the walkout would be prevented.

COC No. 119 comes from Iloilo, where, according to the source, President Arroyo is expected to get 328, 936 votes.

Besides Iloilo, the President is also expected to widen her lead with the counting of votes from Cebu, Davao City and San Juan.

President Arroyo and Poe are neck and neck in the previous days’ canvassing of votes in Congress.

The source said, however, that once the votes have been counted, including those from Cebu, Davao City and San Juan, the President is expected to get 12,859,806 over 11,740, 862 of Poe by June 25.

The Palace official, who asked not to be named, provided a graph forecasting possible scenarios at the House of Representatives following the expected pattern of votes that will start today.

The graph showed June 8 to 15 is less critical with the canvassing of votes from “noncontroversial COCs” and that June 16 to 25 is crucial as the 22-man joint committee will start counting votes from places where the opposition claims massive cheating has occurred.

Palace officials kept mum about this issue, including the supposed meeting between President Arroyo and Senate President Franklin Drilon in Iloilo.

The President’s spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, could not confirm if the meeting pushed through.

At the same time Malacañang remains undecided on whether to call a special session of Congress in the light of questions raised on the validity of the joint canvassing committee created by Congress, which had been tallying the votes for president and vice president.

“We will study all options especially those suggestions from objective legal luminaries in this subject,” Bunye said, although he admitted that they are considering the proposal.

“We are looking at all options. Maybe when the President comes back we will have a decision,” Bunye said.

The President is in Iloilo City and is expected to return to Manila Tuesday.

Bunye did not identify the legal luminaries being asked for opinion by the Palace, but he cited as an example the opinion of the Ateneo College of Law dean, Father Joaquin Bernas, a noted constitutionalist who believes that there is no constitutional question on the current setup by Congress.

Opposition lawmakers questioned the authority of the joint canvassing committee to proceed with the adjournment of Congress, asking to whom the committee will present its report.

Some legislators said Congress had terminated its function when the Senate and the House adjourned last week.

Meanwhile, in the latest canvassing involving 89 COCs, President Arroyo has sustained her lead over Poe, boosted further by COCs from Surigao del Sur and Agusan del Norte, which are dominated by the ruling Lakas Christian-Muslim Democrats.

At 6:30 p.m. Monday, the partial official tally showed that Mrs. Arroyo got 1,411,368, trailed by Poe’s 1,304,803, or a lead of over 106,000 by the President.

In Surigao del Sur Arroyo got 114,075, Poe 68,192. In Agusan del Sur Arroyo had 100,998 against Poe’s 61, 949.

Opposition Sen. Panfilo Lacson consistently ranked third with 350,850, followed by the televangelist Eddie Villanueva, 228,017; and former senator Raul Roco, 178,559.

In the vice-presidential contest Mrs. Arroyo’s running mate, Sen. Noli de Castro, was on top with 1,661,877, trailed by Poe’s running mate, Sen. Loren Legarda, 1,562,623.

In Surigao del Sur and Agusan del Sur, de Castro overtook Legarda with more than half of increase in votes. The CoCs from two provinces showed that de Castro got 263, 009 against Legarda’s 107, 873.

Still in far third was former representative Herminio Aquino of Tarlac with 91, 354 votes and Rodolfo Pajo, 2,448.

As the joint canvassing committee resumed Monday, nine more CoCs were canvassed. They came from local voting—Surigao del Sur, Jordan, Agusan del Sur, Sarangani, Mandaluyong, Antique, Eastern Samar, Marikina—and absentee voting in Chile and Venezuela.

It took the joint committee about five hours to resume the canvassing.

The committee failed to resume its session on time as the KNP insisted on the opening of all election returns for Surigao del Sur, which it suspected of having a “ghost precinct.”

The joint committee was about to canvass the 81st CoC from Surigao del Sur when Sixto Brillantes, counsel for Poe, demanded the markings of election returns (ERs) and statements of votes (SoVs) as exhibits, suspecting irregularities.

Brillantes said the existence of a ghost precinct in Surigao del Sur was established as the COCs from the province showed there were 1,455 precincts compared with KNP documents that noted there were only 1,454.

Opposition Sen. Edgardo Angara echoed Brillantes’ observation, noting that the ERs and SoVs should have been marked as exhibits in the joint committee “to ascertain authenticity and due execution.”

But the Senate majority leader, Francis Pangilinan, head of the 11-man Senate contingent for canvassing, said that the joint committee would have to mark as exhibits those election documents case-to-case.

“We haven’t marked any SoVs as part of the exhibit,” Pangilinan said, stressing that involving these documents in the joint committee could only be done if there are alterations or erasures in the CoCs themselves.

Based on the Commission on Elections’ CoCs, President Arroyo got a widening lead over Poe with 114,075 against 68,192.

President Arroyo’s K-4 legal counsel, Romulo Makalintal, lashed out at the opposition lawyer’s demand to examine the election returns from 1,454 out of the 1,455 precincts from Surigao del Sur.

“Just because one precinct is missing, they [KNP lawyers] are opposing the canvass of 1,454 precincts in Surigao del Sur. Only one precinct was in question and yet they want the joint committee to examine all the 1,454 election returns,” Makalintal said at a press conference.

The opposition lawyers, led by Rufus Rodriguez, had said that they were interested in examining only 15 to 20 CoCs.

The Philippine National Police said on Monday that new protest rallies are unlikely to happen despite plans of the opposition to question the canvassing of votes by Congress.

Director Avelino Razon Jr., PNP operations chief, brushed off the idea that Poe’s supporters could stage new mass actions.

“They were not able to generate the much-needed support. This means that the people are no longer responding to them,” Razon told reporters in Camp Crame.

He added that the people may have grown weary of mass actions and would decide to wait for the results of the canvass, noting that Congress could finish this within its time frame.

The National Capital Region Police Office has been put on heightened alert Monday after reports that Poe’s supporters would stage daily protest actions until Congress ends the canvassing of votes.

-- With Anthony Vargas

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved