MANILA,  JUNE 16, 2004
By Efren L. Danao , Senior Reporter and Maricel V. Cruz , Reporter

A walkout by the opposition lawmakers in the joint congressional committee canvassing the votes for president and vice president would facilitate the work of the committee.

“A walkout will make our work faster. We will just replace them [opposition members],” Drilon said in a roundtable discussion with The Manila Times editors and reporters.

Drilon pointed out that nothing in the rules of the joint session prevents him from appointing non-oppositionists to the joint committee. He said it is the legislative practice that made him appoint five minority senators to the panel at their request.

He cited this request as proof that Congress cannot possibly be nonpartisan in canvassing the Certificates of Canvass (COCs) and in proclaiming the president and vice president.

Drilon remains confident that the National Board of Canvassers will proclaim the president and vice president before June 30, “ideally, on June 25.”

He said they would push the joint committee to finish all 176 COCs by Friday. With 92 COCs tabulated on Monday, this meant the committee would have to count an average of 21 COCs a day to finish the remaining 84.

“After Sunday, Father’s Day, it will be a very tense week. If, despite our push, canvassing is not finished by June 18, the weekend will be the lull before the storm,” Drilon said.

He said that any committee report, which could be finished over the weekend, would be debated in the joint session for four to five days, or until June 25.

Drilon said the reported walkout by the opposition has been linked to a purported mass protest against the Arroyo administration.

He maintained that a walkout is intended to be the “trigger point” for a massive political protest.

The Koalisyon ng Nagka­kaisang Pilipino (KNP) denied the opposition was planning a walkout.

The KNP’s spokesman, Rep. Francis Escudero of Sorsogon, a regular member of the joint canvassing committee, said the opposition would remain true to its word to fulfill its constitutional mandate to finish the canvassing.

Malacañang branded the alleged walkout “the mother of all dilatory tactics.”

The President’s spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, said if the opposition pushes ahead with the planned walkout, it would fail because the public would not support such a move.

“The people are weary and impatient and rightfully so,” Bunye said.

He said it would be better if the opposition exercises instead “patriotic restraint” and goes on with the canvassing to know who the people have chosen to lead the country in the next six years.

The Manila Times reported Monday that Malacañang was bracing itself for a walkout.

Escudero suspects it is the administration itself that floated the reports of an opposition walkout.

The opposition leaders had always maintained that their candidate, Fernando Poe Jr., won over Mrs. Arroyo by about 2 million votes, but massive cheating had marred the counting.

The administration denies massive cheating took place and insists the President would defeat Poe by 1.1 million votes.

Drilon said the opposition would stage a walkout once it believes it has popular support that could result in an Edsa-type protest.

He said the walkout by prosecution lawyers during the impeachment trial of former President Joseph Estrada triggered the massive outpouring of support that resulted in Edsa Dos in January 2001, and the eventual ouster of Estrada.

“Right now, I don’t think the opposition has that support. Any walkout will not cause Edsa 4,” he added.

The House Deputy Speaker for the Visayas, Raul M. Gonzalez of Iloilo City, head of the joint canvassing committee, expressed alarm at reports of a “mass movement” initiated by Poe’s camp to back the reported opposition walkout.

“The reports I have received from my own people in Iloilo say that many people from the province are going to Metro Manila [for an assembly]. This is very alarming,” Gonzalez said.

He did not dismiss the possibility that the reported walkout has something to do with Poe’s sudden public appearances after making himself scarce after the election.

“[The planned opposition walkout] might be a coincidence because Poe has been keeping a very low profile since the election. But during the canvassing he started moving around,” Gonzalez said.

Opposition Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. was angry about persistent rumors concerning the planned walkout. He blamed the media for spreading the rumors when asked to comment on the reported walkout.

Pimentel reprimanded journalists covering the canvassing for allegedly “putting words into his mouth” when he was asked for confirmation on the issue.

He also lashed out at the media for preempting his plan to file a petition with the Supreme Court questioning the legitimacy of the 22-man joint canvassing committee with Congress’s adjournment.

Asked to comment on the reported walkout, Pimentel replied, “You are putting words into my mouth. That is what you want to report. I will say what I want to say. You are putting a spin on what I will do and will not do.”

“You report what you want to report. Anyway, you are the media and you are very powerful. We will do what we will have to do. I will not tell you,” Pimentel said.

He did not categorically deny, however, that he would not file the petition.

-- With Maria Theresa Torres

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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