MANILA,  JUNE 17, 2004
By Jess Diaz -  Everyone is expendable, even in Congress.

A walkout by the opposition will not derail the canvassing of votes for president and vice president and the eventual proclamation of winners, Senate President Franklin Drilon said yesterday.

If opposition representatives in the joint committee make good their threat of abandoning the canvass, Drilon indicated that they would be replaced because work has to be finished before a constitutional void sets in.

"We have a constitutional duty to perform, which is to canvass the votes and proclaim the winners, and a walkout by opposition members of the joint canvassing committee won’t stop us from fulfilling that," he said.

He said even without the minority, the canvassing panel — which is dominated by allies of President Arroyo — could proceed with the tabulation.

Drilon was reacting to a statement by re-elected Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., that he and his opposition colleagues have the option to walk out of the canvassing to protest the "railroading" of the tally and the expected proclamation of Mrs. Arroyo.

"The signs of railroading are all over the place. You have to be blind not to see them," Pimentel had said.

Reacting to Drilon’s pronouncement that the joint committee would continue the canvass even without representatives from the

minority, Pimentel said in case of an opposition walkout, there would be a "total loss of credibility" in the tabulation process.

Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. also declared yesterday that the canvass would continue despite any walkout, even as he appealed to the opposition to allow the committee proceedings to be completed before June 30 "for the sake of our country and for the sake of our democracy."

"I was just reaching out to the opposition to see how we can reduce this tension and anxiety, because we really want to finish and complete this canvass at the soonest possible time," De Venecia said.

"We hope they will respond to the challenge of statesmanship," he said, adding the joint committee has not sacrificed transparency and credibility.

"We are listening to their objections and complaints, but we want to finish this canvass before we reach a dangerous stage when the nation does not have a president and a vice president," De Venecia said.

Malacañang also appealed to the opposition lawmakers’ sense of statesmanship.

"We would like them to put national interest above self. We know this kind of destabilizing action might produce consequences which we all do not want," Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye Jr. said.

Bunye said the minority congressmen can do better than to stage a walkout, which he described as the "mother of all dilatory tactics."

He said the Palace does not share the belief of some administration lawmakers that the absence of the opposition in the canvassing would fast-track the proclamation of winners in the May elections. Laying the Premise

During yesterday’s canvassing, opposition members of the joint committee seemed to be laying the premise for eventually abandoning the tabulation of votes for president and vice president.

When the certificate of canvass from Pangasinan came up for consideration by the panel, the minority tried again to convince the majority to agree to the opening of the precinct-level election returns (ERs) in the face of what it described as "erasures and alterations" on the COC and the accompanying statement of votes.

The committee gave minority members time to argue their case but subsequently voted to include in the tally the COC from Pangasinan, where opposition standard-bearer movie actor Fernando Poe Jr. defeated the President by 42,233 votes. Poe received 487,463 votes against Mrs. Arroyo’s 445,230.

Addressing the canvassing panel, Sen. Loren Legarda, Poe’s vice presidential running mate, pleaded for the opening of the Pangasinan ERs and their use as basis for tallying the votes from the province.

She said it was incredible that in Sto. Tomas town, Mrs. Arroyo was credited with more than 5,000 votes while all her opponents got zero.

She claimed that in Urbiztondo and Bolinao, thousands of votes were deducted from her and added to Sen. Noli de Castro, Mrs. Arroyo’s running mate.

When the committee took a vote to canvass the Pangasinan COC despite her complaints, she accused the panel of turning a blind eye to what she alleged were clear manifestations of electoral fraud.

Sen. Vicente Sotto III, one of Poe’s campaign managers, and party-list Rep. Kim Bernardo Lokin shared Legarda’s disbelief about Poe getting not one vote in Sto. Tomas, Pangasinan.

"I have friends in that town and they voted for FPJ at the Sto. Tomas National High School. And they tell me that FPJ won in the precincts in that school, but here in COC, he is zero," said Sotto.

Sen. Edgardo Angara who, together with Sotto, is believed to be Poe’s principal political handler, bewailed that the canvassing has become a "circus."

"We are being outvoted at very turn. The whole kitchen is being thrown at us. There is not even a single concession to reason and common sense," he complained.

He said it is not true that if the ERs are opened, it would take eternity to wrap up the canvass.

"No, that is a lie. We can agree on certain ERs that will be opened and we will focus on those returns. But you are using the COCs as shield to hide the truth," he said.

Sen. Teresa Aquino Oreta said she and her opposition colleagues, and lawyers representing Mrs. Arroyo’s opponents, were just wasting their time participating in the canvass.

"What are we here for, what are the lawyers here for, if our arguments, observations and manifestations are ignored and casually dismissed?" she asked.

Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan and Iloilo City Rep. Raul Gonzalez, who are jointly presiding over the canvass, said remarks of committee members and lawyers would be included in the committee report to be submitted to the joint session of Congress possibly next week.

It would be up to the plenary session to affirm or reject any action taken by the committee, they said.

Other members of the majority repeated their argument that the canvassing panel cannot allow the opening of any ER because examining the returns can be done only by the Supreme Court sitting as a presidential electoral tribunal in case an election protest is filed after the winners are proclaimed.

Sen. Joker Arroyo warned the committee that it is now behind its schedule to finish the canvass this week so it can submit its report next week.

"I don’t want to say this, but there appear to be deliberate efforts to delay the canvass," he said.

Agusan del Sur Rep. Rodolfo Plaza, a panel member representing the House minority, said an election protest would take years to resolve as in the case of Pasig City, where the winning congressman was proclaimed on the last day of session of Congress.

He said the propensity of the majority to use the "tyranny of numbers" against the minority "is very disappointing and disgusting."

In a related development, Camarines Sur Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr. said he expected the planned opposition walkout to materialize yesterday or today while Poe was leading the tally.

"After today or tomorrow, Poe’s lead will dwindle with the inclusion of votes from the President’s bailiwicks," he said.

He said starting with the COC No. 119 from Iloilo, which was expected to be canvassed last night, Mrs. Arroyo will begin to overtake the movie actor and lead all the way by more than one million votes until the last COC, No. 177, from Cotabato City is tallied.

Based on unofficial tabulations, Mrs. Arroyo won by more than 400,000 in Iloilo. She received 512,812 votes against Poe’s 82,244. In Cebu, she defeated the movie actor by more than one million votes.

The President’s huge margin in Cebu, Bohol and Iloilo wiped out Poe’s commanding lead in most of Luzon. — with Paolo Romero, Marichu Villanueva

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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