MANILA, August 13, 2005
(STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo appears to have shelved initiatives to amend the Constitution in an apparent effort to maximize her stay in office, former President Fidel Ramos asserted yesterday.

Even though Mrs. Arroyo appeared to be sincere in pushing for a change in the political system, Mr. Ramos claimed the President has not been focusing enough time and effort on fulfilling the commitment she made in her State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 25 to push for Charter changes as soon as possible.

"I’m seeing some contradictions," Ramos told The STAR.

"For instance, it’s important to manage her time properly, focusing on reaching out and putting the team together. Now, it’s not only her body language but actual actions. What has she been doing?" Ramos asked.

The former chief executive reiterated Mrs. Arroyo and other political leaders should make sacrifices in cutting short their terms to put in place a parliamentary federal system.

"The higher the position, the greater the sacrifice," he said.

"She (Mr. Arroyo) said the sooner the better on Charter change, and then she said ‘I intend to serve out my full term,’ that was stated by the (Malacañang) spokesman in a rather categorical manner," Ramos said.

The former president claimed Mrs. Arroyo has been engaging in what he called "less important ceremonial activities."

The President has been on a media offensive, granting interviews and making herself visible at events meant to show her administration’s achievements.

But Ramos said none of the President’s actions following the SONA indicate she has acted positively to push Congress into action on Charter change.

He said every single day of delay in political reform prolongs the "agony of the poor."

He noted Mrs. Arroyo delivered her SONA last July 25, yet the month is nearly halfway through and there has been no visible action.

In her SONA, Mrs. Arroyo largely focused on changing the Constitution to usher in a parliamentary system.

This triggered speculations that she might be willing to cut short or modify her six-year term if Charter change took place.

But the President herself refused to directly answer questions on how Charter change initiatives would affect her term of office, which ends in 2010.

Mrs. Arroyo said she is leaving it up to Congress to decide the transitory provisions for a possible shift to a parliamentary federal system.

Changing to a parliamentary system has long been a pet project of Mr. Ramos.

His statement of support for Mrs. Arroyo on July 8 helped save her presidency after most of her Cabinet officials and economic advisers had quit.

Under Ramos’ proposal, Mrs. Arroyo would stay on as a caretaker until elections for a new parliament could take place by May next year. Mrs. Arroyo has only agreed to Charter change in general terms, though she has specified a preference for a constituent assembly to make amendments.

Mr. Ramos earlier said an immediate shift to a parliamentary system could provide Mrs. Arroyo a "graceful exit" for her beleaguered presidency.

The President has been fighting for her political life against allegations of cheating in last year’s election and claims that some members of her family received payoffs from illegal gambling.

The political opposition has initiated an impeachment complaint against her before the House of Representatives on the allegations of electoral cheating.

Ramos said the apparent foot-dragging on Charter change by Mrs. Arroyo may be due to her desire to finish her term in 2010, despite her call for an immediate change in the system of government.

"She is trying to create a doable option insofar as remaining as President for the maximum period and also getting the reforms done because she must get the cooperation of everybody, especially Congress, and she must weather the impeachment process," Ramos said.

"The impeachment is the unknown thing here. She could be playing for time although she has already been afforded more time than the sudden death scenario of resigning," he added.

The former president said it will now be up for Mrs. Arroyo to decide.

"Whatever she does is up to her. It’s her neck, not mine. It’s her legacy," he said.

Since none of the present crop of political leaders has agreed to make the sacrifice and instead continue to hold on to power, the country is in the state of perpetual stalemate as far as reforms are concerned, Ramos said.

On The Backburner

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, meanwhile, rejected Ramos’ observations, saying Mrs. Arroyo remains committed to pursuing political reforms.

Bunye attributed the delays in Charter change moves to the current political squabbles.

"It is unfortunate that the current political noise tends to impede the process (of amending the Constitution)," Bunye said.

He said Mrs. Arroyo already expressed her preference but it is the duty of the framers of the Constitution to work out the specifics.

Malacañang has apparently shelved a proposal to create a truth commission that would investigate Mrs. Arroyo on accusations of electoral cheating to give priority to charter change initiatives, officials said.

Bunye said it was more important to allow the impeachment process to run its course while deliberating on the possible changes to the Constitution at the same time.

"The impeachment process has begun and we will just allow it to continue," Bunye said.

Bunye said Malacañang is not totally discounting the creation of the truth commission.

Bunye admitted, though, that even a draft of the administrative order to create such a commission had yet to be prepared.

"The constitutional commission will also have to be created first because it is important to explain the provisions of the Constitution to the people," he said.

Bunye said the consultative constitutional commission would study the proposed amendments to the Charter and help expedite the tedious work of the contemplated constituent assembly.

The commission is expected to be isolated from the influences of the negative results of surveys and other unfavorable comments about the suggested shift to a parliamentary-federal form of government, he said.

Bunye stressed all sectors of society would be represented in the commission.

Bunye earlier hinted that the truth commission would be shelved after various sectors and lawmakers noted the body would only complicate the impeachment process which has already begun in Congress.

Lawmakers also questioned the legal value of any commission findings on the allegations facing Mrs. Arroyo.

Mrs. Arroyo announced a truth commission would be created in apparent deference to the call by the Catholic Church for an independent fact-finding body to investigate the President on the allegations of vote rigging.

But critics said it might only impede the impeachment process and might not be effective because of lack of powers to pass judgment on the President.

Lawmakers pointed out the need for support legislation to empower the commission to issue subpoenas and provide immunity to witnesses during hearings.

Malacañang had maintained the commission could actually act as a fact-finding body to reinforce the impeachment process. — With Aurea Calica

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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