March 25, 2006 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - Malacañang defended yesterday the campaign for a people’s initiative to amend the 1987 Constitution, saying local government units (LGUs) and Filipinos were growing impatient with delays in implementing Cha-cha or Charter change due to bickering between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said the people’s initiative, one of three modes of amending the Constitution, is "real democracy in action," as it brings "the fundamental issue of political reforms to the grassroots."

Bunye said it is the constitutional right of Filipinos to directly take the matter of Charter change into their own hands if the Senate and the House continue to quarrel over how to amend the Constitution.

During the term of former President Fidel Ramos, the Supreme Court quashed a similar people’s initiative move, ruling that there were no implementing rules and regulations (IRR) to enable the use of the method to carry out Charter change.

Senators and congressmen are now locked in battle over whether to vote separately or jointly on Charter amendments once both chambers convene as a constituent assembly to amend the Constitution through a three-fourths vote of all members of Congress.

Last week, senators passed a resolution insisting that the voting should be done separately, apparently implying it is in favor of the constituent assembly mode of Charter change.

The people’s initiative campaign entails the gathering of at least six million signatures from eligible voters to pave the way for Charter reforms.

The Arroyo administration is pushing for a shift to the unicameral parliamentary system of government this year and the removal of restrictive economic provisions that hamper the entry of foreign capital, among other reforms.

Presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor said no funds were released specifically for Charter change, but said the government would explore all means by which the Constitution could be amended.

Barangay leaders are set to hold assemblies to gather signatures and push Cha-cha through a people’s initiative.

"The good thing about this is that the people will be knowledgeable about the issue, there will be studies, an exchange of ideas on what should be amended in the Charter," he said.

A newly formed multisectoral coalition pushing for the people’s initiative assured the public that there is nothing "sinister or irregular" in the holding of barangay assemblies today, where its members plan to introduce the issue of and mobilize support for Cha-cha.

Lawyer Raul Lambino, spokesman for the group "Sigaw ng Bayan," said Section 379 of the Local Government Code of 1991 mandates all local government units to hold a barangay assembly at least twice a year.

"There is nothing wrong in these barangay assemblies because they are specifically scheduled by law to be held on the last Saturday of March," said Lambino, a professor of constitutional law at the University of the East in Manila.

President Arroyo formed a Charter change advocacy group to promote the initiative, particularly the shift to a parliamentary form of government.

Defensor said Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno is in charge of pushing for Charter change at the local level.

Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan questioned the legality of the people’s initiative as sought by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and local government units (LGUs).

"The people’s initiative being facilitated by the DILG, the LGUs and the barangays is of doubtful legality on two grounds," Pangilinan said.

Under existing laws, Pangilinan said, the intent of the framers of the 1987 Constitution was for Charter amendments by people’s initiative to be available to ordinary citizens or private people’s organizations — not government officials.

"With the use of government funds in this undertaking, what we have before us, therefore, appears to be a government initiative and not a people’s initiative," said Pangilinan, a lawyer and member of the Judicial Bar Council (JBC).

He added that the initiative is available only to amend the Constitution, not revise it, contrary to the proposal to amend Articles 6, 7 and 9 of the Constitution.

Such amendments are "tantamount to a revision and is not a mere amendment; hence, the initiative as undertaken is contrary to the Constitution," Pangilinan said.

In opposing a people’s initiative to change the Charter, Pangilinan cited his sworn duty "to uphold and defend the Constitution and as such I cannot in conscience support such an initiative."

Last week, Pangilinan was one of 22 senators who signed Senate Resolution 473 opposing any move to change the Constitution without the participation of the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said the move to amend the 1987 Constitution by people’s initiative would not prosper if Malacañang, congressional and local government officials act as "prime movers" and financiers of the political activity.

He also warned that the use of public funds for a people’s initiative would be sufficient grounds for nullifying the process.

Defending local initiatives

Meanwhile, Puno denied reports that barangay assemblies would be organized simultaneously nationwide this Saturday to facilitate a grassroots-based signature campaign for Charter change.

"It just so happens that this Saturday is the last Saturday of March. As far as I know, there is no agenda in the barangay assemblies that says Charter change is going to be discussed, but this topic could also be included in the section that covers other matters," Puno said.

Citing Section 397 of the Local Government Code of 1991, Puno said LGUs are required to hold barangay assemblies "at least twice a year to hear and discuss the semestral report of the sangguniang barangay concerning its activities and finances as well as problems affecting the barangay."

Proclamation No. 342 declares the last Saturday of March and the third Saturday of October of every year as Barangay Assembly Days.

He said reports of money being offered for signatures to a people’s initiative petition have not reached his office: "If that is occurring (money distribution), I hope that specific reports would be given to us."

He also warned that "I will initiate the filing of charges against any DILG or barangay official caught offering money for the signatures to this supposed campaign for Charter change."

Puno said he only became aware of the ongoing signature campaign to support Charter change when some non-government organizations asked him to issue a circular allowing them to attend the barangay assemblies and discuss the issue of constitutional reforms with the participants of these gatherings.

"I denied the request," he said. "I told them it’s up to the barangays. It’s the privilege of these groups if they want to push Charter change in these assemblies."

Governors, mayors and other local government executives have called on their constituents to attend barangay assemblies to enable them to actively participate in the discussions on a wide array of grassroots-based concerns, including Charter change, and make their voices heard on these pressing issues in the true spirit of democracy.

Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP) president and Bohol Gov. Erico Aumentado said these barangay assemblies will tackle other topics, such as the La Niña phenomenon, disaster-preparedness, fire prevention, peace and order, gender and development, and other current issues.

Aumentado, who heads 1.7-million strong ULAP, said the issue of constitutional reforms will also be taken up at the barangay assemblies owing to the keen interest of a majority of their respective constituents in the issue of Charter change.

He also said persons opposed to Charter change should attend the barangay assemblies to spur healthy debate on the pros and cons of the issue at the forums.

Aumentado said these assemblies will not receive any financial support from the DILG because the money spent to hold these gatherings would be taken from barangay funds.

In Negros Occidental Vice President Noli de Castro reiterated his preference for a constitutional convention as a process for Charter Change, though he did not discount the possibility of a people’s initiative if that is what the public prefers.

Speaker Jose de Venecia, during his recent visit to Bacolod, said there is a "two-track" parallel initiative to achieve Charter change — through both houses of congress and by direct action of the people.

Meanwhile, Negros Occidental Provincial Board member Reynaldo Depasucat said any initiatives by elected officials defeat the purpose of the move and can no longer be referred to as "people’s initiatives" because they therefore become "politicians’ initiatives." — With Aurea Calica, Christina Mendez, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Antonieta Lopez and Mayen Jaymalin

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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