PALACE:  CHA-CHA  HAS  ACHIEVED  MOMENTUM

MANILA,
March 31, 2006 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - Malacañang said yesterday the Charter change initiative has achieved momentum and there is no stopping the people from making amendments to the 1987 Constitution.

President Arroyo has also warned Charter change (Cha-cha) opponents to "stand back, because this train has left the station. It is time for politicians to step back or get run over."

Flanked by her Cabinet at the Philippines Development Forum (PDF) in Tagaytay City, Mrs. Arroyo said constitutional amendments are "so important to help break the back of petty politics" which "do nothing to put food on the table."

"We don’t have time for the endless cycles of political intrigue, Senate stonewalling or partisan investigations," she said. "The people want progress, they want action and they want it now."

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye added in a statement: "A cycle of stagnation and degradation will continue to hound us unless we can overhaul our economic and political system through Charter change."

Bunye and Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno earlier said barangays and various groups pushing for Cha-cha would dictate its pace and timeline through a people’s initiative.

They said the public and the Commission on Elections (Comelec) must be allowed to proceed with the information and signature drive on Cha-cha.

They maintained though that Malacañang had no hand in the ongoing signature drive to support moves to amend the Constitution.

World Bank country director Joachim von Amsberg and United Nations resident coordinator Zahidul Hugue were at the PDF event and said in separate interviews that they were keeping a close watch on efforts to amend the Charter, though they were more concerned with the Philippines’ economic performance.

Legalities

Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos Jr. may be held liable for malversation of public funds and graft if he allows the verification of signatures for the people’s initiative, lawyer Neri Colmenares of the Counsels for the Defense of Liberties (CODAL) said.

Colmenares told reporters that the ongoing people’s initiative is illegal, owing to the Supreme Court ruling on the Santiago vs Comelec case in 1997.

"If Comelec is going to waste public funds on the verification of the signatures that will not be recognized in the end by the court, then that constitutes graft or malversation of funds," Colmenares said.

However, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez insisted that it is the Comelec’s duty to verify the signatures as part of the poll body’s constitutional mandate.

"Under the Constitution, the Comelec has a duty to validate" the signatures, he said.

He said the Comelec’s functions in verifying the pro-Charter change signatures are "merely ministerial."

Former Supreme Court associate justice Vicente Mendoza, who issued a dissenting opinion on the 1997 ruling against a people’s initiative, said SC decisions are not permanent and may be overruled, subject to the times.

Speaking at the La Liga forum, former agrarian reform secretary Horacio Morales Jr. said he is opposed to Charter change: "What the country needs is meaningful change. A change in leadership is not enough — but it is a good start."

"Under current conditions, those who promote Charter change as the solution to our problems are engaged in deception," Morales said. "The proposed changes are designed to perpetuate the power of the same irresponsible elites who have misgoverned us. They seek new arrangements only to keep themselves in power."

La Liga said in a statement it was "calling for a campaign against the current initiatives for Charter change and a campaign for electoral reforms as precondition for credible elections."

The group also wants the creation of a "caretaker council" to implement reforms and will work with other movements to adopt a common reform program and seek "alternative leaders" for such a council.

First things first

Bro. Eddie Villanueva of the Jesus Is Lord (JIL) Church Worldwide has challenged Mrs. Arroyo to first resolve the issues of her legitimacy and corruption charges leveled against her before pushing for Charter change.

Villanueva, the standard-bearer of Bangon Pilipinas Movement (BPM) who lost to Mrs. Arroyo in the 2004 presidential race, said restiveness among Filipinos would be reduced if the Arroyo administration exerted more effort toward resolving the numerous scandals it faces, including the "Hello, Garci" recordings and the fertilizer fund scam.

He added the nationwide signature campaign "is a direct assault on the sacredness of our Constitution and a direct rebellion against God’s command to remove the wicked away from the government."

Villanueva, who assumes that the Palace is behind the ongoing signature campaign, described the movement as an "extravagant waste of public funds and a reflection of one person’s selfishness and vested interest to rule."

He also questioned the manner by which the signatures were gathered, saying several BPM supporters working in the government claimed that government employees were compelled to seek 10 signatures each in support of the people’s initiative. — With Paolo Romero, James Mananghaya, Marvin Sy, Edu Punay


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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