APRIL 7, 2006 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - Constitutional reforms, including the proposed shift to a unicameral parliamentary government, would make the Philippines stronger politically and economically, President Arroyo said yesterday.

In her speech at the Oriental Mindoro Investment Summit, the President made another pitch for Charter change (Cha-cha) as the nationwide people’s initiative campaign approaches its peak, saying: "The world is watching and viewing our political system and wondering if we have the will to succeed.

"We have tackled economic reforms and it is working... and with the help of the people, we will tackle constitutional reforms and it will work and it will make our nation stronger economically," Mrs. Arroyo said, referring to a slew of painful tax reform measures that her administration began implementing last year.

The Arroyo administration is pushing for amendments to the Constitution not only to change the form of government but also to lift restrictive economic provisions that its officials say hamper the entry of foreign capital, as well as to implement judicial and electoral reforms.

Administration stalwarts said the proposed constitutional reforms would greatly reduce legislative gridlock and political instability due to the fusion of the executive and the legislative branches of government, as well as eliminate dangerous upheavals often associated with the "Philippine style" of toppling unpopular presidents.

Mrs. Arroyo said shifting to a unicameral parliamentary system would allow the people to "take back" the reins of government from politicians, despite strong opposition from her critics.

"We are on the right side of history, in working with the people, to take back government," Mrs. Arroyo said. "The people want a government that brings better service to them on a local basis."

She said one of the attractions of Mindoro as an investment site is that there is political stability in the province.

The President said the Philippines’ "investor friends are sending us an important message" that the nation should end politicking as it is slowing down development.

The administration, Mrs. Arroyo said, has a long-term vision for a modern Philippines, which includes political and economic reforms. She called on "everyone to be together in moving the nation forward, rather than jamming the gears of the nation into reverse."

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye added that detractors can no longer stop Charter change efforts as the people themselves are taking a hand in it while the Senate and the House of Representatives remain deadlocked on how to proceed in amending the Constitution.

He said opponents of the people’s initiative "call a legitimate people’s movement illegal because they see the handwriting on the wall that says their hold on power is soon to be shattered by the strong will of the people to rid ourselves of the poison in our politics."

Opposition ‘ignorant’

Bunye also branded the opposition as "ignorant" because its members could offer no sound arguments against constitutional amendments.

He also slammed the opposition for trying to exploit the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to advance their campaign to destabilize the Arroyo administration.

He reminded the opposition that unlike the Philippines, "Thailand is under a parliamentary form of government and the prime minister has no fixed term, unlike in a presidential system."

Unlike Thaksin, Mrs. Arroyo has a mandate from the people to serve until 2010, he said.

Bunye said the irony of the latest opposition ploy was that while they cited the parliamentary system as the "perfect model to be emulated" in the wake of Thaksin’s resignation, "they deny the will of the Filipino people for a change to a parliamentary form of government" by opposing the Charter change proposal.

He said opposition attacks had grown predictable.

"It is a sad reflection on their civic knowledge that they have no clue how a parliamentary system of government works. No wonder they can’t make a positive contribution to the debate on Charter change," he added.

Bunye also said it would take more explaining before the public fully approves of the administration’s proposal to shift to a parliamentary system, though he added support for Charter change was increasing.

He was reacting to a recent Pulse Asia survey which showed that 54 percent of Filipinos were still opposed to adopting a parliamentary system. Another 33 percent were not in favor while 13 percent were undecided.

"It’s a matter of really explaining more, going to the grassroots and letting them know the advantages of a parliamentary system," he said.

A federal system has gained favor among provincial officials who have long been dissatisfied with the dominance of "imperial Manila."

The Pulse Asia survey found that 55 percent of Filipinos said they were not in favor of changing the current system to a federal form of government. Another 32 percent were in favor and 13 percent were undecided.

However, Pulse Asia pointed out that Filipinos, "regardless of opinion on shifting either to a parliamentary government or a federal system, report having little or almost... no knowledge at all regarding the Constitution."

‘Ghost’ signatures

As in previous elections, "ghost" voters made their presence felt in the ongoing Cha-cha signature campaign.

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) confirmed yesterday that "dead people" and so-called "ghost" or unregistered voters were among the signatories to the petition pushing for the people’s initiative.

"Our election registrar discovered during the ongoing verification that a dead councilor from Rizal province was able to affix his signature to the petition," said a senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The poll official added that investigation conducted by the election registrar in the province later revealed that it was the wife of the dead councilor who had signed the petition.

The Comelec main office also received reports that in one province, 12 percent of the total signatures were found to be fictitious upon verification.

"During verification, the signatories were found to be not among the registered voters from the province," the official said, adding that the lists of signatures were submitted by interior and local government personnel.

But the poll official stressed that signatures of the deceased councilor and that of the unregistered voters were discarded by the election registrar during the verification process.

Earlier, Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos reported that the Comelec had discarded some signatures during verification, "which only indicates that the Comelec is not biased."

He also stressed that the ongoing signature drive for Charter Change would be futile if the advocates fail to get the support of at least three percent of voters per district. — With Aurea Calica, Mayen Jaymalin <


By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo’s political opponents are using "warped logic" and are risking straining relations between the Philippines and Thailand in their insistence that she follow in the footsteps of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who resigned amid allegations of human rights violations and corruption, her spokesman said yesterday.

Mrs. Arroyo’s husband, meanwhile, also lashed out at opposition senators yesterday for staging a rally Wednesday calling for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said Thailand is "a good friend and ally" of the Philippines and as a matter of policy, the government would never comment on the internal political situation of another country.

"But there are those opponents in the Philippines who don’t observe such protocol and will grasp at any straw and look for any excuse to criticize our President and replay their weary refrain for the President to step down," Bunye said.

He said the opposition is using the political situation in Thailand to bolster their efforts to oust Mrs. Arroyo, which, he added, would fail like similar attempts in the past.

Critics of the administration show their "deep ignorance" of how the country’s system of government works compared to the parliamentary system in Thailand, where a prime minister stepping down would not cause much political instability.

Bunye accused opposition politicians of engaging in "sweeping hypocrisy" by opposing moves to shift to a parliamentary system while using the situation in Thailand to persuade Mrs. Arroyo to resign.

"They cannot have it both ways: support parliamentary system when it suits their argument, deny it when it doesn’t. That warped logic accurately sums up the opposition: They don’t know whether they are coming or going," Bunye said.

He said the latest attempts of Senate President Franklin Drilon and other opposition senators to go around the country and stoke up ouster moves would not succeed.

Bunye said senators have been appearing at numerous anti-Arroyo rallies over the past several months with little impact. He maintained that Filipinos are tired of the politicking.

Thaksin, in a stunning turnabout following his recent election victory, announced Tuesday he would step down in the face of a mounting opposition campaign seeking his ouster over allegations of corruption and abuse of power.

Thaksin’s decision to resign sparked new calls by Philippine opposition groups for Mrs. Arroyo to quit over allegations of vote fraud in the 2004 presidential election.

Earlier, political adviser Gabriel Claudio said Mrs. Arroyo would not "do a Thaksin." Claudio rejected the comparison, saying conditions in Thailand and the Philippines were different.

While street protests against Mrs. Arroyo have been persistent, they have been a fraction of the size of the massive crowds in the military-backed "people power" uprisings that ousted late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001.

Mrs. Arroyo has denied any wrongdoing. She survived three impeachment bids last September when her allies in the House of Representatives blocked a potentially disastrous investigation into the vote-rigging allegations, including an alleged conspiracy to rig the 2004 polls involving Mrs. Arroyo, a former elections commissioner and military officials.

She declared a state of national emergency to quell an alleged coup plot in February by disgruntled military officers seeking to replace her with a civilian-led transition council and launched a crackdown on protests and the opposition linked to the failed coup.

Last Wednesday, Senate President Franklin Drilon led several opposition senators in a brief protest rally outside the Senate, placing anti-Arroyo stickers on their motor vehicles.

Mrs. Arroyo’s husband criticized the opposition senators yesterday, saying they were "wasting taxpayers’ money in their politicking and black propaganda in their desperate attempt to oust the President."

First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo cited their legislative output, saying they have authored only some 200 of the 3,400 bills and resolutions filed in the Senate.

"It’s you who must resign, not the President," he said in a statement issued to the press through his lawyer Jess Santos. "Magtrabaho naman kayo (Get back to work)."

Over at the House of Representatives, Majority Leader Prospero Nograles also criticized Drilon and the other opposition senators.

"What’s new? They have called for her resignation a long time already but the President and the Vice President won’t resign just to accommodate Senator Drilon’s ambition to become President. The Senate train is surely headed for the cliff," he said.

Nograles took a swipe at the seemingly fragmented opposition, saying they would not provide a strong alternative to Mrs. Arroyo even if she were forced out of office.

"They can offer no viable alternative to replace GMA. They want a junta of the left, the center and the right. Forget it! As is, where is na lang," the Davao congressman said, adding the "do a Thaksin" call was to be expected. — With Delon Porcalla, Cecille Suerte Felipe

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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