June 18, 2006 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - It’s now or never.

Malacañang said yesterday it would no longer let the opportunity to amend the 1987 Constitution pass.

"The support thrown in by leaders and statesmen for Charter change buoys the people’s hopes that fundamental reforms in our economic and political system are near and imminent," Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said in a statement.

He said it is important to sustain an informed and transparent debate on Charter change, "rather than engage in doomsday scenarios and self-defeating arguments that will only let slip this opportunity for a better future for our nation and the people."

As this developed, Charter change proponents began rallying the youth to actively participate in the people’s initiative to amend the Constitution.

Sigaw ng Bayan Movement (SBM) spokesman Raul Lambino, lawyer Rita Jimeno and the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) spokesman Alex Aguilar issued a call for young people to take an active part in separate information seminars on Charter change.

In gatherings in the Manila alone, over 1,000 Sangguniang Kabataan members and student leaders gave full support to the proposed shift to a parliamentary system through a people’s initiative.

A series of discussions on Charter change was held at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM) in Intramuros and the Stock Exchange Center in Makati City, where proponents warned that unless drastic reforms to overhaul the country’s political and economic structures are undertaken, the Philippines will become "Asia’s basket case."

"The youth sector stands to benefit the most from the political and economic reforms that will be carried out via Charter change," Lambino said at the PLM forum. "All sectors of Philippine society — especially the youth — should get involved in the non-partisan, non-political exercise of pushing constitutional reforms unless we want to continue witnessing hundreds of thousands of young graduates ending up jobless while their families keep getting poorer and poorer."

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., however, downplayed Malacañang’s claims that Ramos’ support for the people’s initiative will make Charter change unstoppable.

Pimentel said Ramos’ participation in ongoing efforts to amend the Constitution may even prove a liability because of the former president’s supposed ulterior motives in supporting the campaign.

He said Ramos wants to amend the constitutional provision giving the Supreme Court the right to decide on economic decisions of the executive branch.

Pimentel said Ramos wants this provision amended because of the SC declaration last year that the grant of tax privileges and incentives to locators in the Clark Special Economic Zone and Camp John Hay in Baguio City during the Ramos administration was illegal.

Under the Constitution and other existing laws, the President cannot extend tax incentives without the authority of Congress, he added.

Pimentel also said no amount of support from Ramos or any other party can save the people’s initiative from failing because of serious legal impediments to the people’s initiative process.

The Senate has stated its position that Charter change through a people’s initiative could not be undertaken at this time because of the absence of an enabling law.

This position was based on the decision of the SC in Defensor-Santiago vs. Comelec, which involved a similar people’s initiative campaign undertaken during the Ramos administration.

Pimentel also said Charter change faces strong resistance from a majority of Filipinos because of the perception that it is being used by Mrs. Arroyo to divert public attention away from the scandals of her administration and to allow her to remain in office despite the unresolved questions about her legitimacy as president.

No letup in con-ass efforts

In Davao City, House Majority Leader and Davao City Rep. Prospero Nograles said Congress shall continue to push for a constituent assembly (con-ass) should the move for a people’s initiative to amend the 1987 Constitution fail.

"We are not giving up on con-ass. It will serve its purpose should it not be people’s initiative. What is good is we shall have a fallback position in the method to change the Constitution," Nograles said.

The Davao City congressman stressed that ultimately, certain legal questions would be raised before the Supreme Court, either with the people’s initiative or the constituent assembly itself.

"It is bound to happen that there would be legal questions. So, either way, we have a fallback position for Charter change to push through," Nograles added.

Nograles said the House expects to discuss Charter change with the Senate, particularly incoming Senate President Manuel Villar Jr., when the 13th Congress opens its Third Regular Session on July 24.

"We might be able to talk to the senators now that it would already be Senator Villar (as Senate president). Maybe," Nograles said.

At the rate things are going now, Nograles said there will be no stopping Charter change: "There will definitely be Charter change."

Pimentel said he sees no change in the Senate’s position on Charter change even with Villar’s assumption as the new Senate President and expressed confidence that the Senate would stick to its position that any amendment to the Constitution must be voted upon separately by the House and the Senate.

"As for Manny Villar, the change in his political fortunes will not, in his words, change his attitude towards Malacañang," Pimentel said. "(Villar) has promised those whose support he has courted that he will protect the Senate as an institution and uphold the rights of the people against any other body or person who would trample upon those rights.

"Villar has given his word to his colleagues that if elected Senate president, he will not allow himself to become a Palace lapdog. As he has told us, ‘I’m already old and I don’t want to be dictated upon by the President on what to do,’" he added.

He clarified that the Senate is not against Charter change but opposes the timing and the methods being used by the Arroyo administration, which do not conform with the Constitution’s amendment provisions.

Meanwhile, Nograles said that, contrary to skeptics, Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. will easily pick President Arroyo over Ramos, his longtime ally, particularly when it comes to amending the Constitution.

Ramos has stopped calling for Mrs. Arroyo to cut short her term and step down in 2007 to give way to a parliamentary system of government, but Nograles believes the De Venecia-Ramos tandem will no longer be effective.

Nograles predicted that De Venecia "will be more loyal to (Mrs. Arroyo) than to (Ramos)."

"I think so, because (De Venecia) will not compromise the position of the House," Nograles said. "Otherwise, he will put us in a precarious position. (De Venecia) will not go against (the President)."

De Venecia had also been calling for Charter change since the early 1990s.

Nograles also repeated his earlier statements that Villar is qualified for the post of prime minister once the proposed shift to a parliamentary government with a unicameral legislature happens: "Sen. Villar has a very good advantage. He’s holding a national office and he’s been elected at large. It is still anybody’s ball game. The post of the prime minister is not tailor-made for JDV." — With reports from Jaime Laude, Edith Regalado, Marvin Sy, Delon Porcalla

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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