NOVEMBER 25, 2006 (STAR) By Marvin Sy - Sen. Joker Arroyo advised Charter change (Cha-cha) proponents yesterday to give constitutional amendments a rest, since they have yet to score any points in the courts or with the public over the issue.

Arroyo said the Cha-cha proponents are wasting the time of the public with their efforts to amend the 1987 Constitution.

"Enough already," he said. "I think the people are already tired of this. They have occupied the time of the public and I think that it’s wasting also their time and the efforts of the people."

"Public officials should know when to stop, especially in the higher levels, and they should also know how to accept defeat graciously. That’s what governance is all about," Arroyo added.

Arroyo’s statement was made in reaction to the administration’s vow to continue pursuing Charter change through a constituent assembly and the people’s initiative.

Malacañang and Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. issued similar statements about a "final push" for Charter change before the May 2007 elections.

People’s initiative proponents Sigaw ng Bayan and the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP) have announced their plan to file a second motion for reconsideration of the people’s initiative petition with the Supreme Court.

Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. virtually declared war on De Venecia over the Speaker’s decision to lead the final push for Charter change in Congress.

Villar said he was sure that the Cha-cha efforts led by De Venecia would not prosper even if a second motion for reconsideration is filed with the Supreme Court.

Villar also doubts that Cha-cha proponents can get the support of at least 12 senators for a constituent assembly.

He said the Senate will block every move by congressmen to leave the Senate out of the constituent assembly.

According to Arroyo, the chances for a second motion for reconsideration to be considered is close to nil since the proponents have to first ask the permission of the court to do this.

"It’s so uphill that the chances of it succeeding are almost nil. So why do the proponents of charter change insist on that, it’s too bad," he said.

In the case of the constituent assembly, Arroyo reiterated his belief that De Venecia does not have the 195 votes of the Speaker said he has in the House to muster support for Cha-cha.

"The reason they cannot file the constituent assembly resolution is they don’t have the 195 votes," Arroyo said. "I have said that before and I say it now, because if they have that then they would have filed it. They are just tiring the people with this."

He said De Venecia has no reason to wait until Dec. 22 to complete the process if he really has the numbers to make Cha-cha work.

The 195 votes in the House represent three-fourths of all members of Congress, which, according to De Venecia and his allies, is the requirement set by the Constitution to get the process of a constituent assembly (con-ass) going.

However, almost all of the senators have disputed the House interpretation of this constitutional provision and have admonished their colleagues in the House for attempting to disregard the Senate in the process.

"If they start and then they do not share it in the Senate and this case lands in the Supreme Court, they have a very weak case," Arroyo said. "It’s as if they wanted to do it all by themselves, ignoring the other half of Congress."

Sen. Ralph Recto, an administration ally, said that a "Senate-less" constituent assembly is like a "wedding without a groom."

"You can’t go this alone," Recto said. "The bicameral nature of Congress does not get suspended when amendments to the Constitution are being discussed."

"I think the right tack for the House is to court more senators than to court another defeat in the Supreme Court by going solo in this constituent assembly thing," he added.

Recto suggested that the proponents focus on the economic rather than the political provisions of the Constitution that need amending so they can get the support of a few more senators.

Senate committee on constitutional amendments chairman Richard Gordon again said there is no need for the House to rush Charter change before the May 2007 elections: "Why the rush before the May 2007 elections? Is it because they want to postpone the May 2007 elections to perpetuate power among themselves, especially for those who will be barred to run again because they have reached their term limits? Or are they apprehensive about the next batch of legislators who may have a different agenda?"

Not desperate

Meanwhile, Malacañang said there was nothing desperate about President Arroyo’s decision to explore all options to push for Charter change along with their allies in Congress and the local government officials.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye also downplayed the rift developing among members of the Cabinet as some of them already want to focus on the coming elections instead of on Charter change.

"If there is a will, there is a way. The important thing is President (Arroyo) is very clear about the need for Charter change," Bunye said. "We know options remain open so all avenues to realize that option will be taken."

In response to questions about whether or not the administration was trying to push Cha-cha by hook or by crook, Bunye said he would not agree with such a "characterization," as the Palace had always said it was for Charter change.

"We will keep that dream alive and we will pursue all the options available under the present laws," he said.

Bunye said the filing of a second motion for reconsideration regarding the SC decision on the people’s initiative, as well as the convening of the constituent assembly before the Christmas break of Congress, would be backed by the Palace.

"There are options which are being examined, but we are not discouraging any parties from pursuing what we believe is still allowed under the rules of court," Bunye said. "The President is a firm believer of Charter change, this will continue to be a platform commitment of this administration."

"It is very important and we call on our legislators, on our local government officials and other stakeholders to keep the fire burning so that we can pursue Charter change at a more opportune time," he said.

Bunye said there was no need to explain the President’s position to Cabinet members, even those with senatorial ambitions: "She has been very forthright about this, this is an open book as far as the President is concerned, she believes the advocacy for fundamental reforms should not stop."

He said the administration’s advocacy should not cause any rift among the Cabinet officials or with the Senate: "I think everybody agrees on the need for fundamental reforms, it is on the how where the difference lies."

Bunye said the administration will have time for the May 2007 elections after Cha-cha efforts: "We will discuss politics at the proper time but right now the President is focused more on pursuing her economic agenda."

‘LGU lobby’

In a related development, Metro Manila mayors are initiating moves to mount an unprecedented "LGU lobby" for con-ass before the Christmas break next month.

Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, who heads the Metro Manila Mayor’s League, said he expects other local officials nationwide to come up with a common stand on the con-ass issue, especially after the SC struck down the people’s initiative endorsed by some 6.3 million verified petitioners.

"We are definitely linking up with other local government leagues so that we can transform our fresh lobby for the con-ass mode into a potent and effective nationwide campaign for constitutional reforms," Atienza said. "We want Congress to immediately act on the proposed shift to a unicameral parliamentary government because any further delay in the implementation of constitutional reforms would certainly imperil the positive economic gains that the Arroyo administration has generated thus far."

Mandaluyong City Mayor Neptali Gonzales Jr. said getting the support of other leagues will show lawmakers that the clamor for Congress to pursue the con-ass route is not confined only to Metro Manila.

"We want to make it clear that we are doing this in our capacity as the duly-elected representatives of the people," said Gonzales, who was once House majority leader. "Our campaign to push Congress to convert itself into a con-ass and rewrite the Constitution, reflects the desire of the people throughout the country to adopt constitutional reforms that would do away with our gridlock-prone, conflict-ridden bicameral system in favor of a unicameral, parliamentary setup."

Marikina City Mayor Maria Lourdes Fernando said the MMML will initially team up with the League of Cities led by Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Trenas to take the con-ass lobby to the national level.

Metro Manila’s local executives said their resolve to push the con-ass route to effect systemic change has been greatly reinforced after the President herself said the fight for constitutional reforms must continue.

Term extensions via no-el?

House Minority Leader Francis Escudero said the President’s allies in Congress who support the push for Charter change (Cha-cha) are eyeing an extension of their terms by scrapping next year’s elections.

Escudero said the timing of the insistent Cha-cha effort is highly suspicious, since many lawmakers and local officials are finishing their third and last terms of office in June next year.

"This also happened in 1987, during the last few months of President Ramos, when his allies made a last-minute push for Cha-cha," he added.

Escudero said the only logical explanation for the insistence of the President’s allies to push for Cha-cha even at the risk of another defeat in the SC is that they want their terms extended.

Escudero is one of many House members who are on their third and last term of office.

He and other members of the minority are for Cha-cha, but they have signed a resolution telling members of the majority bloc that they cannot railroad Cha-cha by bypassing the Senate.

According to them, official Senate participation is required in the constituent assembly that the majority wants to convene to approve its version of the revised Constitution that would shift the nation to the parliamentary system.

In a caucus Mrs. Arroyo presided over in Malacañang on Thursday, the majority formed a group that would reconcile the versions of the rewritten Constitution drafted by Reps. Constantino Jaraula of Cagayan de Oro and Prospero Pichay Jr. of Surigao del Sur.

Under the Jaraula draft, there is no specific date set for the next elections. The interim parliament, which will be composed of the present members of Congress and will come into existence upon the ratification of Cha-cha, will re-schedule the 2007 elections.

According to Makati City Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr., it is possible that the interim parliament may not schedule any elections, allowing its members and local officials to remain in office in a holdover capacity beyond June 30, 2007.

Pichay would have the elections set for the second Monday of May next year by the present Constitution delayed by six months and held in November. That would effectively extend the stay in office of congressmen and local officials by six months.

Escudero said whichever version would be adopted, there would be a term extension for lawmakers and governors, mayors and other local officials.

But the likely scenario is that the elected officials’ terms will be extended up to June 30, 2010, which is also the expiration date of Mrs. Arroyo’s tenure.

"After that, they can run for parliament and the President can run for prime minister," he added.

Earlier, Deputy Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano said "attractive incentives, including additional pork barrel," are being dangled to senators and congressmen in exchange for their support for Cha-cha.

"Grabe ito, malala pa ito kaysa impeachment (This is worse than the impeachment) in terms of the offers being made," he said. — With Paolo Romero, Aurea Calica, Jess Diaz, Christina Mendez and Cecille Suerte Felipe

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved