MANILA, APRIL 3, 2006 (STAR) By Mayen Jaymalin - If you are not a registered voter, signing the petition for a people’s initiative to amend the Constitution could land you in jail.

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) warned non-voters yesterday against signing the petition being distributed by proponents of the people’s initiative for Charter change or Cha-cha.

"We will look into possible (legal) actions to be taken against unregistered voters who would sign the petition," Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos said.

He issued the warning amid reports that unregistered voters and even young children are being encouraged to sign the petition to change some provisions of the Constitution.

Earlier, Abalos advised those who were reportedly forced or duped to sign the people’s initiative petition to go to the Comelec as soon as possible so their signatures would no longer be counted.

"If they were forced or claimed to not know what they have signed, they can go to the poll registrars and ask that their signatures be discarded before the start of the verification," he said.

The Comelec recently gave the green light for election officers nationwide to start verifying registered voters’ signatures submitted for authentication by proponents of the people’s initiative for Charter change.

Under the Constitution, changes to the Charter may be directly proposed by the people through initiative upon a petition of at least 12 percent of the total number of registered voters, of which every legislative district must be represented by at least three percent of registered voters. Labor groups start signature drives Sigaw ng Bayan, which initiated the signature drive, said it has gathered nearly seven million signatures in the past two weeks.

Sigaw spokesman Raul Lambino also reported that four major employers’ groups started their own signature drive for Charter change.

He said the support from the Employers’ Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP), Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce (FCCCI), and the Philippine Exporters Federation "has made the people’s initiative campaign virtually unstoppable."

FCCCI president Francis Chua said his group, which has 170 chamber-members and almost four million employees, sees the shift to a unicameral parliamentary system as "the one reform that will remove the factors that have made the Philippines uncompetitive for years."

He said the gridlock between the Senate and the House of Representatives "has perpetuated poverty in the Philippines — and we will never lift our people’s lives if we don’t move away from the presidential bicameral system."

Chua added that once the political structure is changed, the country’s leaders should move to lift restrictive economic provisions, which would trigger a massive inflow of foreign investments to "build thousands of factories and create millions of jobs in mass housing, public works and infrastructure, public utilities, mining and oil exploration, mass media and education, with emphasis on science and information technology."

The PCCI and ECOP have more than 30,000 corporate members between them, while the exporters’ federation has more than 10,000 members.

Lambino said more major organizations are expected to declare their support for the people’s initiative, including the moderate Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, which has one million members.

Sigaw has also received support from a dozen organizations of indigenous peoples, who are pushing for Charter change to give tribal communities a share in economic development, Lambino said.

He identified them as the Organization of Teduray Lambangian Conference, Subanen Professional Association, NAPC-Indigenous Peoples Council, United Bagobo Association, Samahan ng Tribong Aeta at Abiling, Association of Tribal Councils of the Philippines, and the Tribal Communities Association of the Philippines.

Lambino said the others are the Association of Poor and Indigenous Peoples, Mansaka-Mandaya Tribal Association, Alliance of Concerned Teduray of the Region, Tribal Association of the Philippines, Philippine Council for the Advocates of Peace and the Provincial Consultative Body.

"Our indigenous peoples are unfortunately among the most neglected sectors in our society. For them to throw in their support for Charter change means that they are pinning their hopes on a new political system and an overhauled economic structure to finally give them their just share of the fruits of economic growth," he said.

In Mindanao, Lambino said the signature drive is supported by 20 of the 24 governors, along with many local officials.

Bohol Gov. Erico Aumentado, who heads the League of Provinces of the Philippines and the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines, as well as Governors Tomas Joson III of Nueva Ecija, Enrique Garcia of Bataan, and Leandro Verceles Jr. of Catanduanes earlier agreed to team up with Sigaw and three of the country’s biggest business groups to step up the signature drive and double the number of signatories to as high as 12 million.

The three business leaders who joined the governors in the alliance with Sigaw were Chua, PCCI’s Donald Dee, and James Dy of the Filipino-Chinese General Chambers of Commerce.

On the other hand, Lambino reported that some of their volunteers in Makati City and San Juan in Metro Manila have been threatened with arrest and physical harm.

He said those harassing their volunteers were allegedly paid by local officials who belong to the opposition. Reports reaching Lambino indicated that a high-ranking Makati City official allegedly has a standing order preventing Sigaw volunteers from peacefully assembling to discuss Charter change.

Lambino added that in Magdalena, Laguna, the signatures gathered by their volunteers were reportedly snatched last Wednesday by armed men purportedly belonging to the New People’s Army. The suspects allegedly pointed their guns at the volunteers, snatched the documents containing the signatures, and destroyed them.

He said that they will file cases against those harassing and intimidating their volunteers, if necessary.

"We are now gathering evidence and affidavits of our men," he said, adding that these incidents are part of a "desperate move" by the opposition to stop the signature drive.

Lambino said they have more than 200 lawyers in Metro Manila alone who volunteered to assist them. He said their legal needs are being supported by the Alliance of Lawyers for Parliamentary System, headed by Emmanuel Tumanda, Redenberto Villanueva, Job Castillo and Alex Villamil. — With Eva Visperas

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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