Politics

The baffling People’s Initiative

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ACCORDING to Pulse Asia, controlling inflation is the only issue considered as urgent by 72% of Filipino adults. Inflation is the average price increase over time of a basket of selected goods like rice and services like electricity.

The price of rice has gone up so high that many families can no longer afford it. According to Social Weather Stations, at least 10.4% of Filipino families or 2.7 million families, experienced involuntary hunger at least once in the past three months. Involuntary hunger is being hungry and not having anything to eat.

One would expect the people to run to President Bongbong Marcos to ask him to control inflation. People go to him to solve their problems. They know too well that as president, he is very powerful. Hundreds of jeepney drivers tried to march to the presidential palace last month to demand the rollback of the jeepney modernization program. The President responded by extending the deadline to April 30. In September last year, he gave away confiscated smuggled rice to poor families.

There may not be any more smuggled rice in the warehouses to give away. But the poor people can badger the President to buy local and imported rice and give it away or sell it at P20 a kilo. After all, that is what he promised during his campaign for the presidency. And 31,629,783 Filipinos believed him and elected him president. Vice-President Sara Duterte spent P125 million of her confidential and intelligence funds in only 11 days. President Marcos has confidential and intelligence funds amounting to P4.5 billion with which to buy rice and other basic food items to give away or sell to poor families at farmgate prices.

Yet some people find amending the 1987 Constitution more urgent. That baffles me immensely. A previous Pulse Asia survey showed 74% of Filipinos had little, or almost no knowledge of the Constitution. The People’s Initiative for Reform Modernization and Action (PIRMA) launched a People’s Initiative on Jan. 9. Noel Onate, national lead convenor of PIRMA, explained, “Our country is like a company with two boards of directors. Because of this, there is always deadlock, delay in decision-making and this is not good for the development of our economy.” He added that their advocacy is to form a unicameral legislative body. PIRMA was responsible for the TV advertisement that claimed that many Filipinos were “neglected” and “left behind” by the 1987 Constitution, and that the promised reforms on agriculture, education, and the economy all failed.

A People’s Initiative is the power of the people to propose amendments to the Constitution. This power is provided by the 1987 Constitution. The initiative must have at least 3% of the total number of registered voters in every legislative district as signatories. There are 253 districts, from Batanes to Tawi-Tawi. The total number of signatories must be at least 12% of the total number of voters registered with the Commission on Elections (Comelec). That means the initiative must be signed by at least 7,889,400 registered voters. That is 12% of the 65,745,500 voters registered with the Comelec spread all over the country.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) breaks down the Philippine population into these socio-economic classes: 1% AB, 9% C, 60% D, and 30% E. Therefore, 90% of the potential signatories to the initiative belong to the D and E socio-economic classes. The PSA generally describes the AB socio-economic class as the most affluent group whose homes and lifestyles reflect a disregard for economizing. The C class is the middle class whose homes and lifestyles indicate comfortable living. The D class is the lower class who basically have a hand-to-mouth existence. The E class is the extremely lower class who have great difficulty meeting their survival needs.

It would take time and effort to explain to those in the D and E classes what the initiative is all about and why it is necessary for them to endorse it by affixing their signatures. A previous People’s Initiative attempt was nullified by the Supreme Court in 2006. The Court said it was not clear that signatories knew what they were agreeing to.

The Comelec is tasked under the law to verify the more than 7.8 million signatures. After the signatures have been verified as authentic, then the members of both houses of Congress will convene as one assembly to deliberate on the proposed amendments. Whatever amendment they approve must be ratified by the majority (32.9 million) of registered voters in a plebiscite.

Each step of the process — signature gathering in every one of the 253 legislative districts, the verification of signatures, deliberations of proposed amendments, and the campaign for the ratification of the amendments — will take lots of time. There is no assurance that the amendments will be ratified by at least 32.9 million Filipinos. The prodigious and expensive initiative of the people could all be for naught.

Bishop Broderick Pabillo, former auxiliary bishop of Manila, said, “This is not an initiative from the people, but from politicians.” He advised the people not to sign the petition. The advisory comes too late. Mr. Onate of PIRMA said their initiative has been receiving support from the public, especially from the D and E socio-economic sectors. Former Ako Bicol Party-list representative Alfredo Garbin said in a newscast over the weekend that the signature campaign is nearing meeting the required number of signatures.

The Senate has issued a manifesto rejecting the people’s initiative, calling it a brazen attempt to violate the Constitution. It said, “We respect and recognize the people as our sovereign, with the right to call for constitutional amendments. We must, however, guard against any sinister and underhanded attempt to change the Constitution by exploiting our democratic process under the guise of a people’s initiative.”

Mr. Garbin asserts that its legal for constitutional amendments to be directly proposed by the Filipino people. But that is not the issue. Retired Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Antonio Carpio sees the proposal as a revision of the Constitution, which would require a constituent assembly or a constitutional convention, not an amendment. He explained that the Philippines has a bicameral legislature under the 1987 Constitution. As the initiative is for both houses of Congress to convene as a constituent assembly and vote jointly, the initiative in effect reduces Congress to a unicameral body. As mentioned above, PIRMA’s advocacy is to form a unicameral legislative body.

In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that while the enabling law for a people’s initiative was sufficient to amend the Constitution it was not enough to change the system of government, which entails a revision of the Charter. Groups allied with then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pushed the initiative to create a single parliamentary chamber. Senator Koko Pimentel said the current people’s initiative might be challenged by the Senate before the Supreme Court.Albay Rep. Joey Salceda said the people’s initiative has gathered the required number of signatures needed to file their petition, including the 3% requirement for every legislative district. “We should allow the People’s Initiative to reach its local conclusion. We are in no position to stop it,” said he. In a Teleradyo Serbisyo interview, newly elected Deputy Speaker David Suarez said the suggested changes in the people’s initiative aim to meet the changing needs of the nation.

That members of the House of Representatives are keenly following the progress of a people’s initiative and zealously defending it mystifies me extremely. Members of Congress themselves have proposed amendments to the Constitution, like the removal of certain restrictions that deter foreign investments. But as Dr. Bernardo Villegas, who was the chairman of the committee on the national economy of the Constitutional Convention of 1986 that drafted the Philippine Constitution of 1987, pointed out in his column, the most onerous restrictions against foreign investments have already been removed through the amendment of the Public Service Act.

What that says is that if the proposed amendment is in the best interests of the country, members of both houses of Congress will vote in favor of it, regardless of whether they are voting separately or jointly. Why the current people’s initiative proposes that both houses of Congress convene as one assembly and vote jointly puzzles me greatly.

Senator Imee Romualdez Marcos emphatically said Speaker Martin Romualdez’ office is “definitely” behind the people’s initiative. She went so far as to say that the office offered millions worth of social aid in exchange for their constituents’ signatures. Expectedly, the Speaker denied the allegation.

But Senator Joel Villanueva on Friday claimed he has proof that the leadership of the House of Representatives was behind the “alleged” people’s initiative. He even disclosed that some people had told him that 80% to 85% of the signatories were unaware of the purpose of the documents they were signing. They were deceived into signing the sheets under the false pretense of receiving rewards.

If what Senators Marcos and Villanueva said is true, there must be a “sinister and underhanded attempt to change the Constitution,” as the Senate manifesto insinuated. We will know what the scheme is tomorrow. Senator Villanueva said Wednesday is Revelation Day.

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. has been a keen observer of Philippine politics since the 1950s.