Philippine Commentaries

Read Malaya's daily commentaries on economic and political developments that shape Philippine society. Veteran Filipino journalist Joy C. de los Reyes is the paper's editor-in-chief of Malaya, an independent daily newspaper in the Philippines. To visit Malaya's website, just click the Malaya link below.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Why we care how much they’re worth

A justice of the Supreme Court, or any member of the bench, that matter, may be as rich as Croesus or as poor as a mouse, but the presumption is his personal fortune or lack of it does not influence his handling of cases. So there might be no compelling reason for members of the bench to make public their statement of assets and liabilities.

The trend, however, is for greater openness and transparency even in officials’ private lives following the dictum that public office is a private trust. The President and members of her Cabinet routinely make their SALs available to the public. So do members of Congress; in fact, a listing of the richest to the poorest legislators is a yearly media ritual. Public knowledge of how rich or how poor they are has not, we would like to believe, affected their performance.

SC spokesman Ismael Khan, in justifying the Supreme Court policy of non-disclosure, said information about a justice’s wealth might be used by litigants to destroy his personal credibility and that of the judiciary as an institution.

But the same can be said about members of the Executive and the Legislative departments. Except for suspiciously acquired assets, however, wealth or lack of it has not been used to destroy the integrity of an official or of the institution to which he belongs.

Who, for example, has the lowest credibility among our officials? No doubt Gloria Arroyo, closely followed by Speaker Jose de Venecia.

There were questions over the Arroyo couple’s ownership of a real estate property in California a few years back. But her loss of credibility is due largely to the allegations of habitual lying, cheating and thieving under her administration. De Venecia? He made his pile as an overseas contractor, but that’s not the reason for his low trust ratings. It’s the perception that he is a "trapo" through and through that makes for his reputation.

Now let’s go to the actual use of SALs in pinning down grafters in government. The SAL, as the name implies, lists the assets and liabilities of the filer. It serves as a quick check for hidden – and presumably illegally acquired – wealth. For this purpose, the value of the SAL is multiplied many times over if it is made public. A nosy neighbor, a disgruntled subordinate or a personal enemy can go over the publicly available document and quickly ascertain if a house and lot, a condominium unit or a business enterprise dealing with government is listed.

Perhaps the 15 members of the high court are beyond suspicion. But how about the scores of appellate justices and the tens of thousands of lower court judges? The Supreme Court itself is aware of the problem posed by hoodlums in robes.

No, the members of the judiciary should not assert a privilege waived by the Executive and the Legislature. Secrecy and confidentiality only spawn suspicion and distrust. The judiciary is the least equipped among the three branches to wage a war to gain the people’s trust. Openness, not secrecy, is its first line of defense against assaults on its credibility.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Power game

The House leadership initially boasted it would be a cinch to gather at least 195 signatures to press its bid for charter amendments without the participation of the Senate. It added that if and when it filed the resolution for convening the legislature for a constituent assembly, it would ensure there would be at least 195 signatures to leave no room for any debate.

Well, the resolution filed by the majority only had 175 signatures. But the sponsors nonetheless expressed optimism they would be able to gather the score or so additional signatures when the measure comes up before the plenary.

The sponsors could enlist all of the 236 members behind the resolution of the House for all we care. The fact is the House by its lonesome self cannot constitute itself into a constituent assembly under a bicameral set-up. Amendments can be proposed only by a three-fourths vote. And voting will have to be done separately by the House and the Senate.

It is still interesting to note, however, that the House continues to spend time and effort at this ludicrous exercise. The House leadership says the constituent assembly bid is a parallel effort to the people’s initiative campaign to amend the Constitution.

Perhaps they know something we don’t? That, first, people’s initiative is up against the Supreme Court injunction stopping the Comelec from entertaining such petitions in the absence of an enabling law? And that, second, people’s initiative is not adequate to introduce charter revision such as a shift to the parliamentary system?

Pretty good tacticians these Cha-cha advocates are. They are mounting a twin offensive. In case one prong stalls, they still have another prong to push. That’s the problem with Gloria Arroyo and her allies. They are all brilliant tacticians pursuing an unwinnable strategy, which is revising the charter despite widespread opposition.

Why can’t they simply go through the constitutional convention route? There are no legal stumbling blocks. Most senators are not averse to constitutional changes through a convention. The cost does not matter if Cha-cha advocates sincerely believe the future of this nation revolves on changing the form of government to parliamentary.

And why the rush? Is it because it’s more or less a certainty that a new impeachment complaint would be filed against Arroyo come June? And that elections are scheduled in May 2007?

The name of the game clearly is keeping power at whatever cost. That is all to this frenzied dance called Cha-cha.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Offender blames prober

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita has been saying that following the strikingdown of Executive Order 464 as unconstitutional, his office is now drawing up a list of officials who may invoke executive privilege in refusing to appear before congressional inquiries.

The Supreme Court has already ruled on the issue. There’s no room for Ermita to wriggle around. Those who require presidential permission are department heads, meaning Cabinet officials with portfolio. A clerk can prepare a list of the departments under the Executive, identify their respective heads and that’s it.

There no need to split hairs even as indeed the Supreme Court ruling has highly nuanced pronouncements on when department heads may seek presidential permission and when the President may claim executive privilege.

The Palace had over-reached in EO 464 and the Supreme Court had slapped the arms.

Even before EO 464, there was a pretty much settled principle that all department heads require presidential permission before appearing in congressional proceedings. It was EO 464 which extended this privilege to other senior officials, generals in the AFP, chief superintendents and up in the PNP, senior national security officials and those falling in the residual category "all other officers that the national security adviser and department heads and AFP and PNP officials are deemed covered by the order."

Let’s take a look at the inquiries of the Senate where EO 464 was invoked. On the investigation into the "Hello Garci" tapes related to the involvement of generals in election cheating, the only Cabinet member the Senate wanted to invite was Press Secretary Ignacio "I have two tapes" Bunye, who incidentally does not head a department. All other invited AFP officials, from AFP chief Gen. Generoso Senga and below, sought refuge under EO 464. Brig. Gen. Francisco Gudani, who is now retired, and a lieutenant colonel under him made an appearance. For their efforts, they are now facing court martial investigation.

In the fertilizer fund scam, an undersecretary who handled the money for the disappeared former DA Undersecretary Jocelyn "Joc Joc" Bolante refused to appear, also citing EO 464. A former assistant secretary did the same even as he is no longer connected with the agriculture department and is now working for the Government Service Insurance System.

Bunye is now twitting the Senate for the never-ending "Hello Garci" and fertilizer fund probes. He ought be reminded that had the Palace been more respectful of the separation of powers and less "creative" with its interpretation of the Constitution – that is, if it had not come out with EO 464 – the Senate inquiries would have likely ferreted out the truth by now.

More to them point yet, had nobody stolen the elections and the money for fertilizers, there would have been no inquiries in the first place.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Macapagal II

We’re a republic and lese majeste is not listed in the Revised Penal Code, so why is the Palace going ballistic over the heckling of Gloria Arroyo by some graduating students at a college in Cavite?

One of the hecklers, the head of the student council, reportedly shouted that Gloria is a fake president. Two others reportedly help up placards, with more or less the same message, they had hidden under their toga. Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution. It doesn’t say that freedom is suspended during graduation or any other ceremonies. It’s not a crime to shout at Gloria and call her a fake president even inside a church although it’s tasteless and in bad form.

Mike Defensor, presidential chief of staff, was reminded that President Ferdinand Marcos was met with raised clenched fists and placards when he addressed the graduating class at the UP some time back. Mike’s retort? That was different because the heckling took place during martial law.

Mike missed the point by a mile, and only succeeded in making his principal suffer in comparison to Marcos.

If Marcos, the dictator, could be gracious at the height of his powers, why should Gloria take offense when the Bill of Rights is in full operation? Or rather supposed to be in full operation. For people are clubbed for marching in the streets. They are arrested without warrants. The press is muzzled.

Perhaps it’s because the truth hurts. Gloria bought and cheated her way to Malacañang.

Leaving aside questions over the legitimacy of her rule, Gloria needs to be reminded that she is the head of state and government. She is not the state nor is she the sovereign. Violating her dignity is not a criminal offense.

Let’s say what the students said: "Gloria is a fake president; she should resign." To repeat, there is no crime in that.

Malacañang, imagining that Gloria is the state a la Louis XIV, would have none of that. That’s destabilization. That’s part of a grand conspiracy by the opposition, the Left, and the adventurist Right to bring down the Republic.

Dissenters are being hauled off to jail for rebellion. That’s more attuned with the times than Gloria screaming "Off with their heads!" in her pretensions to being an absolute ruler. But the inability to tolerate dissent in forms separated by centuries springs from the same lust for power and the dread of losing it.

Well, we all know what happened to the grandson of Louis XIV. We would not wish the same fate visited on Macapagal II. Of course, she can always resign.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

Just follow what the charter says

The Palace should go ahead, file a motion for reconsideration on the Supreme Court ruling striking down Executive Order 464 as unconstitutional. Seeking a review of an unfavorable ruling is every litigant’s right. The tribunal’s ruling was unanimous. But the Palace can always dream.

The Palace was able to stretch the proceedings long enough. The petition of senators’ questioning EO 464 was filed in August last year. The SC was able to come up with the ruling only last week. A motion for reconsideration will take time to be disposed of. In case of a setback, the Palace can file a second motion for reconsideration. The latter is a prohibited motion, but again its trashing will take time. And gaining time is, after all, what EO 464 was all about.

The Palace wanted to stop the Senate from looking into the election rigging exposed in the "Hello Garci" tapes at the height of calls for Gloria Arroyo to step down. The instrument was EO 464. The gag order also served the Palace well when the Senate looked into the fertilizer fund scam. The agitation for Gloria’s resignation/ouster has since eased. EO 464 has served its purpose. It may still come in handy – by delaying a final SC resolution – when the Senate reopens its "Hello Garci" and fertilizer fund scam investigations.

So it’s rearguard delaying action time. And knowing the Palace’s utter contempt for the law, it’s a certainty it still has a few tricks up its sleeve even after the Supreme Court will have ruled with finality.

There is this continuing noise in the Palace, for example, about proper procedures when Gloria’s underlings are to be called to inquiries in aid of legislation. Some dolt or another said the appearance of officials from the Executive department must be premised on there being an actual piece of proposed legislation being tackled by either chamber of Congress.

This despite the jurisprudence that upholds Congress’ power to take up any issue under the sun when undertaking inquiries in aid of legislation.

A license to witch hunt as Malacañang claims? Perhaps. But the Constitution says: "The Senate or the House or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedures. The rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquiries shall be respected."

The rules are Congress’; not the Palace’s. But that’s what the Constitution says.

That should be the final word on this issue. The problem is this administration cannot leave the charter well enough alone. It would rather change the Constitution, even through the most dubious ways, instead of just following what it says.

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Constitutional perverts

(This was published Saturday, April 22, 2006)

Let’s call a spade a spade. Gloria Arroyo’s "creative constitutionalism" is an outright perversion. The attempts at concentrating powers in the hands of one person are too brazen and systematic to be explained as but fruits of an all-to-human weakness to over-reach.

Executive Order 464, which the Supreme Court the other day declared as unconstitutional, was at its face so legally infirm that students of the law had been wondering if anybody at the Palace with legal training had gone over its provisions.

The word was that Gloria wanted it that way – senior officials gagged from attending legislative inquiries on election buying and vote rigging – and brooked no advice that she was stepping out of bounds. As the scuttlebutt went, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez himself was the author of "creative constitutionalism."

Anytime soon, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on Presidential Proclamation 1017, another bastard sired by "creative constitutionalism." PP 1017 placed the country under a "state of emergency" to lay the basis for calling in the military to suppress "lawless violence" arising from a purported alliance among the opposition, the Left and the adventurist Right aimed at ousting Arroyo.

There is no such animal as "state of emergency" in the Constitution. The latter talks only of the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and the declaration of martial law. Born in the period immediately after the dismantling of dictatorial rule, the 1987 charter provides safeguards against the abuse of both the suspension of the writ and the declaration of martial law.

PP 1017 sought to skip the safeguards while allowing arrests without warrants, repression of media and crackdown on protests and demonstrations. The "creativity" behind PP 1017 lies in wrapping new clothes over the declaration after the Oakwood mutiny in 2003 of a "state of rebellion," a term which the Supreme Court has ruled is meaningless and gives not an iota more of power to the Executive department.

EO 464 and PP 1017 partake of assaults at specific provisions of the Constitution. As in EO 464, the Supreme Court is expected to also strike down PP 1017.

But we have to give it to Gloria and her court. Stymied in their assaults on the parts, they are now battering at the whole. They are now moving to rape the 1987 Constitution.

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Constitutional perverts

(This was published Saturday, April 22, 2006)

Let’s call a spade a spade. Gloria Arroyo’s "creative constitutionalism" is an outright perversion. The attempts at concentrating powers in the hands of one person are too brazen and systematic to be explained as but fruits of an all-to-human weakness to over-reach.

Executive Order 464, which the Supreme Court the other day declared as unconstitutional, was at its face so legally infirm that students of the law had been wondering if anybody at the Palace with legal training had gone over its provisions.

The word was that Gloria wanted it that way – senior officials gagged from attending legislative inquiries on election buying and vote rigging – and brooked no advice that she was stepping out of bounds. As the scuttlebutt went, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez himself was the author of "creative constitutionalism."

Anytime soon, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on Presidential Proclamation 1017, another bastard sired by "creative constitutionalism." PP 1017 placed the country under a "state of emergency" to lay the basis for calling in the military to suppress "lawless violence" arising from a purported alliance among the opposition, the Left and the adventurist Right aimed at ousting Arroyo.

There is no such animal as "state of emergency" in the Constitution. The latter talks only of the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and the declaration of martial law. Born in the period immediately after the dismantling of dictatorial rule, the 1987 charter provides safeguards against the abuse of both the suspension of the writ and the declaration of martial law.

PP 1017 sought to skip the safeguards while allowing arrests without warrants, repression of media and crackdown on protests and demonstrations. The "creativity" behind PP 1017 lies in wrapping new clothes over the declaration after the Oakwood mutiny in 2003 of a "state of rebellion," a term which the Supreme Court has ruled is meaningless and gives not an iota more of power to the Executive department.

EO 464 and PP 1017 partake of assaults at specific provisions of the Constitution. As in EO 464, the Supreme Court is expected to also strike down PP 1017.

But we have to give it to Gloria and her court. Stymied in their assaults on the parts, they are now battering at the whole. They are now moving to rape the 1987 Constitution.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Fair warning to liars, cheats and thieves

The Supreme Court has struck down Executive Order 464 as unconstitutional, a ruling that was hardly surprising.

The legal beagles of Malacañang probably knew all along that extending to subordinates and military and police officials the required presidential permission for appearances of Cabinet members before Congress was skating on thin ice.

But the gag order had worked as originally intended – prevent Congress from digging deeper into the "Hello Garci" scandal and the fertilizer fund scam at the height of the clamor for Gloria Arroyo’s ouster – and Arroyo’s strategists must be feeling smug despite the Supreme Court ruling.

The ruling also gave the Palace a partial victory by upholding the gag on Cabinet officials. This is still in line with old jurisprudence and shoots down an interpretation of Section 22 of Article 22 (The Legislative Department) that broadens Congress’ power to invite Cabinet members to its proceedings.

The section reads: "The heads of departments may upon their initiative, with the consent of the President, or upon the request of either House, as the rules of each House shall provide, appear before and be heard by such House on any matter pertaining to their departments…"

The senators, in their petition before the Supreme Court, claim presidential consent is required only when the heads of departments appear before Congress on their initiative. They said that when the heads of departments are invited by Congress, no presidential consent is required. This interpretation was rejected by the high tribunal.

Having conceded the Palace’s partial victory, there should be no doubt, however, that the ruling is in the main a slap on Malacañang’s over-reaching of its claim to executive privilege.

Any and all officials, with the exception of heads of departments (Cabinet members with portfolio) are now fair game to congressional grilling. They can duck, weave and bob when questioned before Congress, but they have already submitted to the legislature’s jurisdiction.

Officials can follow the advice of presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor that they walk out from congressional proceedings when they feel they are becoming victims of a witch hunt only at their peril. The case of national security adviser Norberto Gonzales (who incidentally is not a head of department and is thus not covered by the claimed executive privilege) should be fair warning. Anybody who does not cooperate before a legislative inquiry is subject to sanctions, including being cited for contempt.

In fine, the Supreme Court ruling is welcome for preserving check and balance. It has cut down to size a power-crazed Executive department. Congress, with its power to invite officials for questioning, should know where to go from here.

The liars, the cheats and the thieves have been served fair warning.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Smoke and mirrors

Advocates of charter change are not being honest in flaying opponents who used to support calls for amending the 1987 Constitution.

Senate minority leader Aquilino Pimentel and Sen. Mar Roxas were calling for specific changes, not a wholesale upending of the current governmental setup. So were House minority leader Francis Escudero and the so-called House bright boys.

More, they sought to introduce the amendments in an open and transparent manner, which cannot be said of the deceitful tactics Gloria Arroyo and her allies are using to ram through their proposed shift to a parliamentary system.

What specifically were the advocacies of Pimentel and Roxas? Pimentel championed a federal setup where the center of power would be shifted from imperial Manila to the local governments. Roxas, who was trade secretary during the Estrada administration, favored an easing of the nationality restrictions in doing business.

They have not changed their minds. What they object to is the revision of the Constitution at this time of a continuing leadership crisis and how the proposed changes are being rammed through.

The key change proposed by Cha-cha advocates is the shift to a parliamentary system. A good case could be made for its superiority to the presidential system. But Cha-cha advocates do not even know what kind of parliamentary set-up they want. They are proposing that an interim unicameral parliament be in place by July. Beyond that, nothing, except for proposed transitory provisions that would give the interim parliament carte blanche to re-write the whole Constitution.

The proposed manner of changing the Constitution is also suspect. Cha-cha advocates originally wanted to go through the constituent assembly route. When this was blocked by the Senate, the House leadership came out with its bizarre stand that the bigger chamber could go it alone without the participation of the Senate.

This was abandoned in favor of the people’s initiative route which is even more dubious. First, there is a Supreme Court ruling that there is no enabling law fleshing out the people’s initiative provision in the Constitution. There is, in fact, a standing injunction against the Comelec from entertaining any petition for people’s initiative. Second, the charter specifically reserves amendments/revisions to a constitutional convention and as constituent assembly. It limits exercise of people’s initiative to amendments, that is, minor alterations which obviously a shift to the parliamentary system is not.

Despite these obstacles, Gloria and her allies continue to ram through their proposed amendments/revisions. Why? Because they want to ensure their continued stay in power.

That’s what this Cha-cha is all about. Everything else is smoke and mirrors.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A fait accompli

Look who’s talking about insulating the budget from politics. Malacañang took its own sweet time last year in submitting the proposed 2006 budget to the House. The administration-dominated House, in turn, took all of eight months to go over the proposed budget. Now the Palace is turning the screws on the Senate to pass the budget bill within 15 working days after the resumption of session on May 15.

For all practical purposes, it actually does not matter now whether the proposed 2006 appropriation bill is passed before Congress adjourns sine die on June 9. Government operations will not grind to a halt if no new budget is in place. The government has been running since the start of the year under a reenacted 2005 budget. It will continue to run for the rest of the year under the ad hoc arrangement.

The Arroyo administration boasts about its managerial competence. It points to the imposition of new taxes despite widespread opposition as a watershed in efforts to rein in the perennial budget deficit. Giving credit where credit is due, the Arroyo administration indeed has made big strides in improving the revenue side of government finances. But on the expenditure side, this administration is probably unmatched in wasteful spending – and outright stealing – of taxpayers’ money.

The administration’s favorite key in raiding the treasury is the reenacted budget. No budget was passed in 2001, which was understandable because of the unsettled political climate after Edsa 2. But no budget was also passed in 2002. A budget was adopted in 2003. In 2004, it was again back to a reenacted budget. And we now know how billions were "realigned" to buy support for Arroyo’s electoral bid in that year. The fertilizer scam engineered and executed by Mike Arroyo’s boy, then agriculture undersecretary Jocelyn "Joc Joc" Bolante, is but the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

A budget law was passed in 2005, followed by another reenactment since the start of 2006.
At the moment, nobody knows how the government has been spending its revenues. For sure there are projects already completed under the 2005 spending schedule. The Palace is free to realign reenacted appropriations for these items to whichever it pleases.

The suspicion is that these "savings" are being kept in reserve to bankroll the charter change campaign. The Cha-cha timetable calls for the ratification of the proposed shift to a parliamentary system by June and for an interim parliament in place by July.

That the delay in the budget bill accommodates the Cha-cha timetable, then, is no coincidence. The Palace and its House allies have already succeeded in presenting the Senate with a fait accompli.

Which is clearly what the administration wanted all along.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Stonewalling all over the place

So all right. The four generals mentioned in the "Hello Garci" conversations are as politically virginal as newly minted lieutenants from the PMA. Three did not help doctor elections results in 2004 in favor of Gloria Arroyo. And the fourth was not relieved on practically the eve of the election on suspicion he was working for "the other side," that is, Fernando Poe Jr.

The report prepared by Navy chief Rear Adm. Mateo Mayuga, who was tasked to head the probe panel when he was still AFP inspector general, definitely looks like a whitewash. The way the investigators, their superiors and their civilian overseers are dribbling the case all over the place can only reinforce the perception.

The Mayuga panel was formed after Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye made his "I have two tapes" announcement in June. The panel reportedly invited at least 70 resource persons to help in its fact-finding. The panel completed its report December. The findings clearing the generals were announced on Holy Wednesday when everybody was lazing on the beach, holing up in the mountains or meditating at home or in church.

From December to April, the potato, which it turned out was not that hot after all, was passed from hand to hand. AFP chief Gen. Generoso Senga said he had forwarded the results to Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz, who he said would decide on whether the results would be made public. Cruz kicked the buck upstairs to Malacañang which strangely decided to kick it back downstairs to Mayuga.

The poor guy had no one else below to whom to pass the buck. He had to make the announcement himself during an interview helpfully arranged and broadcast by the government television station.

After the four generals were cleared, the question naturally that followed was how the Mayuga panel reached its conclusions. Calls are mounting for the AFP to make the whole report public. But no, the AFP and its civilian overseers are back to their stonewalling.

The AFP said the report is classified. It said he decision to declassify it rests with the DND. We are still waiting for the DND to again kick the buck upstairs. But let’s hazard a guess. Mayuga in the end would again be found himself doing the unpalatable job of releasing the report.

It would be interesting to know who the 70 resource persons were and what they told the panel. Presumably most of them were serving officers who were on the ground during the 2004 elections. We outsiders would not know who were lying. But the officers and enlisted men who served under the resource persons would know.

That’s the only reasonable explanation for keeping the Mayuga report secret. Making it public – and all the orchestrated lying it contains – would further fuel restiveness in the AFP.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Dispenser of all benefices?

We believe the death penalty is barbaric and does not serve its purpose of deterring crime. It also constitutes cruel, degrading and inhuman punishment, a penalty the Constitution prohibits. In fact, the charter explicitly says the death penalty should not be imposed, "unless, for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes, the Congress hereafter provides for it."

Congress, however, has provided for it. And while we may question the wisdom of the legislature, the law stands and ought to be implemented.

So what do we make Gloria Arroyo’s wholesale commutation of all imposed death sentences? The President’s power to grant reprieves and pardons is not in question here. It’s the sweeping exercise of such powers that is disturbing.

The reason for the mass commutation is obvious. The bishops are starting to close ranks against Gloria’s attempts to revise the Constitution in order to stay in power. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has expressed its concern over the haste with which the proposed shift to a parliamentary system is being carried out. It has also questioned the purported people’s cry on charter change, saying there appears to be manipulation in the gathering of signatures for a people’s initiative. Some bishops have gone beyond the CBCP stand, saying the so-called initiative is fake. More bishops are expected to take a similarly critical stance as Cha-cha heats up.

Commuting all death sentences follows from Gloria’s tried and tested transactional way of doing business. But will the bishops bite? Drop their opposition to Cha-cha in exchange for the de facto abolition of the death penalty?

Actually there’s a much neater way of abolishing the death penalty. Congress can simply repeal the death penalty law. There’s a long-standing consensus among senators that that law ought to be repealed. In the House, the opposition also favors an end to the death penalty.

It’s just a matter of having a bill filed and seeing to it that administration congressmen toe the line. If the Palace wants to speed up the process, it can certify the bill as urgent. In the meantime, scheduled executions can be deferred or the sentences commuted.

But no, Gloria wants to grandstand. She would run roughshod over Congress even when there’s no need for her to do so. All benefits must appear to flow from her. For if she is not seen as the dispenser of favors, how can she, in turn, exact payments?

Money changers, at least, perform a socially necessary function. Worshippers from other lands are assured of conversion of their coins into acceptable medium of exchange. Still Jesus drove them away from the temple. What would have he done with one who trades in life in pursuit of power?

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Gloria’s swindle

(This was published Tuesday, April 11, 2006)

The gall of the congressmen, calling on the Senate to pass the House version of the budget bill without changing a single comma or period. The House version contains a P20 million increase to P60 million in the pork barrel of its members. Who knows what else the House has inserted in the proposed P1.04 trillion appropriation?

Senators are no saints. They presumably would also want an increase in their own pork. They also probably have their own version of realignments in mind. But that’s not the reason they should not go along with the House version. The proposed 2006 budget has the makings of another vote-buying chest like the 2004 budget. The senators might do better by holding the bill hostage, denying Gloria Arroyo the almost P1 billion increment from last year.

The government has been running under the reenacted 2005 budget for four months now. The country will not implode if government continues to do so for the rest of the year.

The House-approved budget will be taken up by the Senate when session resumes on May 15 after the Lenten break. Breakneck deliberations will enable the Senate to come up with its version in two weeks. The bicameral conference committee will at the very least need another two weeks to hammer out a compromise.

So we’re talking here of a new budget in effect by middle of June at the earliest. By that time, Gloria will have realigned and reallocated all the funds she wants to buy ratification of the proposed charter change. The key is the intentional delay in the passage of the 2006 appropriation bill. Her allies in House have been willing accomplices. It’s sheer hypocrisy for them to blame the Senate for the reenacted budget.

Malacañang took its own sweet time by submitting the proposed budget in August, almost a month after the opening of Congress. The House took eight months to scrutinize the proposed budget. If the administration were less obsessed with power and were it less devious and duplicitous, the reenacted budget could be explained as the unavoidable result of an exhaustive scrutiny of the Executive department’s spending priorities.

But there’s Cha-cha and the administration’s drive to push it at all cost. And when we say cost that means projects and outright doles. Gloria needs a blank check and her Lakas CMD allies are all only too willing to issue it in the form of a reenacted budget.

Now, they are asking the Senate to become a party to the swindle.

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Riding the tiger

(This was published Monday, April 10, 2006.)

Those pushing for charter change through people’s initiative keep prattling about the need for the opposition to rise above narrow self-interest when all along they are the ones who are demonstrably pursuing an agenda fueled by the crassest of self-interest.

Let’s us start with the local officials who are leading the campaign to solicit signatures on the ground. They want to cling on to their posts without the benefit of an election under the proposed transitory provisions. The most zealous among them are the officials who are barred from seeking a fourth term.

Same goes with the members of the House, with the bonus that they get to exercise broader powers, including those now reserved for the executive department, under a parliamentary system.

And then we have President Arroyo, who wants to cling to power at whatever cost.

The sword of Damocles that is impeachment will continue to hang over her head every time Congress opens until she exits from office. Under the current Congress, it is unlikely that the one-third could be secured to impeach her. But there are elections scheduled in 2007 and the people are just waiting to kick the bastards out.

And losing power at this point probably is the lesser of Arroyo’s worries. Upon her exit, whether in 2010 or before that, she loses her immunity. At that time she will be facing a slew of criminal charges that would make the cases now facing Joseph Estrada seem like misdemeanors.

For starters, there’s the violation of election laws by stealing the 2004 election. Then there’s plunder of the treasury, of which the P700 million fertilizer scam is but the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

This, the drive for self-preservation, is the more compelling reason for Arroyo to stay in power.

At the very least, Gloria has to ensure that when she leaves, a friendly government will be in place. The continued rule of Lakas CMD, the party of thieves, is her best insurance against spending the rest of her life in jail.

Under a presidential system, election for president is a crapshoot. Charismatic figures outside the power structure like Estrada and Fernando Poe Jr. can directly make their pitch to the electorate. The mediating function of traditional politicians has been eroded by the expansion of the reach of mass communications and the emergence of civil society groups.

Given this background, the frenzied drive to shift to the parliamentary system becomes understandable. Gloria has ridden the tiger. She cannot dismount without her ending up in its belly.

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Budget bill now an irrelevance

(This was published Saturday, April 8, 2006)

Malacañang officials say the proposed P1.04 trillion budget for 2006 can be passed by the Senate in a matter of days if members want to. The message is if no budget measure is passed and government runs the whole year on the basis of a reenacted 2005 budget, then blame should be laid on the Senate.

It’s obviously part of Malacañang’s long-running demonization of the Senate. The senators are wasting their time on investigations in support of the campaign to oust President Arroyo. In the meantime, hundreds of bills passed by the House are gathering dust, never mind that 99 percent of these bills are of local application. One good reason to scrap the chamber which the Palace-orchestrated charter change is in fact pushing. Or so the Palace wants people to believe.

But what are the facts surrounding the delay in the passage of the general appropriations measure? The Palace submitted the proposed budget in the middle of August last year, barely beating the 60-day deadline after the opening of Congress set by the Constitution.

The House then took all of eight months to approve the measure. Tuesday night, the bill was passed. The House leadership then trumpeted that the chamber had done its job and the ball is now in the Senate’s court.

Conveniently forgotten was the scheduled Lenten recess. Nothing will be moving until Congress returns to work on May 15. The Senate might fast-track deliberations, with all the waste that haste implies, and come up with its version in two weeks. The two versions will then go to the bicameral committee. By that time, it will be June and the Palace probably could not care less whether there is a current budget or a reenacted one.

The Palace would by then have had unlimited access to the Treasury and carte blanche on how to spend the money. So what’s so crucial about having all the money to spend before June?

It’s Cha-cha, folks. The orchestra has to keep playing. The choreographers have to be properly compensated to keep their wards dancing. The proposed amendments that would effect the shift to a parliamentary system would have to be ratified by June to meet the Palace timetable of having an interim parliament in place by July.

The senators might as well spare themselves the effort of engaging in the fruitless exercise of scrutinizing the House-approved budget bill. They should focus their attention on blocking Cha-cha in the referendum to be called to save themselves from extinction.

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Countdown has begun

The Palace spin masters are right. The situation in the Philippines and that in Thailand are markedly different. Thus, Gloria Arroyo cannot be expected to step down from power like Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It all boils down to Thaksin having a sense of honor while Gloria has none. Delicadeza, that is..

Palace officials make it appear that the leadership crisis in the Philippines is less explosive than that in Thailand. For example, here’s a take from presidential adviser for political affairs Gabriel Claudio. He said prospects of stability, harmony and economic progress are "vivid and real" with Arroyo’s continued stay in power. He added that there is "no active outrage" against Arroyo and "no environment of gloom and pessimism."

Where has Claudio been all these days? In Never Never Land? Rallies are practically banned by the expedient of local officials withholding permits. Those who nonetheless march are clubbed and hauled to jail for "illegal assembly." If we believe the Palace, soldiers were even prepared to march on the streets in support of calls for Arroyo’s resignation last February. Arroyo, in fact, had to declare a state of national emergency to meet the purported threats.

Still no manifest sense of outrage at Arroyo’s continued stay in power?

Thaksin’s party won with a convincing victory in the last regular elections. The legitimacy of his rule has never been in question. In fact, in this week’s by-elections called by Thaksin, his party captured a solid majority in parliament. The problem is that the boycott called by the opposition has deprived leading candidates of the 20 percent minimum vote to be declared winners. The parliament, thus, could not be convened because of the requirement that all the seats must be filled first. More important, Thaksin also enjoys continued popularity in the countryside.

Compare this to the situation in the Philippines. Gloria stole the 2004 election. To cover up the original crime, she has unleashed repressive measures not seen since the days of Ferdinand Marcos.

The people’s outrage is seething beneath the surface. We don’t know long truncheons and water cannons – and the threat of the military’s firepower – can keep the outrage in check. But definitely an administration that has completely lost the trust of the people cannot stay long in power.

Gloria’s days are numbered. The countdown has begun. May the end be short and peaceful.

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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Inviting a Ceausescu

Expecting Gloria Arroyo to do a Thaksin? Forget it.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra might have abused his power when he sold a telecom firm he founded before entering politics for $1.9 billion without paying taxes. Ditto when a couple of thousands suspected drug lords were killed in his widely publicized campaign against drugs. But he didn’t cheat to become prime minister or lie to cover up his crime. With his fortune, he or his spouse did not have to steal either.

The role played by the Thai sovereign, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in Thaksin’s decision to step down might not be fully known for sometime. But there is no question about the King’s stabilizing influence in Bangkok politics.

It should be remembered that Thaksin’s government in no way resorted to repressive measures against the protests that led to the decision to call by-elections. A generation ago, tanks would have been rolling down the streets and machine gunning the protesters. The military would also have already intervened during the developing crisis.

The King apparently had made it clear he would not countenance a return to the days of the generals and risk the economic gains made by the country under democracy.

In our case, no such luck of having a revered stabilizing figure. We have the Constitution, the fundamental contract between the people and the state. But Gloria has shown the Constitution and the law would not stand in her way to power and in holding on to it.

She wrested power from Joseph Estrada who was in good health, had not retired or had not been impeached (Thaksin came to power via an electoral landslide). She stole the 2004 election. She tried to cover up the fraud. She and her allies blocked the impeachment process at the House through technicalities. When people spilled into the streets to express their outrage, she responded with "calibrated preemptive response." When the Senate sought to prone election cheating, she came up with Executive Order 464.

Barely a month ago, she unleashed a state of emergency to arrest critics without warrants, break up demonstrations and muzzle the press.

At this very moment, a Palace-hatched plot to tear the 1987 Constitution to shreds is underway with the fake people’s initiative.

Gloria not doing a Thaksin? Then she should remember the fate of Romania’s Ceausescu.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

All power to the ‘trapos’?

For some days now we have been asking what are the constitutional amendments/revisions the Malacañang-sponsored "people’s initiative" is proposing. What is on the table right now is a petition already signed by 5 million voters, according to charter change proponents, seeking amendments to Article VI (Legislative Department) and Article VII (Executive Department) to change the form of government from presidential to a unicameral-parliament system. The petition also calls for an Article XVII providing for a transition.

But wishes are not proposed amendments/revisions. The latter must be in the form of actual sentences and paragraphs that are proposed as substitutes to existing provisions in the 1987 Constitution. We have noted that Article VI alone has 32 sections while Article VII has 23 sections.

No one from the ranks of the Cha-cha proponents has come forward to enlighten us on this score. Speaker Jose de Venecia has come forward with a skeletal outline on how the actual shift to a parliamentary system is to be done. So sparse as the De Venecia scheme is, that’s the only starting point we have.

According to De Venecia, the proposed amendments via people’s initiative need not be a fully fleshed out. What is important, he says, is the shift to the parliamentary system which can be accomplished immediately after ratification by the convening of the interim parliament made up of current members of Congress plus a set of presidential appointees. With the interim parliament in place, it can then proceed to introduce the complete set of amendments needed to realize a fully working parliamentary system.

The absurdity of De Venecia’s scheme is that it places the cart before the horse. The interim parliament should fall under the proposed Article XVII which lays down the transition. Transition in this case means the process of shifting from A (presidential system) to B (parliamentary system). In the De Venecia scheme the transitory body, the interim parliament, will have carte blanche to determine what will be its very own final form.

What we will have, in effect, will be an interim parliament where both the executive and legislative functions are lodged, with the added role of being a constituent assembly.

What could prevent the interim parliament then from monkeying around with Article VIII (Judicial Department), amending Section 1 to read "The judicial power shall be vested in the committee of justice of the Parliament and in lower courts that May be established by law?"

The Russian communists cry was "All power to the soviets!" If Gloria and Joe would have their way, it would be "All power to the trapos!"

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Cha-cha movers

As we look at the front ranks of the purported "people’s initiative" to change the Constitution, all we see are intellectual dwarfs and moral pygmies. These are the people who, through charter change, will lead us to the promised land of political maturity and economic prosperity? Even Dr. Jose Abueva, former UP president and chairman of the consultative commission which drew up a proposed set of amendments to the 1987 Constitution, is nowhere to be found. Nahiya na rin.

But for the Palace, black is white, hell is heaven and Gloria Arroyo and Joe de Venecia are the epitome of leaders who have only the interest of the nation at heart. All the rest are grubbing polls obsessed with power and pelf.

Take this statement of presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye. He said those opposing Cha-cha are mostly "elitist politicians and society leaders" who fear losing their hold on power when constitutional reforms are in place. What is he talking about? Those leading the purported people’s initiative are Gloria and Joe, supported by a cast of legislators and local officials belonging to Lakas, the party of thieves.

They are not exactly powerless and lacking in social standing. Gloria controls and the whole executive department, including the police and the military. Joe lords it over the House. The congressmen and local officials are potentates of their own in their minor fiefdoms.

If there are people who fear being kicked out of power, it’s not those in the opposition to charter changes. Gloria is clinging by hook and by crook to a seat she originally usurped and subsequently stole.

Joe admittedly continues to enjoy overwhelming support among the House members. The Lakas local officials, mostly multi-termers, won their posts largely through "mejoras" and money showered on them by Gloria. They too are in danger of being kicked out by an angry electorate come the elections in 2007.

We talk about people dreading loss of power, it’s them. That’s the reason they are trying to ram down the people’s throat their proposed shift to a parliamentary system with a transition – meaning no elections – lasting until 2010.

And they would stop at nothing to stay in power. They would lie, they would cheat and buy their way into a coven of like-minded trapos to be called parliament.

Were Claro M. Recto and the other framers of the 1935 Constitution to appear on Plaza Miranda and declare the presidential system was a mistake and parliamentary was the better form of government, we would think about it.

But with Gloria and Joe making the pitch, we’re sure it’s a trick. Absolutely no good will come out of it.

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Monday, April 03, 2006

AFP dancing the Cha-cha

The Armed Forces also wants to amend the Constitution. So will the military also join the signature campaign to push for charter change? The people’s initiative drive, after all, is the only Cha-cha show in town.

The issue is the confirmation of senior officers. The Constitution provides that all appointments to the rank of colonel and captain in the naval service and up are subject to confirmation by the Commission on Appointments. The AFP leadership wants to limit confirmation to three-star and four-star ranks, with AFP chief Gen. Generoso Senga saying they are preparing to meet with congressional leaders to present their proposal.

We always hear the brass talking about their being "constitutionalists." But they have apparently not been reading the charter. Confirmation of colonels and up is not a product of legislation. It is provided for in Section 13 of Article VII (Executive Department) of the Constitution.

The AFP’s beef is that confirmation introduces politics into the promotion process. Nominees have to kowtow to the members of the Commission on Appointments. Just the prospect alone of facing the CA every time an officer is promoted makes him vulnerable to pressure from politicians.

But that holds true for every appointee to a position requiring confirmation. And truth be told, the AFP probably has the highest passing average in the CA. We can only recall one appointment that has been blocked by the CA, that of Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan. The objections to Palparan’s fitness are not whimsical. He has been accused of leaving a trail of bodies of aboveground suspected communists wherever he was assigned. If only half of the accusations against Palparan are true, then the CA deserves praise for blocking his promotion.

The AFP leadership is plainly wrong in blaming the CA for politicizing the promotion process. The politicizing comes from the appointing authority. And we have a fairly good idea of how the current tenant of Malacañang has been abusing her appointing authority.

The military has been accused of helping Gloria Arroyo cheat in Mindanao and Sulu during the 2004 election. Four generals have been mentioned in the "Hello Garci" tapes. One who was described as working for the "other side" was sacked after testifying before the Senate on widespread cheating. Of the three who allegedly cheated on behalf of Arroyo one is now retired, another has been promoted to chief of an important area command while the third is now commander of a major service and is tipped to succeed Senga when the latter retires middle of this year.

Using the military for political ends and favoritism in promotions are the two major causes of restiveness in the military. The AFP leadership should look elsewhere, not Congress, for the cause of the mess.

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‘Do you want lunch?’

(This was published Saturday, April 1, 2006)

So much has been written about the petition seeking to amend the 1987 Constitution through people’s initiative but we have not exactly seen the actual animal which is supposed to carry this nation on its back to political maturity and economic prosperity.

We recently got hold of a copy of the resolution submitted by Manila advocates to the Commission on Commission on Elections. It reads: "Do you approve of the amendment of Articles VI and VII of the Constitution, changing the form of government from the present bicameral-presidential to unicameral-parliamentary system of government, in order to achieve greater efficiency, simplicity and economy in government; and providing an Article XVII as transitory provision for the orderly shift from one system to another?"

The question could have pared into the leaner "Do you approve of a shift to the parliamentary form of government with a single legislative chamber?" although professional pollsters of Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia could come up with a clearer and more emphatic formulation to remove ambiguity. But for an opinion survey, the question as formulated and presented for the signature of voters during the other weekend’s barangay assemblies would serve.

Comelec registrars are now validating the signatures. Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos, asked whether this is not in defiance of a Supreme Court injunction stopping the poll body from taking cognizance of any people’s initiative in the absence of an enabling law, said the validation was ministerial and that the petition was just an expression of the signature’s freedom of expression. Fine.

But where in that one-sentence paragraph can the actual proposed amendments to the Constitution be found?

The petition mentions Article VI (The Legislative Department) and Article VII (The Executive Department).

Article VI opens with Section 1 which says "The legislative power shall be vested in the Congress of the Philippines which shall consist of the Senate and the House of the Representatives, expect to the extent reserved to the people by the provision on initiative and referendum." It ends with Section 32 which, in a stylish closing of the circle, says "The Congress shall, as early as possible, provide for a system of initiative and referendum…" Article VII has 23 sections.

Which of the 55 sections in Articles VI and VII are to be changed and into what? Which are to be retained?

The resolution signed during the barangay assemblies is to be submitted to the Comelec for verification. After that the Comelec is supposed to schedule the holding of a referendum.

A referendum on what?

At least in 1973, when people raised their hands when asked whether they wanted lunch, there was a proposed constitution, in black and white, to which they were supposed to say "yes" or "no."

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