Saturday, June 30, 2007

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Maguindanao, Trillanes and other Senate woes

Maguindanao, Trillanes and other Senate woes
By Francisco S. Tatad

At noon of June 30, twelve newly elected senators will begin their six-year term of office. But unless the responsible parties act now, only eleven senators will be sworn in that day. This should not happen at all.

All eyes are now on Maguindanao. Its votes will decide the fight for twelfth place between Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III of “Genuine Opposition” and Rep. Juan Miguel Zubiri of Team Unity.

Both are from Mindanao, and running for the Senate for the first time. Zubiri has served three successful terms as congressman of the third district of Bukidnon, while Koko has failed in his maiden political bid. This happened in 2001, when he ran for mayor of Cagayan de Oro, while his father Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr was Senate President.

As of now, Koko leads Zubiri by a little over 100,000 votes in the national count, minus Maguindanao. But in Cagayan de Oro itself, Zubiri placed third, while Pimentel landed sixth only. In the 21 municipalities of Maguindanao, the certificates of canvass (CoCs) show 186,518 votes for Zubiri, and 58,622 votes for Pimentel. The 127,896 margin should put Zubiri ahead of Pimentel by at least 16,000 votes.

Pimentel has asked the Supreme Court to restrain the Commission on Elections from canvassing the Maguindanao CoCs. But the Court has declined to do so. It simply scheduled oral arguments on June 28, which is cutting it too close to June 30. So not having been ordered to stop, the Comelec has proceeded to canvass the CoCs.

Were the Maguindanao CoCs to be excluded, a new election would have to be called in the area, to decide who would be the twelfth senator. Otherwise, the whole of Maguindanao would be completely disenfranchised as far as the senatorial race is concerned.

But how would that affect the local officials who would have assumed office by then? Would the Court split the May 14 ballot in Maguindanao, and declare the votes for the local candidates are valid but not the votes for the senators?

That would create a nasty constitutional and political situation which would not be easy to resolve. It appears that the best remedy for Pimentel, should he finally lose, is to do what Fernando Poe, Jr. did, after losing the 2004 presidential elections, which millions believed he had won.

Even if Koko should finally lose, he would still be serving the Senate, and even better, by saving it from a second political dynasty, after the Cayetanos. Were he to make it, the Senate would have two Pimentels, and bearing the same names too. This would present a daily problem to the presiding officer, and no one would be obliged to take us seriously anymore.

As of now, the Senate has to contend with two Cayetanos. Not all the voters saw this anomaly before the elections. Many, if not most, of those who had voted for Rep. Alan Cayetano were those who genuinely admired his showmanship in the failed impeachment debates and his uncanny ability to get the goat of the First Gentleman, Mr. Mike Arroyo. Many were not aware there was already a Senator Pia Cayetano. But now they know.

What is to be done then? Since more people seem to be aware of Alan’s political prowess than that of his sister Pia, there should be no harm in Pia resigning motu proprio or going on a permanent leave of absence without pay. This would require character, but there is nothing to prevent those who voted for her in 2004 to ask her to consider it seriously.

What to do with Senator Antonio Trillanes IV is the Senate’s next problem. He and former Senator Gregorio Honasan ran for the Senate while under detention for their alleged role in the aborted 2003 Oakwood Mutiny. Honasan had been granted bail before the election, and Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales has now moved for the dropping of the charges against him on the ground of weak evidence.

But the administration seems resolved to keep Trillanes in jail even while the Senate is in session. This may be constitutionally debatable, and it may not be the wisest move for the administration. It could make Trillanes bigger than himself and the administration more unpopular than it needs to be.

Time will tell whether the people acted wisely or foolishly in making Trillanes senator. But his election does remove any risk of flight from the court’s jurisdiction. The state would, therefore, be well advised to grant him bail so that he could perform his official duties well. This is the only way people will know if they did right or not in sending him to this formerly august chamber. It would also soften the image of the administration.

Now, despite the numerical superiority of the opposition, they will not necessarily be united in electing the next Senate President. Conflicting ambitions for 2010 will tend to divide its members. What is likely to emerge is a coalition president, who can play with everyone. It will be the old values-free politics as usual.

How the Senate will conduct its inquiries in aid of legislation remains an all-important question. Some senators-elect have already announced their desire to ride high on their investigations. The chairmanship of the Blue Ribbon committee will be critical.

At one time, then Senate president Neptali Gonzales had suggested the possibility of abolishing the Blue Ribbon committee on the ground that it tended to divert the work of the senators from legislative work to police-type investigations. Senator Ernesto Maceda objected, saying it would render the Senate powerless vis-à-vis the President. Not only did the committee stay, other committees became equally aggressive in conducting inquiries that tended to look more like criminal proceedings.

The Senate would regain much of its lost dignity and prestige, if its committees conducted their inquiries in aid of legislation in the most suitable manner, without arrogant and uncouth members browbeating invited guests and making a mockery of basic human civility and correct parliamentary usage, and if it began to debate more ideas, not just exposes, in committee and on the floor.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

How Do We Rebuild The Senate?

How Do We Rebuild The Senate?
Francisco S. Tatad

Over a hundred persons were killed, and they broke the rules every step of the way, and we say we had a relatively peaceful and honest election. A full 25 million out of 45 million registered voters did not vote for a single senator, and we hear the "winners" say they had all received a "resounding mandate." A "landslide," the topnotchers say, and they now expect us to treat them as the first licensed timber for the 2010 presidential race.

In how many other countries do we hear such Newspeak? We must stop kidding ourselves.

We did not have clean and honest elections. The political assassinations drenched the originally non-violent process in senseless blood, and the shameless buying and selling of votes turned the whole country into a veritable whorehouse. This barangay sign tells it all: "No money, no vote!"

In Muslim Mindanao, where one suspects the recurring electoral anomalies are really part of the lingering Moro rebellion, the vote-buying was wholesale as usual, and the most scandalous cases involved senatorial candidates on both sides, and not just the tailenders.

Former Commission on Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, who was at the center of the 2004 electoral storm, did not operate in this election. But there was no shortage of alter egos and clones. Corrupt election officers operated on their own for local clients, without need of direction from central headquarters. But a new election mafia, controlled by the country's most pervasive corruptors, had reportedly privatized the special operations for senators, in a sinister plot to control the next presidential elections and own the next President of the Philippines.

For all the victory parties then, there were no real winners. Those who had high hopes for democracy and decency were the biggest losers. The system no longer works, except that our national politicians and so many among our people do not at all seem to realize it.

In this election, we posed three simple questions:

1. Is it right or wrong for a political party to run candidates on both sides---two with Team Unity and four with Genuine Opposition, or a total of six candidates, on the part of NPC; and one with TU and two with GO, or a total of three each, on the part of LP and NP? Isn't this the most loathsome example of " pamamangka sa dalawang ilog?"

2. Is it right or wrong for a senatorial candidate to spend hundreds of millions of pesos, which he or she may not even have the legal capacity to earn, just to land a job that pays an annual salary of less than one million pesos?

3. Is it right or wrong for anyone to run for the Senate while his father, brother, sister, uncle or aunt is sitting there until 2010?

None of the candidates cared to answer. Most of the voters did not care about the morals, motives, or manners of the candidates either. The majority did not vote for any senator; the minority that did, voted mostly for GO candidates, believing they represented the people's cause. The voters will learn many things yet in six years.

Of GO's two dynasty candidates, Alan Cayetano had an unsurprisingly easy time, while Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III was, as we write, still sweating it out for the twelfth place.

To a great extent, Alan owes his election to his running battle with the First Gentleman, Mike Arroyo, which made him an opposition symbol in the eyes of many voters. Not every voter understood the dynasty issue, and many of those who did must have thought that if Alan had a sister sitting in the Senate, they should have heard about it. They had not.

In the case of "Koko" Pimentel, so many seemed to have the impression that "Koko" was but another name for his father, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino "Nene" Pimentel Jr., and that he was just running for reelection.

Should Koko finally make it, we shall see the Senate exactly as we had said it would look like ----an absurd assembly of 24 members (minus Sen. Fred Lim, who has just been elected Mayor of Manila), with four members coming from two nuclear families.

Should Nene become Senate President, the Pimentel-Cayetano position on political dynasties would then rule. Forget the Constitution, forget basic morality, forget plain aesthetics. In another election, they might be able to convert the entire chamber into the private family estates of just a few families.

Keeping Manny Villar as Senate President or choosing a dark horse would be one way of preventing such anomaly. Villar is not entirely guiltless on the dynasty issue; his wife Cynthia sits in the House of Representatives. But at least he does not have a son or daughter sitting with him in the Senate. If the contest were strictly limited to Villar and Pimentel, it is Villar, rather than Pimentel, whose presidency could lend greater dignity to the Senate.

But it will take more than that for the Senate to regain its lost honor and dignity. Its members must have a clear understanding of that honor and dignity, and must have the will and the ability to do what is needed to regain it. That may not be easy.

The last time I sat at the Senate gallery was when Villar took over the Senate presidency. Senate President Franklin Drilon had called the session to order, announced his resignation, and relinquished the chair to a presiding officer, Senator Juan Flavier, the Senate President Pro Tempore.

The chair noted Drilon's letter of resignation, but neither he nor the Majority Floor Leader Francis Pangilinan asked the body to act on the same. So the resignation was never formally accepted by the Senate. The chair then called for the election of a new Senate President. Villar was nominated, several senators seconded, the nomination was closed, then Pangilinan moved that the new Senate President be elected by acclamation. No objections were heard.

The chair then intoned, "As many as those in favor of the nomination, will they please say aye. And as many as those against, will they please say nay." That was a call to divide the house by a voice vote, not a call to elect by acclamation the unopposed candidate.

Thus, in one short ceremonial session, with all the players reading from a prepared script, they still managed to commit two unnecessarily inept errors. That would have been unthinkable, and unacceptable, in the earlier years. But things have changed. Just the kind of unparliamentary language that often goes into the Senate record and the total absence of ideas being debated on the floor tell us to what depths the institution had sunk and what kind of work needs to be done to rebuild it.

The Senate has a duty, among other things, to teach the nation what it does not know. This includes, and is not limited to, correct parliamentary usage. In a society shot through with corruption, the Senate must concern itself not just with the corruption of others, but above all with the corruption within Congress, involving its own members. In a society crying for change, it must be prepared to lead the move for sweeping and fundamental change, first by provoking change within itself and among its members.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Can the Senate still make a difference?


Can the Senate still make a difference?

By Francisco S. Tatad

The euphoria is contagious, and so many are ecstatic about the victory of most of the "Genuine Opposition" (GO) senatorial candidates. But success often breeds the wildest expectations, and these could rise and multiply, beyond the winners' limited capabilities. Time will tell.

For now, we need to examine some of the more troubling aspects of the elections. Not necessarily the cheating, which consumes everyone in anger and shame, but the voters' real participation, which may not be getting enough attention. We need to know how many really voted and how many did not, and how many voted without voting for any of the senators.

In polling over 18 million votes, the topnotcher took 40 percent of the country's 45 million registered voters. As her name was on almost every ballot counted, then her votes nearly equal the number of voters who had voted. With less than two million votes still out in Muslim Mindanao, 20 million appears to be the total number of those who had voted. That's less than 50 percent of the number of registered voters ---quite a drop in voters' interest in the senatorial race.

On television, a GO senatorial candidate, citing privately compiled data, has suggested that the voting turnout was no bigger than the number of votes polled by the senatorial topnotcher, although in some places, the topnotcher's votes appeared to be inexplicably bigger than the number of voters who had voted.

On the other hand, a senior officer of the Commission on Elections says that about 70 percent of the voters had voted, but that many voters did not vote for senators at all.

If the first theory is correct, then the election had failed to meet the first requirement of a genuinely democratic process. The principle of majority rule requires the participation of at least a simple majority --- 50 percent plus one ---- of all the voters. At least 22,500,001 voters should have voted in order to bind the 45 million voters and the rest of the nation. But if only a minority had voted, then the validity of the process is open to question.

This is not good for the Senate at all. For although senators are not impeachable, they are subject to resignation calls from the public like any other elected officials. Should any group decide to exploit this situation, the presidency may no longer be the only besieged and unstable institution.

If, on the other hand, the second theory is correct, then it means at least 31.5 million of the 45 million voters had voted; 13.5 million did not vote at all. But of the 31.5 million voters, 11.5 million did not vote for the senators at all.

Whichever theory holds, the net result is the same: 25 million of the 45 million voters did not vote for senators. This amounts to a successful, though undeclared, boycott of the senatorial polls. Nobody had called for such a boycott. The only thing that came close to a call was a solitary newspaper ad before election day, quoting this writer's speech to the Pasig Rotary Club in mid-April, which noted the candidates' refusal to take a principled stand on the simplest moral issue, and concluded: "None of them deserve our vote."

The silent boycott had one message for all: reform or perish. The meaning is flexible. Some could use it to restate their demand for regime change. Either by impeachment or by other means.

Since 2005, the opposition had tried to impeach President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo twice. In both instances, the opposition did not have the numbers. But the smartest performers on the floor played to the gallery and the tv audience and became instant celebrities, while those whose task it was to kill the complaint made a killing of their own. This did not bring any opposition leader --- not even the long-detained and undisputed leader, former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada--- an inch closer to replacing the incumbent.

Unless the opposition now controls at least one-third of all the members of the House of Representatives ----the required number to bring the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate, they might find it more useful to proceed against the most sinning Comelec commissioner instead. If they are joined by some administration congressmen, then they might succeed in removing at least one venal commissioner, and probably force the first election reforms before the 2010 presidential contest.

But whatever the opposition does, the senators should try not to talk crazy about impeaching anybody at all. Under the Constitution, the House has the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment. And the Senate has the sole power to try and decide all such cases. The senator's role is to render "impartial justice" in case of an impeachment trial. It would be totally unforgivable it any of the senators today simply imitated the deplorable conduct of at least eight senators in 2000-2001 who publicly demanded Estrada's resignation even as they sat as senator-judges at his impeachment trial.

There are a few urgent things the senators can do though. They could initiate a few anti-poverty and anti-corruption reforms, electoral reforms, and constitutional reforms before the next presidential elections.

  1. The automatic appropriations law for the repayment of foreign loans must now be repealed. This law has led to grossly irresponsible over-borrowing, which has saddled the country with a humungous foreign debt, which reduces the country's productive capacity to nothing.
  1. The "pork barrel", which has become the most notorious source of syndicated official corruption, must now be scrapped through a shift to line-item budgeting. No lump sum appropriations should be left at the complete discretion of politicians and their confederates.
  1. The electoral system must be overhauled. The voters' list must be permanently cleaned up, the cheating syndicates destroyed, the voting computerized, the election inspectors restored, the cost and physical risk of running for public office brought down, as close as possible, to zero level.
  1. The constitutional ban on dynasties must now be given teeth. Henceforth, no person should be elected Senator while another person within the first to the third degree of consanguinity or affinity is serving as senator. And no two or more persons within the first to the third degree of consanguinity or affinity should be elected simultaneously as officials of the state and of any political subdivision, or as officials the same region, province, city, or municipality. Whenever two or more persons, so related to each other, aspire for elective office, the person who has previously served or sought election; or who is seeking the highest position, if all of them have previously served or sought election; or who is the most senior in age, if all are seeking the same position, or are newcomers, shall qualify for election.
  1. Senators who run for President or Vice President in the middle of their term should resign their position, instead of being allowed to continue as senator after losing their bid for higher office. Unless this is mandated by law, there will be a riot of ambitious and morally unfit senators, whose term expires in 2013, running for the two highest offices in 2010.

We must have constitutional reform as well. The senators should now agree – before it becomes a Jose de Venecia show all over again ---- that any substantial constitutional change should be proposed by the people's delegates in a constitutional convention (concon). Only if non-controversial, and of a limited scope and number, should Congress propose the amendments.

For instance, a proposal to shift from presidential to parliamentary government, or from unitary to federal system, must go through a concon. However, simple amendments to improve the presidential system may be proposed by Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its members, pursuant to Article XVII, Section 1 (1).

The 1935 Constitution requires the two houses to sit in joint session when proposing amendments. The present Constitution does not. It is all up to them. But to keep the amendments under control, the two houses should sit as they sit, instead of meeting in joint session. A bicameral conference committee could then harmonize any disagreeing texts later.

The proposals could include the following:

1. A vote for the President is a vote for the Vice President.

(This is to avoid electing a President from one party and a Vice President from another, as has happened here a few times before.)

2. The President shall be elected by a majority of all the votes cast by qualified voters in a national election.

(Where there are more than two candidates, and no one has polled a majority vote, the two leading candidates will have a "run-off"---a second balloting, as we saw recently in France.)

3. The Vice President shall be the President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless he has to break a tie.

(This will lend stability to the office of Senate President, and allow a clear distinction between the majority and the minority in the chamber. )

4. The Senate shall be composed of such number of regional senators as may be determined by law. They shall be elected by the qualified voters of the regions.

5. No person shall be elected President for more than one term; Vice President for more than two terms; Senator for more than four terms; member of the House of Representatives for more than five terms; or to any local government position for more than six terms.

(This is to make some sense of the present "term limits.")

6. All political parties which have candidates for at least forty percent of all positions in a national election shall have the right to appoint election inspectors whose services shall be paid for by the state.

(This will restore the election inspectors system under the 1935 Constitution, and hopefully help make elections cleaner.)

Just because De Venecia has now entered the scene, there will be every attempt to bring in Malacanang as well. Mrs. Arroyo would do well to listen to the servant-leader of El Shaddai, her special adviser. Don't jump into the water. The Constitution assigns no role to the President in amending or revising the Constitution. Last year's two-headed fiasco should not be repeated at all.

Despite De Venecia and company, constitutional reform is now unavoidable. As the election has shown, nothing seems to work anymore. If we are to survive, we must straighten what is bent, and fix what is 'broke', as quickly as possible. It is here where the Senate, for all its warts and weaknesses, could yet hope, if it but tries, to make a difference.