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.


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