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.

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