General Assembly for Cha-Cha: A Day of Deception?

Mar. 26, 2006

Instead of a general assembly that people attended on their own volition, the gathering was marred by alleged deception and other machinations, allegedly done on orders by Malacanang. photo by Barry Ohaylan

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By Cheryll D. Fiel photo by barry ohaylanDAVAO CITY They were all gathered on Saturday to supposedly hear the pros and cons of the proposed constitutional amendment to shift to a parliamentary form of government. What they heard instead were the earnest words of their officials promising dramatic change in governance.

Worst, instead of a general assembly that people attended on their own volition, the gathering was marred by alleged deception and other machinations, allegedly done on orders by Malacanang.

The Department of the Interior and Local Government had earlier asked barangays (villages) across the country to hold general assemblies yesterday and on Oct. 21 to supposedly get the pulse of the public on constitutional amendments.

The assemblies are part of the peoples initiative, one of the ways the administration is using to amend the charter, which requires the signatures of at least 12 percent of the total registered voters nationwide and at least three percent of voters in a congressional district. photo by Barry Ohaylan After surviving impeachment and other scandals, as well as an alleged coup plot, related to the rigging of the 2004 elections, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had sought sweeping changes in the Constitution in order to change the present system of government, which, according to her, breeds the kind of corruption and political patronage that consume politicians.

But her critics allege that the peoples initiative petition was designed to fast-track the shift from the current system of government to a parliamentary system so Arroyo can beat another impeachment complaint poised against her for allegations of fraud in the 2004 elections.

The recent appointment of Ronaldo Puno as secretary of the DILG signified the seriousness of Malacanangs objective to railroad the amendments, according to these critics. Puno, who was also the DILG secretary of former president Joseph Estrada, is known for his ability to gather support in the grassroots level. He is said to know or have direct contact with every barangay leader in the whole country.

In Malacanang, Arroyo spokesman Ignacio Bunye called the barangay assemblies democracy at work.

Everyone has been saying that we must listen to the voice of the people. This is the time to do it. Let us take the debate down to the grassroots and discover their genuine sentiments, Bunye said on Saturday.

What happened on Saturday, however, was hardly a debate.

In Talomo, one of the districts in this city, officials resorted to giving away rice porridge in order to attract people. And whatever questions the residents had about Charter change were easily drowned out by the loud Yoyoy Villame songs being performed by a singer onstage, inside the S.I.R. Covered Court.

The songs and the porridge — instead of the scheduled open forum — followed the presentation of Celso Tizon, barangay captain of 76-A, on the benefits of Charter change.

Elsewhere in the country, according to this report by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, many who attended the assemblies were either bribed or misled. Government officials and allies of the president, however, denied this allegation, according to a report by the Philippine Star.

Senator Aquilino Pimentel, in a statement on Sunday, debunked Malacanangs claim that it had no hand in the general assemblies and that, according to him, the administration allotted 20 million pesos for the signature campaign.

Tizon, the Talomo official, denied earlier on Saturday that they would be gathering signatures during the assembly in support of the peoples initiative. According to him, the government would listen first to what people have to say about the proposed constitutional amendments.

“If we find out that people are in favor of pursuing the signature campaign, then we will push for it,” he said.

Participants were asked to sign three sets of papers. One paper was for the attendance, which they had to sign upon entering the S.I.R. Covered Court. Another set of papers was for another attendance while another set bore words that said, in effect, that whoever signed it was in favor of the peoples initiative. photo by Barry Ohaylan

These were printed on one of the sheets of paper the participants were made to sign: “Do you approve of the amendments of Articles VI & VII of the 1987 Constitution, changing the form of government from the present Bicameral-Presidential to a Unicameral-Parliamentary System of government, in order to achieve greater efficiency, simplicity and economy in government and providing an Article XVIII as transitory provisions for the orderly shift from one to another?”

Below this paragraph were the words: “I hereby approved the proposed amendment to the 1987 Constitution. My signature herein which shall form part of the petition for initiative to amend the Constitution signify my support for the filing thereof.

The signatory was asked to fill up a columns for precinct number, full name, address, birthdate, and signature. Another column was provided for verification.

Pacita Nelmeda, a resident of District 9 of Talomo, told that they were just told that the papers they were signing were “for cap (captain).”

Andres Siriban of District 6 said they were told the papers were “for attendance.” Emilio Sales of Distric 6 also said the same thing.

Tizon, meanwhile, said they were aiming to gather 6,300 signatures in barangay 76-a alone and that they were given until this Monday as deadline for their submission to the Commission on Elections. According to Tizon, his barangay has 53,000 registered voters.

He expressed confidence that even with the short time given them, they can comply with the required signatures. He said he had already assigned his purok leaders all 100 of them — to go around and gather signatures. He added that he even set the ceiling for signatures gathered at 15 percent, instead of the minimum 12 percent.

In Saturday afternoon’s assembly, around 500 people were present. The barangay has a population of about 90,000, based on the count of the National Statistics Office.

During his speech, which was supposed to be a “State of the Barangay Address,” Tizon took pains to convince the participants of the good things a Charter change can do. The Constitution, he said, badly needs to be changed because it has been overtaken by events and that it is no longer relevant.

Due to this urgency, he told the crowd, “there is no other way to do it swiftly” but through a people’s initiative.

By shifting to the parliamentary system, he said, the country can get rid of “rivalry and the competition for power prevalent in the present system. Under the new system, he added, there is greater accountability on the part of the leader, as the prime minister will then be held accountable by the members of the parliament.” Unlike the present system, he said, the president “has no accountability to Senate and Congress.

Tizons speech echoes the line that often emanates from Malacanang, sometimes from the president herself. He ended his speech by saying: If you have questions, I will not debate with you because I am not an expert on the Constitution.

Fred Gapuz, chairman of the Union of Peoples Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM), said Saturdays general assemblies were a desperate attempt by Arroyo to change the Constitution by using the barangays as its machinery. The assemblies, he said, reminded him of a similar government drive during the Marcos dictatorship.

“It reminds me of what happened during the Marcos years where Marcos proposed amendments, called a barangay assembly and counted the attendance of the people as votes in favor of amending the constitution,” he said.

Gapuz explained that there is the provision in the Constitution that provides for people’s initiative. That provision is supposed to be covered by a law to be passed by Congress providing for the guidelines on how it is supposed to be done, but they did not. The public, he said, should first discuss what these amendments are. photo by Barry OhaylanBut this did not happen, he said. “It is the initiative of the House Speaker Jose de Venecia and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.” De Venecia, who has ran unsuccessfully for the presidency, has long ago sought a shift to parliamentary system of government where, according to his critics, he would have a greater chance of becoming prime miniters.

Lawyer Beverly Musni, convenor of InPeace Mindanao, explained that even if the government can gather the 12 percent signatures of the total number of registered voters, the proposed amendments will still have to go through a plebiscite by June.

Musni believes the administration is railroading the process to make sure that the amendments happened before another impeachment could be lodged against Arroyo when Congress convenes by midyear.

Carlos Isagani Zarate, a Davao City lawyer, said the people should not be deceived. “We know that the purpose of this Cha-Cha is to alter our basic laws, to open what are left of the country’s resources to foreign plunder, and intensify repression against legitimate dissent and criticism.” (See related stories here and here.)

(Cheryll D. Fiel with a report by Carlos H. Conde/

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