BY RAYMOND AFRICA and WENDELL VIGILIA
SENATE President Vicente Sotto III yesterday said President Duterte has asked lawmakers to abolish the party-list system allowed under the 1987 Constitution because of the perceived involvement of sectoral groups such as the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives with the communist movement in the country.
Sotto’s statement was confirmed by House sources who said that the President has even threatened a military takeover if moves to change the Charter and remove the system do not push through.
In an online interview, Sotto said Duterte called him and four other senators, Speaker Lord Allan Velasco and four congressmen, and a number of ranking military officials to a meeting in Malacañang on the first week of December last year where he told the group that he wants the “the party-list system amended, resolved, or removed” in the Constitution.
The agenda of the meeting, Sotto said, was supposed to be confidential but he said he was prompted to disclose the discussion after news reports said that the House leadership has already given the go signal for the start of committee hearings on proposed revisions to the Constitution.
“At the onset of the meeting, the President said ‘I want this problem with the CPP-NPA solved.’ So, I waited for him to say more, and he said… ‘The best way is we remove the party-list system or change it, in the Constitution.’
He is really hot on this CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines)-NPA (New People’s Army) issue whose majority of sympathizers are from party-list groups,” Sotto said.
Sotto’s revelation was backed by the claim of sources from the House who said that the President has even warned congressional leaders he would call for a military takeover of Congress if Congress fails to ensure the success of his latest push for constitutional amendments.
“If you can’t do it, they (military) will do it. They will be the ones to deliver,” a congressional source privy to the details of the President’s recent talks with Velasco and Sotto quoted the Chief Executive as saying.
The source confirmed that some military officials were present in one of the President’s meetings with the congressional leaders.
The President made a similar threat when he told then speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and Velasco to stop bickering over the House’s top post last October.
“That’s essentially a military junta (takeover of Congress),” said the House source.
The President has told lawmakers to prioritize Charter change to revive the economy by first lifting the “restrictive” economic provisions of the Constitution to open the country to more foreign investors amid the hardships brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Velasco, who earlier insisted that the House will be independent under his leadership, yesterday began discussing the proposed amendments to the Constitution with other House leaders as the chamber prepares to open deliberations on Charter change resolutions as early as next week.
Among the measures to be discussed in the committee level is Resolution No. 2, which Velasco filed in 2019 under Cayetano’s leadership to amend the Charter’s economic provisions.
The Makabayan bloc said the “communist bogey is only an excuse to slice and dice the Constitution for the personal purposes of those pushing for it.”
“Pushing for charter change now, at a time when the pandemic is still ravaging the people, will only further isolate the Duterte regime from the people,” said ACT party-list Rep. France Castro, slamming Duterte for his “continuing incompetence in its pandemic response.”
Castro warned that Congress, once it is convened as a constituent assembly, will be able to tackle any provision in the Constitution.
She said the President’s latest threat “is another desperate attempt of the Duterte administration to hold on to power, silence critics and remove those who have been exposing their shameless and disrespectful acts which ultimately make the Filipino people suffer.”
“We will continue to oppose this administration’s attempts of charter change. This is not the change the people have been demanding for,” said the militant lawmaker.
The Makabayan bloc is composed of Bayan Muna party-list Reps. Carlos Zarate, Ferdinand Gaite, and Eufemia Cullamat; ACT Teachers party-list Rep. France Castro, Kabataan party-list Rep. Sarah Elago and Gabriela party-list Rep. Arlene Brosas.
Sotto’s slip on the President’s request came as he also bared that Senators Ronald dela Rosa and Francis Tolentino have already filed a resolution which calls for both houses of Congress to convene as a constitutional assembly “for the purpose of adopting amendments, limited to the provisions on democratic representation and the economic provisions of the Constitution.”
The resolution was filed by Dela Rosa and Tolentino last December 7 but caught the attention of the media only on Wednesday after news reports said that Velasco has given the green light to the House committee on constitutional amendments to resume charter change hearings.
Sotto brushed aside talks that Dela Rosa’s and Tolentino’s resolution was to pave the way for the President’s term extension or a no election scenario.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, chair of the Senate committee on constitutional amendments and revision of codes and laws, said an all-senators caucus is needed so senators can discuss how to move forward.
“As was our approach in the previous Congress, it would be best if the matter be tackled and discussed first in an all-senators caucus wherein a consensus as to how to move forward hopefully can be reached,” Pangilinan said.
Pangilinan, however, raised concerns about the timing of the resolution, noting that government should focus on controlling and managing the disease so the country can get back on its feet.
“Among the issues that can be discussed in the caucus would be the timing of charter amendments considering that the country is facing the worst economic and health crisis in recent memory,” Pangilinan said.
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon said talks on charter change in the final stretch of the Duterte administration “is an exercise in futility.”
“It will be a total waste of time. It won’t fly. Our history tells us that Cha-cha has a zero chance of success in any administration that is already in the home stretch. It is a sin to be even talking about changing the Constitution when there is still no end in sight to the pandemic, when the government is struggling to secure funding for Covid-19 vaccines, and when the country is still reeling from the continuing impact of the pandemic and the recent typhoons,” Drilon said in a statement.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said steps to amend the 1987 Constitution is “like taking one big step into a mousetrap or even quicksand for that matter.”
“Without the certainty that both chambers of Congress will be voting separately, and there is none due to the vagueness of that particular provision in the 1987 Constitution – and only the Supreme Court can make such interpretation – it’s like taking one big step into a mousetrap, or even quicksand for that matter.”
“Having said that, I think all of us 24 senators should discuss this matter very carefully before we even consider plenary debates on the said resolution if indeed there is one filed,” he added.
Sotto said the public are usually doubtful about moves to amend the Constitution during the homestretch of any administration due to talks of term extension and ‘no-el” scenario, adding it is wise to make such moves at the very start of any administration.
“Instead of talking about Cha-cha, let’s talk about how we can bring down inflation and let’s talk about how we can bring back lost jobs and livelihood opportunities,” Drilon said.
Inflation peaked at 3.5 percent in December while unemployment reached 8.7 percent or around 3.8 million jobless Filipinos in October, he noted.
DIWA party-list Representative Michael Edgar Aglipay, who was among those who attended the meeting with Velasco to discuss Cha-cha, said the Speaker was acting on his own in pushing for constitutional amendments.
The new chair of the House committee on good government said that the Speaker is closely identified with the President, “he’s actually acting on his own.”
“The Speaker didn’t mention anything about the President giving marching orders to do this, to do that. It was his own action, on his own initiative,” said the congressman.
Aglipay, who assured that the discussions will be limited to the economic provisions, said the House aims to finish the deliberations before February 2022 so a plebiscite could be held simultaneously with the May 2022 elections.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque reiterated the President is focused on addressing and easing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the county, not charter amendments or even the extension of his term as chief executive beyond 2022. – With Jocelyn Montemayor