[OPINION] Train to nowhere?

If you are confused about where the federalism/Cha-Cha train is going, you’re not the only one. Its main proponents are themselves confused. They certainly are working at cross purposes.

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez wants a new Constitution ready for a plebiscite by May, 3 months from now. Senate President Koko Pimentel says that’s too early, he supports his Senate colleagues’ demand for separate voting in a Con-Ass or Constituent Assembly. Former Supreme Court chief justice Renato Puno, chair of President Rodrigo Duterte’s long delayed consultative committee on charter change, does not want a Con-Ass, he prefers a Constitutional Convention.

Speaker Alvarez and Senate President Pimentel have provided the opposition with its two main issues, “no elections (No-el) and the extension of President Duterte’s term. Opposition to past attempts at Cha-Cha, under presidents Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, mobilized precisely around these two issues. Duterte has denied wanting his term extended. They’ve tried to explain away these tactical errors by saying these would be the “logical consequence” of Cha-Cha. What cannot be explained away is the “political intent” underlying Cha-Cha justifications.

The most obvious is Speaker Alvarez. He has locked horns with the two strongest political clans in his province, the Del Rosarios and Floirendos. He may not get reelected in the 2019 elections, thus “no-el”.

Together with the PDP Laban Federalism Institute, he has crafted a proposal for a new parliament which will be composed of members from existing single member districts and party representatives elected in regional proportional representation elections. The current members of the House of Representatives, party list and district members are thus assured of retaining their seats, especially if there’s “no-el” in 2019.

The Speaker also has goodies in his political cookie jar for senators. He proposes that senators whose terms end in 2019 would have their terms extended. His problem is that he cannot be sure he can get the ¾ vote (18 ) in the Senate to get a new draft constitution approved. With a solid 5 opposition votes, the most number of votes Cha-Cha advocates can get is 17 since there are only 23 sitting senators. If Senator Leila de Lima is allowed to vote, and minority senators manage to win over other senators, Cha-Cha advocates cannot get the votes they need.

PDP Laban Federalism Institute Executive Director Jonathan Malaya once told me that Senate President Pimentel and Speaker Alvarez had a “gentleman’s agreement” that the Senate would get to vote separate from the House. The Speaker, it turns out is not a gentleman. He now wants joint voting. He has gone even further, now saying that he can get amendments passed by the House without Senate concurrence, a legally ridiculous position.

The Senate is just as determined to vote separately. All senators understandably oppose joint voting which would render their 23 votes irrelevant against the House’s 292 votes. After the Speaker rammed through a Con-Ass resolution early in January, the Senate is now moving to have their own Con-Ass. To prevent a House maneuver where even one senator present in the House Con-Ass would be used to say there is “joint voting”, Senator Ping Lacson is proposing that any senator attending a House Con-Ass would be expelled from the Senate!

Confident of support in the Supreme Court, the Speaker is pushing to have the issue raised there. The 1987 Constitution does not specify whether there should be separate or joint voting. But if the legal issue is posed as whether the Senate can be forced to join the House Con-Ass, the SC would be hard put to justify that this is not a “political question” that it cannot touch. Three former Supreme Court chief justices, all active members of the Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution, and most constitutional law experts support the Senate position.

There is no way Speaker Alvarez can get a new constitution approved in a plebiscite at the time of the May 14 barangay elections. Rules require that the subject of a plebiscite must be approved at least 60 days before; this would place Alvarez’s deadline to mid-March, a little over a month away. Resolving the dispute with the Senate, especially if the issue is brought to the Supreme Court, will certainly take more than two months. No May plebiscite, no “no-el”.

If the Speaker cannot get a plebiscite in May, the next electoral exercise that he can piggy back a plebiscite on is the May 2019 midterm election. If he decides to appropriate money for a separate plebiscite, it would remove his excuse for a Con-Ass instead of a Con-Con, that it would cost too much. If there is no resolution of these issues until after the October 2018 filing of candidacies for the 2019 elections, politicians will be too preoccupied with election campaign work.

For now the main arena of contestation on federalism/Con-ass has been the Senate. Substantive issues are only now coming out.

Vice President Leni Robredo has already protested against plans by the House to remove the vice presidency. There are proposals for the abolition of the Ombudsman, and for limiting freedom of speech to its “responsible exercise”.

The accumulation of these issues, on top of “no-el” and term extensions and the attempt to muzzle Rappler and other media will result in snowballing opposition. From the Senate to the streets. It should be an interesting next few months. – Rappler.com

Joel Rocamora is a political analyst and a seasoned civil society leader. An activist-scholar, he finished his PhD in Politics, Asian Studies, and International Relations in Cornell University, and had been the head of the Institute for Popular Democracy, the Transnational Institute, the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party, and member to a number of non-governmental organizations. From the parliament of the streets, he crossed over to the government and joined Aquino's Cabinet as the Lead Convenor of the National Anti-Poverty Commission.