MANILA, 26 October 2006 — Voting 8-7, the Supreme Court yesterday trashed a petition to change the Philippine Constitution through the “people’s initiative” mode, dealing a blow to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s move to overhaul the system of government.
Arroyo’s allies went to the Supreme Court after the Commission on Elections (Comelec) in August refused to verify the 6.3 million signatures in a petition, which sought to replace the current American-style two-chamber legislature with a one-chamber parliament.
The Comelec rejected the petition, citing a 1997 Supreme Court ruling which said that while the “people’s initiative” is provided as one of the three methods of amending the constitution, Congress should first enact a law authorizing such a measure.
In its decision yesterday, the court voted to uphold the previous ruling, saying the changes being sought this time would constitute a major revision to the constitution. It said the “people’s initiative” can only be used for lesser amendments to the constitution.
“This court cannot betray its primordial duty to defend and protect the constitution. The constitution, which embodies the people’s sovereign will, is the bible of this court. This court exists to defend and protect the constitution. To allow this constitutionally infirm initiative, propelled by deceptively gathered signatures, to alter basic principles in the constitution is to allow a desecration of the constitution. ...,” said the majority decision penned by Justice Antonio T. Carpio.
“To allow such change in the fundamental law is to set adrift the constitution in uncharted waters, to be tossed and turned by every dominant political group of the day,” it also said.
Voting with Carpio against the initiative were Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, Associate Justices Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez, Consuelo Ynares-Santiago, Romeo Callejo Sr., Alicia Austria-Martinez, Conchita Carpio-Morales, and Adolf Azcuna.
Voting for the people’s initiative aside from Associated Justices Renato Corona, Cancio Garcia, Minita Chico-Nazario, Renato Puno, Leonardo Quisumbing, Dante Tinga and Presbitero Velasco.
Gleo Guerra, the acting spokeswoman of the court, said the court also found that the signatures were obtained irregularly because they were not appended to the text of the proposed changes.
Opponents of the petition, led by senators, welcomed the ruling and urged the Arroyo administration to concentrate its efforts on programs that were not divisive.
Vice President Noli de Castro asked charter change proponents to respect the ruling.
“We call on everyone to uphold and abide by the rule of law. Any change in our constitution must be done according to law and our democratic system,” he said.
Rep. Peter Cayetano, the official opposition spokesman, welcomed the ruling, calling the Supreme Court “the last bastion of democracy.”
“We should agree and focus on reforms, including political reforms, which can be achieved with the present constitution and system,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. called the ruling “the best news of the century.”
Sen. Franklin Drilon appealed to Malacañang Palace and its supporters “to put the issue behind us now so that we can address the more important problems of the country such as the need for more effective poverty-alleviation programs and providing better basic social services to the people.”
Sen. Edgardo Angara said the high court “has shown once more that it can rise to the occasion and prove itself and independent and objective institution.”
Sen. Manuel Roxas II called the ruling a “victory for the Filipino people” and a “victory for our system of checks and balance.”
Presidential Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said while “the highest court of the land has made a decision so there’s no recourse but to follow,” the administration was not conceding defeat for its bid to amend the constitution. “The president has not lost her resolve for a major political change, such as the charter change,” Ermita said.
Arroyo says gridlock under the current system makes the government inefficient at addressing poverty, development and other issues.
Opponents say Arroyo and her allies are pushing the changes to consolidate their grip on power by abolishing the opposition-dominated Senate, among other proposals.
The president and a newly created prime minister would share power for three years but after 2010, the prime minister would be head of a British-style parliamentary system.
Ermita said petitioners Sigaw ng Bayan and the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP) also could still appeal the Supreme Court ruling. He noted that the 8-7 vote was too close and still has a good chance of changing.
He also sounded off Malacañang’s allies in Congress to keep alive the possibility of a constituent assembly as a fallback mode of amending the charter.
There is a pending resolution in the House of Representatives to convene Congress into a constituent assembly, which the senators are also opposing.
The third option of amendment is through the more expensive constitutional convention, in which representatives are elected nationwide by district for the purpose of rewriting the constitution. Although delegates to a constitutional convention could also be bribed and manipulated, this option is acceptable to the opposition and other critics of the two other modes of amendment.
Amid the jubilation and dismay, depending on whose camp one belonged, groups opposed to Arroyo’s plans to overhaul the system, urged the Commission on Audit (COA) to conduct an independent audit of the expenditures of local government units that supported the campaign for a people’s initiative.
Rufus Rodriguez, lawyer for deposed President Joseph Estrada, said the ULAP resolution made it unlikely that the money local government executives donated to the signature drive of Sigaw ng Bayan “came from their own pocket.”
Counsels for the Defense of Liberties (CODAL) spokesman Neri Colmenares said once an appeal is filed, they will ask the high court to order ULAP and Sigaw ng Bayan to give an accounting of their expenditures and funding sources.
“What happened to all the money they used to gather signatures, the money they used for those paid advertisements on TV and newspapers?” Leah Navarro of the Black and White Movement asked.
Another people’s initiative opponent, the group One Voice, said the Supreme Court decision should signal the start of the preparations for the 2007 elections.
“We also call on Sigaw ng Bayan and (ULAP) to submit themselves to this decision and accept their defeat with grace so that our nation can move forward with greater speed and unity,” it said.
Senators Panfilo Lacson and Richard Gordon echoed calls for investigation.
“It is regrettable that millions of pesos from the public coffers were spent for the failed petition of Sigaw ng Bayan and ULAP,” Lacson said. “Our countrymen picked up the tab again.”
Gordon said the high court ruling confirmed the “dubious way by which the present people’s initiative was orchestrated.” (With input from Inquirer News Service & Agencies)