People’s initiative: Challenges and responses

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Definitively, the nationwide sign-up campaign for a trailblazing people’s initiative bill to abolish the pork barrel system and, through its penal provisions, to “exact accountability for the plunder of the people’s money” will go full-blast starting September.

It aims to collect, within a year, 6 million or more voters’ signatures – with at least 3% of the registered voters signing per congressional district.

The signatures attached to the bill/petition will be submitted to the Commission on Elections for verification. After certifying the petition to be sufficient in form and substance, the Comelec shall submit it to the people in a referendum. Approval by one-half plus one of the 52-million registered voters shall enact the bill into law.

From published comments on this people’s initiative, launched via a People’s Congress held in Cebu City on August 23, at least three issues have been raised expressing doubts that it can succeed. These are:

1. The Comelec may fail to verify all the signatures, as those who oppose can put up obstacles. Failure to verify-certify the required number – 10% of all the registered voters, 3% in every district – can deter the Comelec from submitting the petition to a referendum.

2. Political fiefdoms in many of the 234 districts can thwart the collection of 3% of the voters’ signatures. Failure to gather 3% in any district may render the initiative a failure.

3. Supposing the bill passes muster and becomes a law, it can be repealed by Congress. The bill’s provision on amendment or repeal (Section 10) — only through another people’s initiative and referendum — may be questioned on its constitutionality before the Supreme Court.

The People’s Congress declaration of unity acknowledges these challenges and resolves to overcome them. It states:

“We know we are up against entrenched and well-organized forces currently holding the reins of political power. We are also faced with the lack of resources as well as the inertia and cynicism that attend any attempt at meaningful change in the unjust status quo.

But we will persevere and inevitably triumph against all adversity for we know this fight — to abolish the abominable pork barrel system — is the people’s fight.”

To overcome the first two challenges, the proponents vow to set up an effective campaign machinery; undertake a “massive information and education campaign nationwide”; and continue to “reach out and forge unities with all forces, groups and individuals to build the broadest possible unity for this People’s Initiative.”

Thus far, the initiative has been endorsed, among others, by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines. The bishops’ support through the parishes in their respective dioceses can be crucial to the campaign’s success.

By early September, a national coordinating committee with a joint general secretariat shall set up shop to oversee the signature campaign. Regional, provincial, city and district counterpart committees and secretariats shall be organized to monitor the campaign and submit timely reports.

For a systematic collection and verification of signatures, three sets of signature sheets/folders shall be filled up and signed by each voter, as follows: (1) per congressional district in provinces or cities with multiple districts; (2) per lone-district city or per municipality in lone-district provinces; and (3) for big provinces and cities, regardless of congressional districts, for voters who cannot go to their districts to sign up.

Through (1) and (2), the coordinating committees and the Comelec can determine if the 3% per-district requirement has been met, while (3) can complement the effort to attain the 10% nationwide requirement. Even after the 3% is attained, signing-up shall continue to build a comfortable buffer for both the 10% and 3% requisites.

To avoid overburdening the Comelec, signatures collected every month will be submitted for immediate verification and certification by the commission’s provincial, city and municipal offices. Thus, any deficiency detected can be remedied in time.

What of the issue that Congress can repeal the legislation passed through people’s initiative? The proponents assert: No, Congress cannot repeal it. And Section 10 of the bill is constitutional.

The legal grounds for such assertions are two provisions of the 1987 Constitution pertaining to people’s initiative. These are:

Article VI, Section. 1, which says, “The legislative power shall be vested in the Congress of the Philippines… except to the extent reserved to the people by the provision on initiative and referendum”; and Article VI, Section 32, which provides for the system of initiative and referendum, “whereby the people can directly propose and enact laws or approve or reject any act or law or part thereof passed by the Congress” after the requirements cited earlier are fulfilled.

Note that while the legislative power of Congress includes the power to pass, amend or repeal laws, Section 1 separates from such power the people’s reserved power to legislate via initiative and referendum.

More important, note that Section 32 upholds the people’s power not only to directly enact laws but also to approve or reject – repeal, in effect – any law passed by Congress. Not the other way around.

As sovereign, the people hold the inherent power to legislate. Congress, constituting the people’s elected representatives, only exercises legislative power delegated by the people. Thus, Congress cannot override what the people’s initiative will enact.

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Published in The Philippine Star
August 30, 2014

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