THE Commission on Elections on Monday announced it has suspended indefinitely all of its activities related to the People’s Initiative (PI), including accepting signature sheets.
In a press conference, Comelec Commissioner George M. Garcia said the Comelec en banc made the decision through a new memorandum so they can address the gaps in the provisions of Comelec Resolution No. 10650.
The resolution contained the revised rules and regulation for the conduct of an initiative on the Constitution and referendum as well as on national and local legislation.
“We are suspending any and all proceedings [related to the PI] indefinitely until we are able to review, enhance, and add some things to our rules. Comelec Resolution 10650 promulgated in 2020,” the poll chief said.
Among those affected by the suspension are the signature sheets from Masbate.
Garcia noted the signature campaign launched by the People’s Initiative for Reform Modernization Action (Pirma) for the possible amendment of the 1987 Constitution raised some issues on the implementation of Resolution No. 10650 such as their acceptance of the signature sheets.
He said while the Comelec decided to accept the signature sheets as part of its ministerial duty, it was not stipulated in the resolution.
“We can always issue a supplementary memorandum. But we anticipate more problems later on. If it is not included in the rules, we will have a dispute over it. So it is better if we fix [the rules],” Garcia said.
The poll chief said the review of the rules will take as long as needed and will be done by a panel led by Comelec Executive Director Teopisto Elnas Jr.
Prior to the announced suspension, Comelec was already able to receive the signature sheets, containing 7 million signatures, from 209 of the 254 legislative districts nationwide.
Garcia assured all of the signature sheets already submitted to Comelec before the suspension will be safeguarded by the concerned Election Officers.
Senators’ legal challenge
Senators will still “file the necessary legal case” to challenge the validity of the ongoing signature gathering campaign of those pushing a People’s initiative to amend the Constitution – a campaign backed by the leadership of the House of Representatives, but rejected by all 24 senators.
Senate President Miguel Zubiri announced this in a freewheeling press conference Monday afternoon by Senate leaders, who welcomed the announcement by the Comelec, hours earlier, that its en banc had issued a resolution that, among others, tells election officers to stop accepting signature sheets from groups purporting to show grassroots support for a People’s Initiative.
“Our battle is not yet finished. The Comelec merely ordered a suspension” of acceptance by its election officers of the signature sheets, but this is only pending the Comelec’s review of its role in a PI, Zubiri said, speaking partly in Filipino.
Minority Leader Koko Pimentel, in a statement, welcomed the Comelec decision “to stop all proceedings related to the people’s initiative seeking to revise the 1987 Constitution.”
“Nagising din sa katotohanan [They finally woke up to the truth]. I am glad that Comelec has listened to us and the Filipino people. This move is Comelec’s acknowledgement of limitations of its authority. I repeat, the Comelec has no authority under the law to formulate guidelines on
people’s initiative, even to accept signatures.”
Zubiri credited Senate President Pro Tempore Loren Legarda for tirelessly helping him conduct “shuttle diplomacy” the past weeks, in a bid to stop what senators deem a “fake people’s initiative” that is being driven by politicians with vested interests, and whose signature drive is attended by deceit and corruption.
At Monday’s presscon, Legarda said she had personally sought to get to the bottom of the so-called “PI” and found out that in most cases, the election officers said signatories claimed they signed because they were told it was for “ayuda” (financial assistance).
This bears out earlier accusations that some government social service programs were being used to trick people into signing the “PI” sheets.
Legarda said the EOs (election officers) had explained to her that they are not allowed by law to reject the signature sheets, and it is a “ministerial duty.” However, Legarda said with satisfaction, the Comelec en banc order on Monday morning had at least clearly instructed the EOs to temporarily stop accepting the signature sheets.
She cited reports she received that so far, 43 congressional districts have not yet submitted signature sheets.
Last week, Zubiri had announced the Senate’s plan to file a legal challenge against what they suspect is a campaign instigated by congressmen, and he sought the help of Pimentel, a Bar topnotcher, in crafting the petition against PI.
Comelec order questioned
A LEADER of the House of Representatives said on Monday that Comelec cannot unilaterally thwart or delay a people-driven initiative by refusing to implement constitutional provisions, laws, and its own regulations.
House Committee on Ways and Means Chairman Joey Sarte Salceda underscored the need for a formal written announcement from Comelec regarding the suspension.
“We will have to wait for the Comelec to formally announce that in writing. That said, the commission cannot unilaterally defeat or delay an act of the people by simply refusing to implement the provisions of the Constitution, the law, and the rules and regulations Comelec itself issued under Resolution No. 10650 s. 2020,” he said.
“The provisions of the rules Comelec itself issued regarding RA 6735 are that the election officer will issue a certification upon receipt of signatures from petitioners. The only delay that the Comelec can do, en banc, is to withhold the order to verify the gathered signatures [under Section 15 of Comelec Resolution No. 10650 s. 2020, the IRR to RA 6735],” he added.
Salceda addressed the ongoing debate about the backers of the people’s initiative, emphasizing that the focus should be on the initiative’s compliance with established requirements rather than the identity of its supporters.
He said that the law, Republic Act 6735, and its rules do not differentiate between elected politicians and regular voters when it comes to launching a people’s initiative.
Citing Supreme Court precedents, Salceda cautioned Comelec about its decision, suggesting that it might not withstand legal scrutiny.
He referred to cases such as Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority vs. Commission on Elections and Garcia vs. Comelec, where the Court advocated for a liberal construction of popular action to facilitate, rather than impede, the exercise of voters’ rights.
Earlier, Salceda said advocates of PI have already gathered more than enough signatures to push for a direct amendment of the Constitution.
He said that the support of at least 3 percent of voters in each congressional district and a minimum of 12 percent nationwide has already been gathered by PI supporters.
In fact, he said 12.1 percent of voters have signed the petition for a direct constitutional amendment.