MANILA, Philippines - The ruling Liberal Party (LP) is divided over moves to amend the political provisions of the Constitution to allow President Aquino to seek a second term.
The cracks emerged after Aquino declared in a television interview on Wednesday that he has changed his mind on Charter change and is now open to seeking reelection.
LP stalwarts in the House of Representatives said not only were they stunned by Aquino’s pronouncement but they also felt that Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. – a vice chairman of the party – was “disrespected” as the latter had repeatedly vowed to amend only the economic provisions of the Charter to boost the country’s growth.
“We’re all incredulous and disappointed to say the least.Here we are pushing for a no-nonsense economic Charter change, and it’s gaining public support because there’s no politics involved, and here comes this bombshell that could kill this economic initiative,” a ranking LP lawmaker in the House said.
The lawmaker, who asked not to be named, said as recently as the opening of the second regular session of the 16th Congress last July 28, Belmonte had assured the House that the efforts to amend restrictive economic provisions would not be tainted by politics.
Other sources from the party said the Speaker would seek an audience with Aquino to find out whether the President was serious about seeking another term.
With the exception of Reps. Edgar Erice, Ben Evardone and Jerry Treñas – all of whom belong to the LP – other lawmakers from the party have yet to come forward to express support for extending Aquino’s term.
Erice was the first to campaign in the chamber for amending the political provisions, saying Aquino was indispensable in continuing the reforms his administration has started.
Before Aquino made his pronouncements, Majority Leader and Mandaluyong City Rep. Neptali Gonzales II had repeatedly warned that moves to tamper with the political provisions of the Constitution would endanger the ongoing legislative process for economic Charter change.
Resolution of Both Houses No. 1, which seeks to remove restrictions on foreign ownership in certain industries, is set to be discussed in plenary in the coming days. Aquino earlier was cool to the proposal.
Many LP lawmakers have pointed to a “small group” within the party, led by Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, as behind Aquino’s change of mind.
“I fear that the leadership and the entire party will be divided – on one side, the voice of reason, the other, troublemakers,” a senior LP member earlier said.
The LP is the biggest political party in the 290-member House with over 100 members.
Other political parties belonging to the pro-administration coalition have yet to come up with their stand on the issue.
Officials from the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), Nacionalista Party (NP), National Unity Party (NUP) and Centrist Democratic Party of the Philippines (CDP) in separate interviews said they expect to hold their respective meetings in the coming days as they try gauge the response of the people to Aquino’s controversial pronouncement.
The NPC has 62 lawmakers in its roster. The NUP has about 30 members while the NP and CDP have less than 10 members each.
Deputy Speaker and Isabela Rep. Giorgidi Aggabao, who is president of NPC, said the party is set to meet with officials from the executive branch after next week to discuss their concerns on the proposed national budget for 2015. This would be followed by a caucus to discuss political Charter change.
Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, head of the NP contingent in the House, said there was no word yet from party leaders when the matter would be discussed.
Sources said NUP members met with Belmonte yesterday to seek his guidance on the matter. An NUP lawmaker said the party is set to hold an internal dialogue.
“This is a sensitive issue for the public, and we consider the Speaker our boss,” the source said.
Quezon City Rep. Winston Castelo, an LP stalwart, however said there should be long and continuous consensus building on the issue.
“But any term extension must fall within the provisions allowed by the Constitution. Although I strongly favor non-extension of the Presidents’ term to preserve his family’s legacy, the President has to react to some clamor who thirst for clean government and uninterrupted campaign against corruption,” Castelo said.
“This is all part of a strong democratic foundation in our country. Public servants should be sensitive to the people but should never be motivated by personal ambition,” he said.
‘Be not afraid’
Evardone and Treñas slammed those opposing moves to extend Aquino’s term, saying the matter should be best left to the people to decide, either through a nationwide referendum or people’s initiative, which is the legal shortcut to amend the Constitution.
“To those opposing the Cha-cha (Charter change): Be not afraid. After all, it is the Filipino people who will ultimately decide in a plebiscite whether President Aquino should be allowed another term,” Evardone said.
“So, let the people decide. After all, it’s the people who are the final arbiter in a democracy,” he said.
He said he was studying the feasibility of the Senate and the House passing a joint resolution calling for a referendum or a people’s initiative.
“Through a people’s initiative, or referendum, our legislative agenda will not be derailed. We’ll have just one question answerable by yes or no: ‘do you want a term extension for the President?’” Evardone said.
He said if it will be decided that the amendments to the constitutional provisions on term limits of public officials will have to be written by Congress, then incumbent lawmakers should exclude themselves from being covered by the changes.
Treñas said the raging debate on whether or not Aquino should be given a second term can only be determined in a referendum and “not through protests and media rantings by the noisy few.”
“The President’s critics are even claiming that he should step down because he has lost the support of our people but at the same time, they are afraid to hear the voice of our people,” Treñas said.
He argued it would be a “tragedy” if Aquino would not be allowed to remain in power to continue his “reforms.”
He said Congress might not have enough time to pursue the controversial proposal while working on correcting the Constitution’s restrictive economic provisions.
“It would be a miracle if Congress would pull this off, especially with the perceived public opposition,” he said.
Fariñas, however, opposed the proposals to hold a referendum and stressed that it would be better if Congress write the amendments to save time and public funds.
“Why don’t we hold it as a single exercise, meaning we hold a plebiscite after Congress writes the proposed amendments. Instead of holding a referendum and we go back again to conduct a plebiscite,” Fariñas told The STAR.
“If they don’t want our proposed amendments, then they can replace us in the next elections,” he said.
Fariñas said it was providential that it is Aquino who is now pushing for lifting of term limits, as it was his late mother who handpicked 48 people to write the present Constitution.
“It’s been nearly 30 years since the Constitution, and it has not been touched or changed, not even a comma. It has served us well but this was an offshoot of the long Marcos era,” he said.
“So what better person than the President to continue the legacy of his mother. It would be hard to question his motives,” he added.
He said while the 1987 Constitution was drafted by a small number of appointed people, this time, the few changes would be proposed by elected members of Congress who are directly accountable to the electorate.
Negros Occidental Gov. Alfredo Marañon Jr. also voiced his support for a second term for Aquino. “Only fools don’t change their mind,” he said in defending Aquino’s warming up to Cha-cha and term extension. With Rey Galupo, Danny Dangcalan