By Atty. Gregorio Larrazabal
The debate is expected to be long and contentious. The constitutionalists, the academe, the political leadership, and the pundits are gearing up for the big debate. The time is now and the clock is ticking. The 1987 Constitution will face its greatest challenge – a review, a revisit, and as anticipated, a timely change.
They say that procedure is a stubborn ally. Like it or not, we cannot ignore what the law, whether in its black letters or practical application, demands. A strict adherence to procedure and a consultative process that engages the brilliant as well as the absurd.
But before we take that momentous leap forward, we must first deal with the most basic question of TIME. Time, whether in abundance or in scarcity. In order to properly assert any position, I am afraid that it is necessary that we walk through the tedious yet inescapable process of knowing what goes on behind the scenes of an election or a plebiscite.
When preparing for an electoral exercise, be it a national or local election, barangay elections, a recall, or a plebiscite, the first thing Comelec has to have is a Centralized Verified Voters List. The voters list will be the basis for the Project of Precincts and determination of allocation for the printing of ballots, election returns, and other accountable forms.
For manual elections, the Comelec needs six months to prepare. This includes the time for bidding, awarding of contracts, printing of ballots and other election forms, and deployment to the various cities and municipalities. As recently retired Comelec Commissioner Christian Robert Lim explained last Jan. 31, the commission can shorten the period to 3-4 months if Comelec foregoes bidding and goes into direct contracting.
But even before Comelec can even start preparing for a nationwide plebiscite, it will need a resolution from both houses of Congress which contains the proposals to be submitted in a plebiscite, which must also include a corresponding budget for the conduct of the electoral exercise. Whether a plebiscite is conducted as a separate electoral exercise or together with a national election, Comelec cannot start preparing without the resolution and corresponding budget.
If a plebiscite is conducted independently and separately from national elections, the Comelec will need an estimate of 6 to 7 billion pesos. The amount includes the monies for the salaries and per diems of the Board of Election Inspectors, the City/Municipal, Provincial and National Board of Canvassers. Ballots will have to be printed, and carbonless paper for the election returns and canvassing forms have to be procured.
One aspect which also has to be addressed is the voter education which the law mandates to conducted. At this juncture, it is premature to conduct a voter education campaign absent any definite proposals. Suggestions, arguments, and positions need to be formally discussed and voted upon, otherwise they remain just that, mere suggestions. Another thing which has to be considered is how information will be disseminated. Limiting the voter education materials to English and Tagalog would be a big disservice to the electorate. Briefers and pamphlets must be inclusive. It must come in the many dialects which will make it easier for the voters to understand.
As it stands, there are those who are taking the position that the earliest optimal time a plebiscite can be conducted is simultaneous with the 2019 Synchronized Automated National and Local elections. With reference to personnel needed, including the plebiscite together with the May, 2019, elections allows the Board of Election Inspectors, various Boards of Canvassers (City/Municipal, Provincial and National) to also serve as the same boards which will canvass the votes for the plebiscite. The plebiscite questions can likewise be included in the same ballot which contains the names of the candidates running in the May, 2019 elections. The results of the plebiscite may be included in the same Election Returns, or the counting machines may just generate a separate election return for the plebiscite.
While there are those who share the opinion that procedural concerns must take a backseat over more substantive issues, amending the 1987 Constitution deserves a careful and thorough study by the voter. Including the provisions in the same ballot that has hundreds of candidates’ names may just obfuscate the voter’s mind. Makes sense if you think of far-flung barrios where voters are less informed and not as educated as those from the urban centers. Those of this mindset think that perhaps, they believe they can hold the plebiscite separate from the 2019 elections.
One aspect which should also be considered are the questions included in the plebiscite. Proposals on the amendments and/or revisions of the 1987 Constitution can and should be asked per issue and/or provision. For example, proposals on the economic provision can be one question, proposals regarding a shift to federal form of government can be another question, and so on. In drafting the plebiscite questions, it would be best if the questions could be structured in such a way to allow multiple outcomes to compliment each other. A Single, Yes or No, all-inclusive question, is unacceptable, and is a disservice to the electorate.
From where I sit, one thing is patently clear. Revisiting our 30-year-old Constitution is more than timely. It is a response to a multitude of endemic issues that cripple us as a nation. It is a political reality that should no longer be denied or blocked by the baggage of partisan politics.
But it must be done in a thorough manner. Amending and/or revising the Constitution is a serious matter, and as such, the same degree of seriousness should be taken in the process.