Returning power to the Filipinos through people’s initiative

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AL S. VITANGCOL III

THE preamble to our 1987 Constitution begins with the phrase, “We, the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of Almighty God…” This preamble sets the guiding purpose and principles of the Constitution and clearly states the source from which the supreme law derives its authority and power. It is a declared State principle that “sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.”

Heeding this basic precept, several civil society groups have started a campaign to return the authority and power of government to the governed through the people’s initiative. Are the actions of these groups legal?

Resorting to people’s initiative to enact new laws, or even to change the Constitution, finds legal basis in Chapter 2 and Chapter 6 of Republic Act 7160, or the Local Government Code of 1991.

People’s initiative is the legal process whereby the registered voters of a local government unit may directly propose, enact, or amend any ordinance. The power of local initiative and referendum may be exercised by all registered voters of the provinces, cities, municipalities, and barangays.

The Local Government Code empowers the people, particularly those who may vote in a local government unit, with the right to directly propose, enact, or amend any ordinance via a plain procedure known as local initiative and referendum in and for their local government unit. Barangay initiative requires a minimum of 50 signatories, municipal initiative requires a minimum of 100 signatories, and city or provincial initiative requires a minimum of 1,000 signatories.

Political purists may question the small number required to start any local initiative. Why only 50 in a barangay with thousands of residents? Why not a certain percentage of the population? Well, we cannot question the requirements set forth in paragraph (a), Section 122 of the Code –

“Section 122. Procedure in Local Initiative. (a) Not less than one thousand (1,000) registered voters in case of provinces and cities, one hundred (100) in case of municipalities, and fifty (50) in case of barangays, may file a petition with the Sanggunian concerned proposing the adoption, enactment, repeal, or amendment of an ordinance.”

What was the basis used in crafting Section 122? The answer lies in the Holy Bible, specifically in Exodus 18:21.

Quoting from the International Standard Version of the Bible, Exodus 18:21 avows, “You are to look for capable men among the people, men who fear God, men of integrity who hate dishonest gain. You are to set these men over them as officials over thousands, officials over hundreds, officials over fifties, and officials over tens.”

Of course, there are certain limitations on local initiatives. The most important one is that the power of local initiative shall not be exercised more than once a year. On the part of the government, any proposition or ordinance approved through the system of initiative and referendum cannot be repealed, modified or amended by the local government unit concerned within six months from the date of its approval. In the case of barangay, the repeal/amendment prohibition period is 18 months after the approval of the initiative.

Who will decide on the adoption of a local initiative as a valid exercise of lawmaking? On the barangay level, it will be the barangay assembly, per Section 398 of the Code.

Once an initiative, through a petition, has been drafted, it will be submitted to the barangay assembly for decision. Upon approval, the required signatures will be collected and verified.

If the required number of signatures is obtained, the Comelec will then set a date for the initiative during which the proposition will be submitted to the registered voters in the local government unit concerned for their approval within the prescribed period from the date of certification by the Comelec (60 days in case of provinces, 45 days in case of municipalities, 30 days in case of barangays). The initiative shall then be held on the date set, after which the results thereof shall be certified and proclaimed by the Comelec.

If the proposition is approved by a majority of the votes cast, it shall take effect 15 days after certification by the Comelec. If it fails to obtain said number of votes, the proposition is considered defeated.

The dissenting opinion of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona, in the case of Lambino et al vs Comelec (GR No. 174153), is enlightening. He wrote that if Congress or a constitutional convention, both of which are mere representative bodies, can enact laws or propose changes to the Constitution, there is no reason why the supreme body politic itself—the people—may not do so directly. Resort to initiative to amend the Constitution or enact a statute is an exercise of direct democracy as opposed to representative democracy.

Clearly, the exercise of direct democracy through initiative reserves direct lawmaking power to the people by providing them a method to make new laws via the Constitution, or alternatively by enacting statutes.

Borrowing Corona’s words, indeed the Constitution celebrates the sovereign right of the people and declares that sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them. The people should be allowed to directly seek redress of the problems of society and representative democracy with the constitutional tools they have reserved for their use alone.

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