Fate of ARMM poll delay left to Senate

Posted on March 24, 2011

THE PALACE yesterday left the fate of postponing elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to the Senate, wherein some lawmakers have not been as supportive of the bill as counterparts in the House of Representatives.

"It’s now up to them. My assumption is that the debate will be on the merits of our appeal [for postponement]," said President Benigno S. C. Aquino III in Filipino in an interview over state-run dzRB after a speech in an event in Cagayan de Oro City.

Telling the Senate what to do may backfire on efforts to have the bill approved, said Mr. Aquino, but he said poll postponement will address the questionable system of "command voting" whereby the winning ARMM official is always the candidate of the national government, and in turn the regional official is beholden to deliver command votes during national elections.

"Let’s synchronize these elections so the campaign is individually done. There are no command votes, in that way the mandate of the people is followed... this is the way to development, order and a clear partnership with the populace to achieve progress in the region," said Mr. Aquino in Filipino.

On claims that the Executive is interfering in regional autonomy, ARMM’s problems cannot be ignored at the national level.

"The highest rates of infant and maternal mortality are there. There is a lack of access to potable water there. Kidnapping, robbery bombings... you can’t say you aren’t concerned over that," said Mr. Aquino.

"I’m not interfering in the sense that I am not dictating who will govern there... I asked the CoA (Commission on Audit) to audit, and their initial findings show discrepancies amounting to nearly P1 billion [in the ARMM budget] in one year alone."

Last Tuesday, the House of Representatives had approved on third reading the bill postponing the elections to coincide with the 2013 midterm polls. The original date is Aug. 8, 2011.

The Senate, on the other hand, has just started the process, referring Senate Bill (SB) 2756 filed by Senator Franklin M. Drilon to the committee on local government yesterday, the last plenary session day before Congress goes on break starting March 26 until May 8.

The bill is a duplicate of House Bill 4146 that was approved on final reading last Tuesday.

One salient feature is the authority of the President to appoint officers-in-charge (OICs) to posts that will be vacated on Sept. 30, and who will hold office until the elections in 2013.

The OICs, however, will be banned from running in the 2013 midterm polls.

Senate Majority Leader Vicente C. Sotto III said the Senate will discuss the bill when session resumes on May 9.

Despite the limited times, there have been no discussions on calling a special session of Congress -- a prerogative of the President, said Deputy Presidential Spokesman Abigail D. Valte, counting on an earlier statement by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile that certain days and times will be devoted to tackle two Palace-backed issues: the impeachment of Ombudsman Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez and ARMM poll postponement.

Meanwhile, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is holding voter registration that will end on March 28 pending a decision to defer the elections. Campaign period was set for May.

"The discussion on postponement is a political question so we’re leaving that with the legislators," Comelec Director Arthur James B. Jimenez, the commission’s spokesman, said in an interview.

He said the region has a potential 82,000 new registrants based on a census of Filipinos who recently turned 18 years old.

"So far we have more than 2,000 registrants," said Mr. Jimenez, on top of the 1,707,277 existing voters.

"We still have not spent anything major because we are still at this stage; the confirmation of the PCOS (precinct count optical scan) machines cost us a little over P10 million," said Mr. Jimenez.

He noted that the elections may cost P2.2 billion; of which P1.2 billion will be spent on PCOS alone. -- Johanna Paola D. Poblete