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The generals’ strategic error

/ 04:00 AM July 07, 2020

A modest suggestion. The Constitution provides a new means for the people to take direct action on legislation; the people’s initiative is not only for amending the basic law itself, but also for enacting or rejecting “any act or law or part thereof passed by the Congress or local legislative body.” Prompted by a tweet from lawyer Paul Santos, I would like to suggest to all those who want to reject the dangerous, counterproductive, and unconstitutional Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020: Let us conduct a People’s Initiative to End the Terror Act (Pieta).

Article VI, Section 32 and Article XVII, Section 2 are the provisions in the post-Marcos Constitution that together create the new power of a people’s initiative. Republic Act No. 6735 is the enabling law. Commission on Elections Resolution No. 10650, issued only last Jan. 31, provides the revised rules and regulations that would govern the conduct of people’s initiatives to amend the Constitution and to enact or repeal specific laws.

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The main difference between the two: To amend the Constitution, 12 percent of the total number of registered voters must sign the petition; to repeal RA 11479, the threshold is 10 percent. In last year’s midterm elections, registered voters numbered 61.8 million. Accounting for population growth and the length of the campaign, a campaign like Pieta would need some 6.3 million signatories—about the number of votes Chel Diokno received in his first run for the Senate.

But (and this is the difficult part), a people’s initiative needs to clear a second threshold: “Every legislative district must be represented by at least three per centum of the registered voters thereof.” There are about 240 legislative districts in the country, ranging in size from tiny bailiwicks like the one in Batanes (about 12,000 voters last year) to behemoths like the first district of Caloocan (over 700,000 voters). The Pieta campaign would then need about 400 signatories in Batanes and over 23,000 in the first district of Caloocan.

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It won’t be easy. Assuming that the required number of verified signatories is reached, then the next hurdle is a national plebiscite, in which a simple majority of votes cast is needed.

But the upside is clear: The various forces that are pro-democracy, pro-human rights, and pro-civil liberties would be able to reach every single district, create a centralized database, engage in dialogue, and get out the vote not only once (during the petition-signing) but twice (for the plebiscite). The upside would be there EVEN if the petition or the plebiscite failed. But first we must act as one. And it starts with a simple, one-page draft act, as short as the Sotto Law, repealing RA 11479.

————————It is no secret that the military wanted the Anti-Terrorism Act. When the President signed it on July 3, the spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines enthusiastically welcomed the news. “We are elated to know that the President has signed into law the anti-terrorism bill,” said Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo. Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm, Arevalo then misspoke, when his statement continued thus: “that capacitates government security forces that cause inordinate sufferings of our people.” This statement has been seized by many as a Freudian slip of institutional scope. Did the good general say the new law capacitates state forces that cause the people to suffer? Arevalo has since corrected his mistake, saying he had inadvertently omitted the words “to defeat evil forces.”

But in pushing the new law—dangerous, counterproductive, and unconstitutional—the generals and their champions in the Senate and the House of Representatives have, perhaps inadvertently, “capacitated” public authorities to cause new and inordinate sufferings on the people.

They should have learned from the massive public pushback against the bill. To wage a successful anti-terrorist campaign, the government must rely on public support. That campaign, like fighting an insurgency, is irregular warfare, and relies less on control of territory and more on control or the support of the population. But the contentious conditions of the new law, including terrifying new provisions and the lack of debate in Congress, have only succeeded in losing “hearts and minds”—the very thing the government needs to anticipate, minimize, or prevent acts of terrorism.

This is the generals’ strategic mistake.

The public may flirt with fascists, but the surveys have consistently shown that Filipinos over the last few decades prefer democracy and all its safeguards. Pushing a law that removes many of those safeguards puts the democratic project itself at risk. It is no way to win hearts and minds.

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On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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