People’s Initiative: a form of people power

"All it takes is to light the spark that will rally the people to a common cause."


The idea of a people’s initiative was first introduced in the 1987 Constitution when the spirit of the People Power revolution was at its strongest. The president for more than 20 years, Ferdinand Marcos, had just been ousted and the people were very hopeful. The same People Power in 2001 pushed the former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada to leave Malacañang Palace before the Senate impeachment trial against him was completed. The gains of the first People Power revolution were institutionalized primarily in the Constitution to highlight that “sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” Clearly, without the people, there is no government. The Constitution also declares “the prime duty of the government to serve and protect the people,” and with the country’s militarized past, the framers made sure that “civilian authority is, at all times, supreme over the military.”

Amendments or revisions of the Constitution may be proposed by the Congress, upon a vote of three fourths of all its members; or a constitutional convention. The amendments or revisions may otherwise be directly proposed by the people through an initiative upon a petition of at least 12% of the total number of registered voters, of which every legislative district must be represented by at least 3% of the registered voters therein (Article XVII, Sections 1 and 2, 1987 Constitution). Two years after the ratification of the 1987 Constitution, Congress passed Republic Act 6735, otherwise known as the System of Initiative and Referendum. This enabling law enumerated the systems of initiative, namely: (a) proposing amendments to the Constitution; (b) proposing to enact national legislation; (c) proposing to enact a regional, provincial, city, municipal, or barangay law, resolution or ordinance.

For a people’s initiative to pass a national legislation, at least 10 percent of the total number of registered voters may initiate it, of which each legislative district must be represented by at least 3 percent of the registered voters thereof (Section 5(a), R.A. 6735). The people’s initiative petition must contain (a) the proposition; (b) the reasons for its filing; (c) justification that it is not one of the exceptions; (d) the signatures of the petitioners or the registered voters; and (e) the summary in not more than 100 words at the top of every page of the petition. Moreover, according to the case of Lambino v. COMELEC, the proposed amendment (or legislation) must be incorporated with, or attached to the petition signed by the people (G.R. No. 174153).

The COMELEC upon receipt of the Petition shall determine its sufficiency. If found to be sufficient, the petition will be published and the referendum scheduled not earlier than 45 days but not later than 90 days from the determination of the sufficiency (Section 8, R.A. 6735). The decision of COMELEC regarding the sufficiency of the petition may be appealed to the Supreme Court within 30 days from notice (Section 12, R.A. 6735).

If the proposition (for a national law) is approved upon a referendum by the majority of the votes cast, the national law shall become effective 15 days following the completion of its publication in the official gazette or a newspaper of general circulation (Section 9(a), R.A. 6735).

People Power movements – wherein people go out on the streets whether as registered voters or not – rely heavily on the groundswell of the population to determine its outcome. In a people’s initiative, the petition must have the required percentage of registered voters who will sign the petition. Hence, observers who have not participated in an electoral exercise; who have not registered to vote whether by choice; and who are non-Filipinos, cannot participate in the initiative and referendum but cannot be prevented from expressing their ideas in any media platform consistent with the basic freedoms guaranteed under our Constitution.

People Power is very fluid. All it takes is to light the spark that will rally the people to a common cause. Here, political players and political opportunists play important roles to advance their collective or personal causes. Groups with diverse political beliefs, interests and advocacies may momentarily set aside their differences and unite to get rid or fight a perceived common enemy. Here, the playing field is broad, and those initiating it may rely heavily on social media, mainstream print, TV or radio to circulate their messages. To catch public attention using sound bites, banner headlines, and reliable talking heads is important. There will also be concurrent rallies to bring the causes and objectives to the awareness of the people.

A people’s initiative is a formal process that has to comply with the requirements of the law with regard to the contents of the petition, the petitioners/registered voters who will sign the petition, the validation of the signatures of the registered voters, and the determination of its sufficiency by the COMELEC. Only then can a referendum take place to ascertain whether the people agree to the proposed legislation. In People Power movements, there is no specific timeline: the outcome of the collective movement will depend on how quickly the general public will embrace the common cause presented to them. On the other hand, a people’s initiative has a timeline outlined under the law that must be followed once there is an affirmative determination of the petition’s sufficiency by COMELEC.

The supporters of People Power movements, are not clearly differentiable or classified except for the leaders of the interest groups that may be rewarded with appointments, business relationships, or political quid pro quo if the objectives are achieved. The petitioners of a people’s initiative, however, are known and identifiable because their signatures will have to be validated from the election records of the COMELEC. Hence, it is not just a signature campaign.

For a people’s initiative to be successful, the political engines of People Power and a people’s initiative must work cohesively like well-oiled machines to achieve the desired objectives. There will definitely be people in grassroots organizations who will explain and justify the objectives of the initiative. The simpler the messaging ,the easier it is to grasp and advance the causes. Pushing for a people’s initiative is a political exercise that will require immense resources and astute political strategists to bring the desired results.

The people’s initiative is undeniably a legal weapon developed by the drafters of the Constitution to give the Filipino people the power to legislate when Congress seems to be deaf to the cries of the people. However, just like any weapon, it should be wielded with care as it may reach the hands of those who want to further their personal interests at the expense of the Filipino people.

Topics: Tranquil G.S. Salvador III , 1987 Constitution , Congress , COMELEC
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