The administrationâ€™s Team Unity and the Genuine Opposition, the two main contending forces in this yearâ€™s senatorial elections, have been exchanging challenges to a debate for the past few weeks.
Both slates had even agreed on Plaza Miranda in Quiapo, Manila as an appropriate venue for the debate.
But they have not agreed on what issues to debate about. Team Unity insists that the debate revolve only around economic issues. The Genuine Opposition refuses to tackle economic issues without going into political issues. So while a Team Unity-Genuine Opposition debate on the issues of the day has yet to take place, the two sides are already exchanging barbs on what to exchange barbs about at Plaza Miranda.
This makes it difficult for the electorate to assess the two slates based on what a public-affairs TV program has dubbed the â€œPhilippine agenda.â€
It is possible, however, to make at least a preliminary assessment of some of the candidates of both sides based on how they stood on issues that greatly affected the people. Issues that turned out to be of particular importance in the nearly three years since the last elections are those related to the Restructured Value-Added Tax (RVAT), the impeachment of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Subic rape case and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), political killings and repression, and the legislated wage hike.
Team Unityâ€™s candidates are: Edgardo Angara, Joker Arroyo, Mike Defensor, Jamalul Kiram, Vicente Magsaysay, Cesar Montano, Teresa Aquino-Oreta, Prospero Pichay Jr., Ralph Recto, Luis â€œChavitâ€ Singson, Vicente Sotto III and Juan Miguel Zubiri.
The Genuine Oppositionâ€™s candidates are: Benigno â€œNoynoyâ€ Aquino III, Alan Peter Cayetano, Anna Dominique â€œNikkiâ€ Coseteng, Francis â€œChizâ€ Escudero, Panfilo Lacson, Loren Legarda, John Henry OsmeÃ±a, Aquilino â€œKokoâ€ Pimentel III, Sonia Roco, Antonio Trillanes IV and Manuel Villar.
One of the issues the Arroyo administration was criticized for after the 2004 elections â€“ in which it was supposed to have won a fresh mandate three years after being installed into power through a popular uprising â€“ was the restructuring of the Expanded Value-Added Tax (EVAT), an indirect tax measure prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (IMF-WB) on debtor countries.
The RVAT expanded EVAT coverage to include oil, electricity, and transport services and raised its taxation percentage from 10 to 12 percent. The EVAT Law that was passed in 1996 included the following: food products (processed meat, canned fish, coconut and vegetable oil, bakery products, noodles, milk, dairy products, coffee, sugar); clothing, footwear, tannery and leather products; drugs and medicine, furniture, pulp and paper; glass and glass products; cement, steel, iron, wood and most construction materials; electrical lamps and equipment; machinery and equipment both for manufacturing and agriculture; wholesale trade and retail trade; pawnshops; restaurants, cafes and other eating and drinking places; employment and recruitment agencies; motion picture production; hotels and motels; and telecommunications (including landline, post-paid and pre-paid mobile phone services).
The imposition of the RVAT led to the increase in prices of basic goods and services and added to the financial burdens of a populace already weighed down by high costs of living.
Recto â€“ who is known to have made much of his being a grandson of the nationalist statesman Claro M. Recto â€“ was the author of the Senate version of the RVAT law. In his political ads he boasts of the RVAT as one of his legislative accomplishments.
Also in Team Unityâ€™s slate are: Arroyo, who voted for the Senate version of the bill and Zubiri, who voted in favor of the billâ€™s House version.
Arroyo even said the RVAT would not affect consumers much. â€œVAT does not affect much the public for it will not have a direct impact to consumers,â€ he said in an April 15, 2005 press conference.
Villar who is running as an independent but was adopted by the Genuine Opposition as a guest candidate voted for the RVAT.
Lacson was among the senators who voted against the bill.
Escudero and Cayetano, who were representatives when the RVAT bill was passed, are known to have been vocal critics of the said tax measure, and participated in several broad campaign efforts to stop the billâ€™s passage. John OsmeÃ±a is making his anti-RVAT position as one of his advocacies in his political ads.
Trillanes, who has been in detention since 2003 for being one of the leaders in the Oakwood uprising, includes â€œanti-povertyâ€ in his legislative program but makes no mention of any proposed bill that would serve as an antidote to the RVAT. In fact his â€œanti-povertyâ€ program does not touch on the countryâ€™s taxation system.
2005 and 2006 each witnessed impeachment drives against President Arroyo.
The impeachment campaigns were fuelled primarily by the so-called â€œHello Garciâ€ tapes â€“ in which a voice similar to the Presidentâ€™s is heard instructing an election official â€“ widely believed to be former Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano â€“ to rig the 2004 polls and assure her of victory by more than a million votes.
President Arroyo won by more than a million votes over her closest rival, actor Fernando Poe, Jr. who died in December 2004. She has admitted talking to election officials during the counting of votes, and Garcillano has admitted talking to candidates during the same period â€“ but both have denied rigging the 2004 elections.
In both 2005 and 2006, impeachment complaints were filed against President Arroyo, citing her for betrayal of public trust, bribery, graft and corruption, and culpable violation of the Constitution.
Escudero and Cayetano were among the most vocal proponents of the two impeachment bids in the House of Representatives.
Cayetano even raised allegations of congressmen having been bribed in exchange for voting against the 2005 impeachment complaint. â€œDonâ€™t you know that this is the best Congress money can buy?â€ he said in a rally in September 2005.
Aquino voted against junking the complaints. Lacson supported both impeachment bids and members of his Be Not Afraid Movement were among the signatories to both complaints.
Trillanes was already in detention at the time of the impeachment crises and while he is not known to have made any direct statement on either of the two complaints, he is vocal in calling for President Arroyoâ€™s ouster.
Legarda, who was Poeâ€™s running mate in 2004, was pursuing her election protest against Vice President Noli de Castro when the impeachment campaign was at its peak.
Sotto was vocal in his support of both complaints, and Angara was aligned with the United Opposition (UNO), of which Escudero was also part, at the time of the impeachment crises. They have been hard-put to defend their transfer to the administration camp.
Zubiri and Pichay voted to junk both impeachment bids. Defensor and Singson both came out with statements supporting President Arroyo during the impeachment crises.
The Subic rape case and the VFA
The Subic rape case of November 2005 put the VFA, which grants extraterritorial and extrajudicial privileges on U.S. troops visiting the country for military â€œexercises,â€ on the spotlight six years after it was approved by the Senate and ratified by MalacaÃ±ang.
Based on Senate records, those who voted in favor of the VFA were: Marcelo Fernan, then Senate President; Robert Barbers, Rodolfo Biazon, Rene Cayetano, Anna Dominique â€œNikkiâ€ Coseteng, Franklin Drilon, Juan Ponce Enrile, Juan Flavier, Gregorio Honasan, Robert Jaworski, Ramon Magsaysay Jr., Blas Ople, Teresa Aquino-Oreta, John OsmeÃ±a, Ramon Revilla, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Vicente Sotto III and Francisco Tatad. Those who voted against the VFA were Teofisto Guingona Jr., Loren Legarda, Sergio OsmeÃ±a III, Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and Raul Roco, Senate records also show.
Oreta and Sotto are running under Team Unity; while Coseteng, John OsmeÃ±a, and Legarda are all running under the Genuine Opposition.
Arroyo was among a group that petitioned the Supreme Court in 1999 to declare the VFA as â€œvoid and unconstitutional.â€ He was in this group with former Senate President Jovito Salonga, former Sen. Wigberto TaÃ±ada, University of the Philippines (UP) professor Roland Simbulan, Pablito Sanidad, Ma. Socorro Diokno, Nini Quezon-AvanceÃ±a, Francisco Rivera Jr., Rene Saguisag, Kilosbayan, and the Movement of Attorneys for Brotherhood, Integrity and Nationalism (MABINI).
Political repression and killings
The issue of political repression, together with extrajudicial killings of activists and other government critics, has been one of the main issues against the Arroyo regime since the latter part of 2005.
In late 2005 MalacaÃ±ang imposed the calibrated preemptive response policy (CPR), which dropped the maximum tolerance policy on protest actions. This was soon followed by Executive Order No. 464, which prohibited cabinet officials from appearing in congressional hearings without clearance from the Office of the President. In February 2006, President Arroyo issued Presidential Proclamation No. 1017, which declared a â€œstate of emergencyâ€ throughout the country and allowed the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) to â€œinterveneâ€ in â€œnational security situations.â€
The three decrees led to violent dispersals of rallies, the suspension of congressional investigations in aid of legislation, and a crackdown on prominent anti-administration groups and personalities â€“ most notably from the Left.
Meanwhile, the issue of extrajudicial killings has aroused condemnation even from local quarters that previously declined from criticizing the Arroyo regime, as well as from the international community. State forces are seen as the perpetrators in several of the cases of extrajudicial killings, which are linked with the governmentâ€™s counter-insurgency drive as can be gleaned from several statements by National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales.
The recently-passed Anti-Terrorism Bill is seen as a repressive measure because it defines â€œterrorismâ€ so broadly that even legal protest actions may be classified as â€œacts of terrorism,â€ and even legal cause-oriented groups may be proscribed as â€œterrorist organizations.â€
When the Supreme Court declared CPR as unconstitutional, Joker Arroyo was jubilant. He was likewise opposed to EO 464 and PP 1017.
However, he voted in favor of the Anti-Terrorism Bill and has urged the public to be â€œcarefulâ€ in condemning the AFP for extrajudicial killings.
Another Team Unity candidate who voted in favor of the Anti-Terrorism Bill was Recto.
Villar likewise voted in favor of the bill.
Lacson, like Arroyo, opposed CPR, EO 464, and PP 1017. However, he was the author of one of five Anti-Terrorism Bills filed in the Senate, and he voted in favor of the final version.
Meanwhile, Escudero and Cayetano were both vocal against CPR, EO 464, and PP 1017. Escudero has gone as far as saying that extrajudicial killings under the Arroyo regime are worse than those which took place during the Marcos dictatorship.
The Arroyo administration earned the ire of labor groups â€“ most notably the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May 1st Movement) â€“ early on for refusing to pass a legislated wage hike bill that would help the people cope with rising costs of living.
The KMU has been demanding a legislated P125 across-the-board, nationwide wage increase for private-sector workers. This particular demand of the KMU, which Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) Rep. Crispin Beltran put forward at the House of Representatives, was recently also supported by the Partido ng Manggagawa (Workersâ€™ Party) which was represented by Renato Magtubo in the 13th Congress.
Other groups like the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) have also raised demands for wages increases, but these were much lower than that of the KMU and Anakpawis.
KMU also supports the demand of the Confederation for the Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (Courage) for a legislated P3,000 across-the-board, nationwide wage increase for public-sector workers.
Recto and Villar had early on made known their opposition to a legislated wage increase. Joker Arroyo, meanwhile, was a proponent of a 10-percent salary increase for government employees â€“ a measure that heavily favors those with higher salaries over the rank-and-file.
Escudero, meanwhile, has been vocal in supporting legislated wage hike for both private-sector workers and government employees.
Trillanesâ€™ legislative agenda includes a bill that would provide for an automatic and periodic wage review, based on three-year changes in the inflation rate.
â€œThis is a proven effective anti-corruption policy employed by other countries,â€ Trillanes said. â€œIt also intends to provide for a decent standard of living for all government employees as well as to attract qualified people from the private sector to join government.
This, thus far, is how some of the candidates from both Team Unity and the Genuine Opposition have stood on a number of major peopleâ€™s issues. The assessment that may be made from these is still preliminary and only a clearer articulation of the candidatesâ€™ respective legislative proposals would enable a deeper analysis of how they stand vis-Ã -vis issues affecting the people whose votes they court. Bulatlat