People’s Initiative: No sufficient enabling law to amend the Constitution

The recent effort to amend the Constitution through people’s initiative met the same fate as the previous ones. As early as 1997, in the case of Defensor-Santiago vs. COMELEC (G.R. No. 127325, 19 March 1997), the Supreme Court already decided, although with vigorous dissenting opinions, that the law intended to provide the mechanism for people’s initiative is not sufficient. Let’s take a look at that case.

The 1935 and 1973 Constitutions recognize only two methods of proposing amendments to the Constitution: (1) by Congress upon a vote of three-fourths of all its members; and (2) by a constitutional convention. The 1987 Constitution added a third method the people  initiative. Article 17, Section 2 of the 1987 Constitution reads:

SEC. 2. Amendments to this Constitution may likewise be directly proposed by the people through initiative upon a petition of at least twelve per centum of the total number of registered voters, of which every legislative district must be represented by at least three per centum of the registered voters therein. No amendment under this section shall be authorized within five years following the ratification of this Constitution nor oftener than once every five years thereafter.

The Congress shall provide for the implementation of the exercise of this right.

This provision, however, is not self-executory. While the Constitution has recognized or granted that right, the people cannot exercise it if Congress, for whatever reason, does not provide for its implementation.

In 1989, Congress passed Republic Act No. 6735 (also known as the “People’s Initiative and Referendum Act“), which is intended to cover initiative to propose amendments to the Constitution. However, R.A. No. 6735 is “incomplete, inadequate, or wanting in essential terms and conditions insofar as initiative on amendments to the Constitution is concerned.”

R.A. 6735 failed to provide for the details in the implementation of initiative and referendum on amendments to the Constitution, in contrast to that of national and local legislation. In all of its twenty-three sections, RA 6735 relates to initiative on amendments to the Constitution only in the following manner:

(a) it mentions the word Constitution in Section 2;
(b) it defines initiative on the Constitution and includes it in the enumeration of the three systems of initiative in Section 3;
(c) it speaks of plebiscite as the process by which the proposition in an initiative on the Constitution may be approved or rejected by the people;
(d) it reiterates the constitutional requirements as to the number of voters who should sign the petition; and
(e) it provides for the date of effectivity of the approved proposition.

However, Section 2 does not suggest an initiative on amendments to the Constitution. Section 2 reads:

SECTION 2. Statement and Policy. — The power of the people under a system of initiative and referendum to directly propose, enact, approve or reject, in whole or in part, the Constitution, laws, ordinances, or resolutions passed by any legislative body upon compliance with the requirements of this Act is hereby affirmed, recognized and guaranteed.

Section 2 speaks of the people’s power to “directly propose, enact, approve, or reject, in whole or in part, the Constitution” through the system of initiative – which is not allowed under the Constitution. Initiative on the Constitution is confined only to proposals to AMEND, and Section 2 is silent as to amendments on the Constitution.

Section 3 (Definition of Terms), on the other hand, defines initiative on amendments to the Constitution and mentions it as one of the three systems of initiative. However, R.A. 6735 does not provide for the contents of a petition for initiative on the Constitution, as compared to that of national and local laws.

Indeed, while the law provides subtitles for National Initiative and Referendum (Subtitle II) and for Local Initiative and Referendum (Subtitle III), no subtitle is provided for initiative on the Constitution. This conspicuous silence as to the latter simply means that the main thrust of the Act is initiative and referendum on national and local laws. If Congress intended R.A. No. 6735 to fully provide for the implementation of the initiative on amendments to the Constitution, it could have provided for a subtitle therefor, considering that in the order of things, the primacy of interest, or hierarchy of values, the right of the people to directly propose amendments to the Constitution is far more important than the initiative on national and local laws.