by LEO J. SANTIAGO, JR. and ISAGANI DE LA PAZ
QUEZON CITY — WHAT’S blue and nearing obsolescence but still worth reading?
It’s the book entitled “Overseas Absentee Voting: The Philippine Experience,” whose author is preventing the issue from dying amid renewed efforts to change the country’s constitution.
Not that author and lawyer Henry Rojas is bothered over potential revenue loss from his book’s sale—at P250 or just under US$5 each from publisher and nonprofit group Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA)-Philippines; Rojas is afraid overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) may again miss out on the deal.
If charter change pushes through, the right to vote of overseas Filipinos might be taken away again,” Rojas told the OFW Journalism Consortium. He said opposing moves to change the 10-year-old Philippine Constitution is a “logical option.”
The book offers keen insight on an instrument of suffrage that dates back to a hundred years when Australians first enacted overseas voting under its Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1902.
The 225-page “blue book,” printed with money from the OFW Journalism Consortium’s partner Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, shows the nuts and bolts of Republic Act 9189, or the Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003.
While the book is a strain to read, full of legalese speak and lacking literary flair, it provides an astute look on the circuitous law and its application in the 2004 elections.
Rojas offered this reason for getting through the quagmire of legalese: “Active participation in elections is one of the many ways we contribute to nation building. Thus, the right and opportunity to vote as an absentee voter are too important to be treated lightly.”
The books is designed to help overseas Filipinos and NGOs in their advocacy efforts for reforms in the enacted law and in Philippine elections, and to help them grasp the complexity of the country’s immediate electoral history.
THE book offers clues to understanding the immediate future of qualified OFW voters under a new Constitution being pushed by supporters of President Gloria Arroyo, Part I is an abridged version of RA 9189. It gives the context of the overseas absentee voting law and how it works in the Philippines.
This part explains the law and the rules and regulations supporting it. It identifies who may vote and can be voted into a particular public office as well as which public official under the Commission on Elections is responsible for which particular rule.
Nearing the deadline of registration for voters in August this year, it informs OFWs among readers of the processes and requirements for registering.In an interview months after the book was launched in a coffee shop ostensibly called “Conspiracy Café,” Rojas said proposed revisions to the Constitution “have basically retained the constitutional right of qualified overseas Filipino citizens to vote.”
“However, assuming that charter change does happen, overseas Filipinos will return to square one because a new absentee voting law has to be passed before [they] can vote again,” he said.Rojas explained that the current OAV law limits overseas Filipinos to vote only for president, vice president, senators, and party list representatives. It also restrains OFWs from voting in a referendum or plebiscite.Assuming that charter change happens, overseas Filipinos cannot vote anymore without a new enabling law under the proposed parliamentary form of government.
Similar to the run before the 2002 elections, there is no specific reference to representation of overseas Filipinos in this form of rule, according to Rojas.
Currently, OFs are represented in the Lower House of Congress via the party-list system introduced in the elections that brought movie actor Joseph Estrada into the presidency.
“It would appear that representation of overseas Filipinos in parliament would [depend] on the discretion of the winning political parties,” Rojas said.
OFWs attuned to the workings of the absentee voting law may skip to the second part should they want to know how the law fared in real-time, especially the first time it was applied in 2004.
Part II bares the actors and players in the run up to the elections that led Arroyo to power, some say through “extra-legal” help from Comelec official Virgilio Garcillano.
Before that scandal brought questions unto the legitimacy of Arroyo’s ascent into the presidency, “OAV: Philippine Experience” showed how OFWs struggled on their newfound right to influence the country’s socio-political and economic conditions.
Struggled, indeed, as Rojas cited the problems that hounded the first application of the OAV law: low registration turnout, undocumented workers’ fear of exposure, and host country restrictions. He also documented the usual problems in the counting of votes and canvassing of returns.
But here is where Rojas may have failed to meet readers’ expectations; he immediately gave recommendations in Part III rather than continuing with the review of the law’s rosy past.
The train of thought that could have gripped readers in Parts I and II were derailed as it is in Part IV that zoomed to other countries’ application of absentee voting.
In this section, Rojas talked about the Australian and United States experiences and explained various methods of overseas voting as practiced in other countries.
Rojas described how Australians and Americans could either vote in person, or by mail, facsimile transmission, proxy voting, or via the Internet (allowed in Missouri and Dakota). Some European countries meanwhile, also allow proxy voting and voting via the Internet (the Netherlands).
In Part III, Rojas could have shown the rash actions surrounding the decisions by government officials to approve on the twelfth hour the OAV. The book failed to explain why its authors didn’t think there were questions on the slow boat the OAV law took prior to the 2002 and 2004 elections.
Were those seeking public office blinded by how remittances have helped stabilize the economy? Were debates begun by OFs in Europe not sufficient enough? Were decisions to apply the OAV tied with the Photokina polling equipment sale to government?
Responding to these questions could have explained why it took more than three decades of money flowing in the country and millions of Filipinos out of the Philippines for suffrage rights to be given attention.Strong republic
ROJAS is more an advocate and lawyer than a writer, highly concerned that in the run up to the 2010 elections, the problems that gripped voting OFWs would be repeated.
Hence, he has pressed in Part III of “OAV: Philippine Experience” several recommendations on what he cited as “outstanding issues and concerns on the law.”
These concerns include “some restrictive provisions of the law on voter qualifications and limitations in the electoral mechanisms that deter broader voter participation and maintenance of the integrity of the ballots and other orderly electoral administration.”
These, according to him, must be addressed by legislators, the Comelec, and the overseas Filipino communities.
It is here where the author liberally discussed what he deemed as “a need to democratize overseas absentee voting to ensure a broader participation of qualified Filipinos abroad.”
But the recent imposition of a state of emergency after the buzz on Charter change may have pulled the rug off the feet of Rojas and others like him betting on the rights to suffrage of some five million Filipinos temporarily working in 190 countries.
e the ‘Hello Garci’ scandal, charter change was not an issue,” Rojas told the OFW Journalism Consortium, adding: “There was no gridlock in the legislative branch of government.”
He believed that it shouldn’t be the OAV law that should be changed but “those in power.”
Still, Rojas is caught between the Scylla and Charybdis: tentacles of issues and concerns on the OAV remain unresolved while putting people into power in the Philippines is being altered.
Something Rojas admits: “For many in the Philippines, it will be a dilemma since they are involved in an ongoing political struggle.”Since the Philippine situation is more fluid than Rojas’s pen, the book “OAV: Philippine Experience” should still be read to give a backdrop of what could occur in the next few weeks and to give a bird’s eye view on what was once a flicker of hope for millions of powerless Filipinos overseas.
**Request for posting granted by OFW Journalism Consortium**