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Philippines Laws on Referendum and Initiative:

Implementation Experience and Challenges1


By Dr. Cheselden George V. Carmona
I. Introduction
The Philippines is a democratic and republican state. The 1987 Constitution
explicitly declares that sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority
emanates from them.2 Yet, it is also a representative democracy. Fundamental state
authorities are delegated to three branches of government the Executive, the
Legislative, and the Judiciary. Each branch is supreme in its own sphere but with
constitutional limits and guided by the principle of checks and balances.3
The President, who is elected by a direct vote of the people every six years, is
the head of the Executive Department. He represents the government as a whole and
ensures that that the officials and employees of his department enforce all laws and
regulations. He has control over the executive department, bureaus and offices. The
Congress or the Legislative branch, on the other hand, has the authority to make, alter
or repeal laws. Composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives, it is also
entrusted with the power to pass the national budget. Judicial power is vested in the
Supreme Court and in lower courts established by law.4 The power of judicial review
includes the authority to declare a law, ordinance, or treaty as unconstitutional or
invalid and to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion
amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on any part of any branch or instrumentality
of Government,5 including those of the Executive and Legislative branches.
There are also independent constitutional commissions that have been mandated
to carry out specific tasks. One of these is the Commission on Elections (COMELEC),
which plays a crucial role in the implementation of the constitutional and statutory
provisions on initiative and referendum, as discussed below.
II. Constitutional Guarantee: System of Initiative and Referendum
While the power to legislate is generally lodged with the Congress, the
Constitution ensures that the people retain their lawmaking power through the system
of initiative and referendum.6 This inherent right, which consists of the power to directly
propose, enact, approve or reject, in whole or in part, any law or constitutional
amendment, is distinctly acknowledged by the 1987 Constitution in at least three
provisions.

Paper presented in the International Workshop On Right To Referendum: A Comparative Review On Law And
Practice, November 17-18, 2014, Hanoi, Viet Nam. Dr. Carmona is an international development practitioner on rule
of law, public sector reform, governance and electoral reform. He is also a professor at the Philippine Judicial
Academy, Ateneo De Manila University School of Law and the Graduate School of Law of San Beda College.
21987 Constitution, Article III, Section 1.
3 Francisco, Jr. vs. House of Representatives, G.R. No. 160261, 10 November 2003.
4 Ibid.
5 1987 Constitution, Art. VIII, Sec. 1.
6 ibid, Article III, Section 1.
1

The first is with regard to the authority of the people to directly propose
amendments to the Constitution through initiative, which can be initiated through a
petition of at least twelve per centum (12%) of the total number of registered voters, of
which every legislative district must be represented by at least three per centum (3%) of
the registered voters therein.7 It is worth noting that previous Philippine constitutions
(1935 and 1973) recognized only two methods of proposing amendments to the
Constitution (a) by Congress upon a vote of of all its members; and (b) by a
constitutional convention. The present Constitution added the people initiative and
referendum as a third mode for changing the Constitution.
The second constitutional provision pertains to the power of the people to
directly propose and enact laws or approve or reject any act or law or part thereof
passed by the Congress or a local legislative body. Again, this can be initiated through
the submission of a petition for that purpose as long as it is signed by at least ten per
centum (10%) of the total number of registered voters, of which every legislative district
must be represented by at least three per centum (3%) of the registered voters in the
district.8
The third provision seeks to empower the people at the local government level
by mandating Congress to enact a local government code that should provide for,
among others, effective mechanisms of recall, initiative and referendum.9
In the words of a former Chief Justice, these constitutional provisions have
institutionalized people power in law-making because of their express recognition of
the electorates residual and sovereign authority to ordain legislation.10
III. Legal Framework
Since the constitutional provisions on initiative and referendum are not selfexecutory, Philippine Congress passed into law R.A. No. 6735 (also known as the
Peoples Initiative and Referendum Act) and R.A. No. 7160 (also known as the Local
Government Code of the Philippines), which seek to operationalize the constitutional
mandate that empowers the people to directly propose, enact, approve or reject, in
whole or in part, any law or constitutional amendment through the system of initiative
and referendum. R.A. No. 6735 is the principal law while the Local Government Code,
enacted two years after the passage of the former, reiterates its provisions on local
initiative and referendum.
A. Statutory Requirements and Procedures
R.A. No. 6735 was enacted to affirm, recognize and guarantee the power of the
people to directly propose, enact, approve or reject, in whole or in part, the
Constitution, laws, ordinances, or resolutions passed by any legislative body. Under this
law, registered voters of the country, autonomous regions, provinces, cities,
ibid, Article XVII, Section 2.
Section 32, Article VI, 1987 Constitution.
9 1987 Constitution Article X, Section 3.
10 Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority vs. COMELEC, et al., G.R. No. 125416 September 26, 1996.
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municipalities and barangays may exercise the power of initiative and referendum at the
national and local levels, as long as the required number of signatories to a petition and
the procedures it laid down are complied with.
It also makes a distinction between initiative and referendum. Initiative is the
power of the people to propose amendments to the Constitution or to propose and
enact legislations through an election called for the purpose while referendum is the
power of the electorate to approve or reject legislation or congressional action through
an election called for the purpose. The law contemplates three systems of initiative:11
1. Initiative on the Constitution which refers to a petition proposing amendments
to the Constitution;
2. Initiative on statutes which refers to a petition proposing to enact a national
legislation; and
3. Initiative on local legislation, which refers to a petition proposing to enact a
regional, provincial, city, municipal, or barangay law, resolution or ordinance.
a. Initiative to Amend the Constitution
As stated above, propose amendments to the Constitution can be made through
the process of initiative. The constitution states that it must be initiated through a
petition of at least twelve per centum (12%) of the total number of registered voters, of
which every legislative district must be represented by at least three per centum (3%) of
the registered voters therein.12 The Supreme Court ruled, however, that the provisions
of R.A. No. 6735 on the process for proposing constitutional amendments through
initiative are incomplete, inadequate, or wanting in essential terms and conditions. 13 It
noted that in contrast to that of national and local legislation, the law failed to provide
for the details in the implementation of initiative and referendum on amendments to the
Constitution.14
b. National Initiative
Initiative at the national level refers to a petition proposing to enact, approve or
reject, in whole or in part, a national statute.15 For the public to exercise this mode of
initiative, R.A. No. 6735 requires that at least 10% of the total number of registered
voters, of which every legislative district is represented by at least 3% of the registered
voters, must sign a petition for this purpose. The petition must state and/or contain the
following:
1. contents or texts of the proposed law sought to be enacted, approved or
rejected, amended or repealed, as the case may be;
2. the proposition;
3. the reason or reasons therefor;
4. that it is not one of the exceptions;
5. signatures of the petitioners or registered voters; and
6. an abstract or summary in not more than one hundred words which shall be
Sec. 3(a), R.A. No. 6735.
ibid, Article XVII, Section 2.
13 Lambino, et al. vs. COMELEC, et al., G.R. NO. 174153, October 25, 2006
14 Ibid.
15 SBMA vs. COMELEC, et al., G.R. No. 125416 September 26, 1996.
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12

legibly written or printed at the top of every page of the petition.


Petitioners must then register their petition with the COMELEC, which is tasked
to verify the authenticity of the signatures on the basis of the registry list of voters,
voters' affidavits and voters identification cards that were used in the immediately
preceding election. If the COMELEC determines that the petition is sufficient and
compliant with the requirements of the law, it has to order the publication of the
petition in newspapers of general and local circulation within 30 days from receipt of the
petition. The law requires that publication must be made at least twice in Filipino and
English and must set the date of the initiative or referendum not earlier than 45 days but
not later than 90 days from the determination by the COMELEC of the sufficiency of
the petition.
Figure 1. Procedure for National Initiative

The proposition (i.e. the measure proposed by the voters) will then have to be
submitted to and approved by the voters in an election called for that purpose. If the
proposition is approved by a majority of the votes cast, the national law proposed for
enactment, approval, or amendment shall become effective as a national law within 15
days after its publication in the Official Gazette or in a newspaper of general circulation
in the Philippines. If the proposition is to reject or repeal a national law, which has been
approved by a majority of the votes cast, the said national law shall be deemed repealed
and such repeal will take effect 15 days after the completion of the publication of the
proposition in the Official Gazette or in a newspaper of general circulation in the
Philippines. In both instances, the certification by the COMELEC is required. If, on the

other hand, the majority vote is not obtained, the national law sought to be rejected or
amended shall remain in full force and effect.
b. Local Initiative: R.A. No. 6735 and The Local Government Code16
To propose the adoption, enactment, repeal, or amendment of a local ordinance
or resolution, the law requires that at least 2,000 registered voters in case of an
autonomous region, 1,000 in case of provinces and cities, 100 in case of municipalities,
and 50 in case of barangays, must file a petition with the relevant local legislative body
proposing the adoption, enactment, repeal, or amendment of the ordinance. The law
allows proponents to submit two or more propositions in an initiative.17
If the concerned local legislative body fails to take any favorable action on the
proposal within 30 days from its submission, the proponents, through their duly
authorized and registered representatives, may invoke their power of initiative after
giving notice to the legislative body. They can transform their proposal into a proposition,
which will then be submitted to the electorate for approval through the initiative
process. The law directs the COMELEC to extend assistance to the proponents in
formulating the proposition.
The law gives the proponents specific number of days - depending on the local
government involved - to gather the required number of signatures. They have 120 days
in case of autonomous region, 90 days in case of provinces and cities, 60 days in case of
municipalities, and 30 days in case of barangays, after notice has to the legislative body
referred to above. It is also required that the petition must be signed before the
election registrar and in the presence of the proponents and a representative of the
concerned local legislative body. The signing must be done in a public place within the
territorial jurisdiction of the concerned local government unit. For this purpose, stations
for collecting signatures may be established in as many places as may be warranted.
After the lapse of the number of days specified above, the field office of the
COMELEC in the local government unit must issue a certification as to whether or not
the required number of signatures has been obtained. If the required number of
signatures is obtained, the COMELEC shall set a date for the registered voter to vote
on the proposition. Such date must be within 90 days (in case of autonomous region), 60
days (in case of provinces and cities), 45 days (in case of municipalities) and 30 days (in
case of barangays) from the date of the issuance of the Certificate by the COMELEC
that attests to the attainment of the required number of signatures. The initiative shall
then be held on the date set, after which the results thereof shall be certified and
proclaimed by the COMELEC.
On the other hand, failure to obtain the required number of signature means
that the proposition has been defeated. In such a case, there is no need to schedule any
voting.
The Local Government Code, which is a newer law, basically incorporated the provisions of R.A. No. 6735 on local
initiative and referendum. see Sections 120 to 127 of the Local Government Code and Sections 13 to 18 of R.A. No. 6735.
17 Sec. 13, R.A. No. 6735. See also section 9 of COMELEC Resolution No. 2300.
16

Figure 2. Procedure for Local Initiative and Referendum

There are limitations to the exercise of the power of initiative in the local level.
First, it cannot be exercised more than once a year. Second, initiative only extends to
subjects or matters that are within the legal powers of the legislative bodies to enact.
For example, local initiative cannot seek to repeal a criminal law. Third, local initiative
has to be cancelled if the local legislative body decides to act on the proposition and
adopts it in toto.18
The law provides safeguards to ensure that local legislative bodies cannot easily
frustrate the will of the people that have been expressed through the process of
initiative by the simple expedient of repealing or amending the same. It states any
proposition or ordinance or resolution approved through the system of initiative and
referendum cannot be repealed, modified or amended, by the local legislative body
concerned within six months from the date from approval. It has to wait for three years
before it can amend, modify or repeal such legislative measure and only by a vote of 3/4
of all its members.19 Ordinary legislative action only requires majority approval. In case
18
19

Section 15, R.A. No. 6735.


Section 16, R.A. No. 6735.

of barangays, the period is one year after the expiration of the first six months
c. Indirect Initiative
Any duly accredited people's organization may also file a petition for indirect
initiative with the House of Representatives, and other legislative bodies. The petition
shall contain a summary of the chief purposes and contents of the bill that the
organization proposes to be enacted into law by the legislature. The procedure to be
followed on the initiative bill shall be the same as the enactment of any legislative
measure before the House of Representatives except that the said initiative bill shall
have precedence over the pending legislative measures on the committee.
d. Referendum
Referendum is the power of the electorate to approve or reject legislation
through an election called for the purpose. Though often used interchangeably with
initiative, there are statutory and conceptual demarcations between a referendum and
an initiative. 20 While initiative is entirely the work of the electorate, referendum is
begun and consented to by the law-making body.
There are two classes of referendum. One is the referendum on statutes, which
refers to a petition to approve or reject an act or law, or part thereof, passed by
Congress. The second class is referendum on local law, which refers to a petition to
approve or reject a law, resolution or ordinance enacted by regional assemblies and
local legislative bodies.21
Figure 3. Procedure for Referendum

From the flowchart above, referendum consists merely of the electorate


approving or rejecting what has been drawn up or enacted by a legislative body.
Initiative, in contrast, is a process of law-making by the people themselves without the
20
21

SBMA vs. COMELEC, et al., G.R. No. 125416 September 26, 1996.
Section 3(c), R. A. No. 6375.

participation and against the wishes of their elected representatives. 22 Hence, the
process and the voting in a referendum, where the voters will simply write either "Yes"
of "No" in the ballot, is much simpler when compared to the process involved in an
initiative.
It is the view of the author that the constitutional provisions on the conduct of
plebiscite for the purpose of securing the approval of voters on certain political actions
of the government is tantamount of the conduct of referendum. These include proposed
amendments and revisions to the Constitution proposed by Congress; the creation,
division, abolition, merger of local government units; 23 the creation of special
metropolitan political subdivisions;24 and the formation of autonomous regions.25 The
process for their adoption (electorate approving or rejecting what has been drawn up
or enacted by a legislative body) is consistent with how R. A. 6735 defines referendum.
Furthermore, the constitutional provision stating, Congress can only adopt a new name
for the country, a national anthem, or a national seal through a law that has been ratified
by the people in a national referendum26 is another instance that requires referendum.
IV. Government Agencies Involved
Aside from Congress (which, in cases of referendum has to start the process by
passing first a legislative measure and then submit the same to the electorate for
ratification or, in the case of initiative, it refuses to pass/amend/repeal certain laws that
initiative proponents seek to change), the other government agencies involved in the
conduct of initiative and referendum are the COMELEC and the court system.
a. COMELEC
The COMELEC is a constitutional body with exclusive mandate to enforce and
administer all laws and regulations relative to the conduct of elections, plebiscites,
initiatives, referendums and recall. In conducting initiative and referendum, the
Constitution and relevant laws task the COMELEC with the following functions:
1. Receive and determine the sufficiency of the petition and, in this connection,
determine and prescribe the form for instituting a petition;
2. In case of initiatives, provide assistance in the drafting of the proposition;
3. Verify the authenticity signatures on the basis of the registry list of voters,
voters' affidavits and voters identification cards;
4. Order the publication of the petition and proposition and set the date of
election;
5. Conduct the election and count the votes;
6. Declare and certify the results of the election.
Hence, the COMELEC plays a very crucial role when the people exercise their
inherent lawmaking power through the system of initiative and referendum. The
Supreme Court emphasized that the COMELEC should exercise administration and
Philippine Political Law, 1991 edition, p. 169.
Constitution, Article X, Section 10.
24 Section 11, ibid.
25 Section 18, ibid.
261987 Constitution, Article XV, Section 2.
22

231987

supervision of the process itself, akin to its powers over the conduct of elections. 27 It
must be noted, nonetheless, that the level of COMELECs involvement and participation
in initiative, on the one hand, and referendum, on the other, are not the same.
The COMELEC has to supervise an initiative more closely than a referendum. In
initiative, COMELEC authority extends not only to the counting and canvassing of votes
but also to seeing to it that the matter or act submitted to the people is in the proper
form and language so it may be easily understood and voted upon by the electorate.
This is especially true where the proposed legislation is lengthy and complicated, and
should thus be broken down into several autonomous parts, each such part to be voted
upon separately. Care must also be exercised that "(n)o petition embracing more than
one subject shall be submitted to the electorate," although "two or more propositions
may be submitted in an initiative."28
In this connection, it passed COMELEC Resolution No. 2300 prescribing The
Rules and Regulations Governing the Conduct of Initiative on the Constitution and Initiative and
Referendum on National and Local Laws. These rules were later on supplemented by
additional rules to cure the defects cited by the Supreme Court in a case involving the
conduct of initiative for amending the Constitution.
The organizational capacity of the COMELEC to check/verify legal requirements
given its limited resources and time is a crucial challenge that is limiting the effectiveness
of the law. COMELEC, in some instances for example, had to defer or deny action on
the conduct of referendum and initiatives when the same are scheduled or started very
close to national and local elections, which are held every three years. According to its
Deputy Executive Director for Operations (DEDO), COMELECs priority is the
preparation for, and holding of, national and local elections, which are set by the
Constitution. Thus, even if Congress sets a specific date for referendum, or if the
holding of election in connection with initiative is in conflict with its electoral
preparations, COMELEC believes that it is not duty bound to hold referendum or
proceeding with the initiative process.
Likewise, inasmuch COMELEC does not have the requisite funding needed to
hold a referendum or election on a proposition, it is difficult for the Commission to
prepare for it. In local initiatives, it is the local government that is supposed to provide
the funding.
b. Courts
The judiciary likewise plays an important role when the public invokes the
process of initiative and referendum. Consistent with its power of judicial review, the
proper courts can declare null and void any proposition that has been approved via the
route of initiative and/or referendum if the same is in violation of the Constitution
and/or outside the authority of the concerned legislative body.29 As discussed below,
SBMA vs. COMELEC, et al., G.R. No. 125416 September 26, 1996.
Ibid.
29 Section 18, R.A. No. 6735.
27
28

there have been several instances where the Supreme Court had to intervene to stop
the process of initiative and referendum as they were ruled to be unconstitutional.
A number of cases have reached the Supreme Court, most of which arose from
the conflicting interpretation of the constitutional provisions and the laws seeking to
implement them. These cases have provided the Supreme Court the opportunity to
clarify the intent of the Constitution and to provide guidance in the operationalization of
the laws on initiative and referendum. They are discussed below.
V. Implementation Experience: Issues and Challenges
There had been several instances where referendums were successfully held and
the voice of the people clearly heard. According to an international organization that
compiles data on the conduct of referendum, the Philippines conducted 22 national
referendums from 1940 to 2014.30 Presented below is the statistics compiled by the
Centre for Research on Direct Democracy on the conduct of referendum in the
Philippines from 194-2014. This does not include, however, referendums at the local
level (e.g. referendum on ARMM law, cityhood, etc.).31
Philippines
Mandatory
Governmental
Referendum
Referendum
Decade

Yes

No

Yes

No

Total

1940-1949

1950-1959

1960-1969

1970-1979

10

1980-1989

1990-1999

2000-2009

2010-2014

Sub Total

16

Total

18

2
4

22

Among the questions that had been presented to the people were the
ratification of proposed constitutions (1973 and 1987), the grant of Parity Rights to US
citizens, enlargement of the House of Representatives, eligibility of members of
Congress to stand for election into the constituent assembly, extension of President
Marcos term, continuation/prolongation of martial law, reintroduction of the office of
the Vice President, change in the retirement age of judges, extension of the land
distribution program to landless farmers and tenants, grant of right to former Philippine
citizens to acquire land for private use, change of election date for barangay officials and
30 Centre

for Research on Direct Democracy (c2d), Asia, Philippines http://www.c2d.ch/inner.php?table=continent&


sublinkname=country_information&tabname=results&menuname=menu&continent=Asia&countrygeo=239&stategeo=
0&citygeo=0&level=1
31 Ibid.

various constitutional amendments.32 Subsequent referendums following the adoption of


the 1987 Constitution mostly concerned local issues that sought the approval of voters
in the affected areas for the proposed legislation to take effect.
Legal challenges and practical issues, on the other hand, have hampered the
effective use of initiative to amend the Constitution or to enact, amend or repeal
national and local statutes. In a number of instances, peoples initiative to amend the
Constitution did not push through when the Supreme Court declared the process and
the law as not compliant with the requirements of the Constitution. In other cases,
practice and financial and logistical considerations have discouraged proponents from
meeting the initial process of gathering the required number of signatures.
a. Referendum on autonomous regions and creation of LGUs
The Philippines has long years of experience in the conduct of referendum (i.e.
when laws passed by Congress have to be ratified by the people pursuant to the
requirements of the Constitution). For example, in November 1989, a referendum was
conducted in the proposed areas of Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM),
which was eventually constituted into an autonomous region.33 The referendum, which
was generally considered successful in terms of implementation, resulted to the creation
of the ARMM when the four provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Tawi-Tawi and
Sulu voted to join the area of autonomy. In September 2001, the province of Basilan and
the city of Marawi joined the ARMM in another referendum called for that purpose.34
A series of referendums was also held for the purpose of ratifying the law that
sought to create the Cordillera Autonomous Region (CAR). In this case, however,
proponents of the CAR failed because the people of the provinces of Abra, Apayao,
Benguet, Mountain Province, Ifugao and Kalinga, and the City of Baguio voted twice
against it. In the first referendum on January 30, 1990, Ifugao was the only province to
vote for self-rule while only the province of Apayao chose autonomy in the second
plebiscite held on March 7, 1998.35
The conduct of referendums for the conversion of various municipalities into
cities can also be considered generally successful. Under Philippine laws, a city can only
be created if Congress passes a law for that purpose and the majority of the voters in
the local government units (LGUs) directly affected expressed their approval through a
Yes vote in referendum/plebiscite organized by COMELEC. According to the website
of the Philippine Senate, the number of cities in the Philippines has substantially grown
from 61 in 1977 to 143 cities in 2012, or an increase of 134 percent.36 This means that
in these referendums, the electorate generally supported Congress and voted in favor of
the proposed legislative measure.
Ibid.
Pursuant to Republic Act No. 6734, otherwise known as the Organic Act of the Autonomous Region in Muslim
Mindanao, which was signed into law by then President Corazon C. Aquino on August 1, 1989.
34 ARMM History, Official Website of the ARMM, http://armm.gov.ph/history/.
35 Cordillera turns back on autonomy, NEDA Website, http://car.neda.gov.ph/cordillera-turns-back-on-autonomy/
36 Cities in the Philippines at a Glance, Senate website (November 2013),
https://www.senate.gov.ph/publications/AAG%20on%20cities_FINAL_nov%20%2028.pdf
32
33

Yet, there had been an instance when the Supreme Court on constitutional
ground disregarded the will of the people that was expressed in a referendum. In this
case, despite the overwhelming ratification by majority of the people of the creation of a
new province in the ARMM area (i.e. 285,372 in favor and only 8,802 against), the same
was invalidated because the body (i.e. Regional Legislative Assembly of the ARMM) that
passed the law and called for its ratification in a referendum does not have the authority
to do so. According to the Supreme Court, it has no power to propose a law to
create, divide, merge, abolish or substantially alter the boundaries of provinces, cities,
municipalities and barangays and submit the same to referendum since that power rests
solely with the national legislative assembly.37
b. Efforts to amend/revise the Constitution through initiative
There had been two attempts already to amend the Constitution via initiative.
The first was in 1996 when the group Peoples Initiative for Reforms, Modernization and
Action (PIRMA) filed with COMELEC a petition to amend the Constitution to lift the
term limits of elective officials through peoples initiative. 38 As noted elsewhere in this
paper, Section 2, Article XVII of the Constitution states that [a]mendments 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.
Pursuant to the petition, COMELEC issued an order directing the publication of the
petition and of the notice of hearing and thereafter set the case for hearing. The
Supreme Court eventually stopped the COMELEC from entertaining the petition and
held that R.A. No. 6735 is incomplete, inadequate, or wanting in essential terms and
conditions insofar as initiative on amendments to the Constitution is concerned
(Defensor-Santiago, et al. vs. COMELEC).39 In this regard, the portion of COMELEC
Resolution No. 2300, insofar as it prescribes rules and regulations on the conduct of
initiative on amendments to the Constitution, was also declared void.
The second attempt was in 2006 when another group invoked the same
provision of the Constitution to propose amendments. Its petition proposed a shift
from the present Bicameral-Presidential system to a Unicameral-Parliamentary form of
government. It claimed that: (a) the petition had the support of 6,327,952 individuals
constituting at least 12% of all registered voters, with each legislative district
represented by at least 3% of its registered voters; and (b) COMELEC election
registrars had verified the signatures of the 6.3 million individuals. The following
proposition was sought to be presented to the people for ratification:
Do you approve the amendment of Articles VI and VII of the 1987 Constitution, changing the
form of government from the present bicameral-presidential to a unicameral-parliamentary
system, and providing article XVIII as transitory provisions for the orderly shift from one system
to the other?

Sema vs. COMELEC and Dilangalen, G.R. No. 177597 (July 16, 2008)
The term limit of the President is 6 years without re-election; vice president and senators, 2 terms of 6 years each;
and 3 consecutive terms of 3 years each for barangay officials, municipal and city officials, provincial officials, and
members of the House of Representatives.
39 G.R. No. 127325, March 19, 1997.
37
38

Again, this proved to be unsuccessful because the COMELEC refused to


entertain the petition pursuant to the Supreme Court ruling in the previous case of
Defensor-Santiago vs. COMELEC. When the COMELECs inaction was brought to the
Supreme Court, the Court upheld the COMELEC and threw out the case on the
following grounds:40
1. The initiative petition is not compliant with the requirements of Section 2,
Article XVII of the Constitution on direct proposal by the people. The Court
held that while the abovementioned provision does not expressly state that the petition must set
forth the full text of the proposed amendments, the deliberations of the framers of the
Constitution clearly show that: (a) they intended to adopt the relevant American jurisprudence
on peoples initiative; and (b) in particular, the people must first see the full text of the proposed
amendments before they sign, and that the people must sign on a petition containing such full
text. The essence of amendments directly proposed by the people through initiative upon a
petition is that the entire proposal on its face is a petition by the people. This means two
essential elements must be present. First, the people must author and thus sign the entire
proposal. No agent or representative can sign on their behalf. Second, as an initiative upon a
petition, the proposal must be embodied in a petition.
These essential elements are present only if the full text of the proposed amendments is first
shown to the people who express their assent by signing such complete proposal in a petition.
The full text of the proposed amendments may be either written on the face of the petition, or
attached to it. If so attached, the petition must state the fact of such attachment. This is an
assurance that every one of the several millions of signatories to the petition had seen the full
text of the proposed amendments before not after signing.
Moreover, an initiative signer must be informed at the time of signing of the nature and effect of
that which is proposed and failure to do so is deceptive and misleading which renders the
initiative void.
2. The Constitution does not allow revision through initiatives. Although the third
mode for amending the Constitution is through a peoples initiative,41 the same applies only to an
amendment of the Constitution and not to its revision. In contrast, Congress or a constitutional
convention (the other modes) can propose both amendments and revisions to the Constitution.
What the petitioner was proposing was a revision of the Constitution, which broadly implies a
change that alters a basic principle in the Constitution, like altering the principle of separation of
powers or the system of checks-and-balances. There is also revision if the change alters the
substantial entirety of the Constitution, as when the change affects substantial provisions of the
Constitution. In contrast, amendment broadly refers to a change that adds, reduces, or deletes without
altering the basic principle involved. Revision generally affects several provisions of the Constitution,
while amendment generally affects only the specific provision being amended.

As things stand now, Congress has yet to pass a new law or amendment to cure the
inadequacy of R.A. No. 6375, which is supposed to enable the public to propose
constitutional amendments. Also, no new attempts had been made since the Supreme
Court stopped the last peoples initiative to change the Constitution. It must be pointed
out, however, that there was a subsequent minute Resolution issued by the Supreme
Court wherein ten of its members stated that R.A. No. 6735 is sufficient and adequate
Lambino, et al. vs. COMELEC, G.R. No. 174153, 25 October 2006.
The other modes are (a) through Congress upon three-fourths vote of all its Members; and (b) through a
constitutional convention.
40
41

to amend the Constitution thru a peoples initiative, which left the issue hanging. 42
c. National initiatives
To date, no national law has been passed through the process of initiative. A
check with the COMELEC revealed that while several groups have asked questions
regarding initiative, they have been generally discouraged by the logistical and financial
requirements for gathering the required number of signatures. Even if some measures
were initially supported by civil society organizations, peoples interests generally waver
especially when new national issues crop up and grab the attention of the people.
Nonetheless, there are ongoing efforts to pass crucial laws, which Congress
failed or refuses to enact, through the process of initiative. These include the proposed
measure to pass an anti-political dynasty bill, the bill to prohibit pork barrel in national
budget and the enactment of a law on freedom of information. Whether or not these
current initiatives will go beyond the signature gathering stage still remains to be seen.
d. Local initiative to question a resolution
There had been more successful attempts of enacting local laws through initiative
at the local level. According to the COMELEC, there is a barangay ordinance that was
passed through initiative. The ordinance mandated the control and prevention of the
proliferation of informal settlers and mendicant, and to hold accountable erring barangay
officials who coddle them, which the local legislative body apparently refused to pass.
The proposition became a barangay ordinance when 465 voters approved as against 384
voters who rejected it.43 Another initiative involves a proposition for the creation of
cooperative to manage barangay funds. It is now undergoing review by the COMELEC
to determine compliance with the requirements of the law.
Nonetheless, peoples initiatives at the local level were also fraught with
challenges. One case involved a petition filed in a local legislative body seeking to annul a
municipal resolution that expressed concurrence to a law passed by Congress, which
created an economic zone (Subic Economic Zone) and made the municipality a part of
it. The petitioners filed a petition before the local legislative body to annul or recall the
municipal resolution and sought to include certain conditions if the local government
were to join the special economic zone. Not satisfied with the action of the local
legislative body, the petitioners subsequently invoked peoples initiative under the Local
Government Code. When COMELEC refused to take action on the petition for
initiative on the ground that its subject was a mere Resolution and not an Ordinance,
petitioner then went to the Supreme Court to reverse the decision of the COMELEC.
In the said case, the Supreme Court held that Resolution could be subject of a local
initiative.44
When the COMELEC scheduled the holding of the initiative, the Subic Bay
See Min. Res., GR No. 174153, Lambino and Aumentado v. Comelec; GR No. 174299, Binay, et al. v. Comelec, et al.;
November 21, 2006
43 COMELECs Canvass of Votes and Proclamation, Initiative held on May 14, 2011.
44 Enrique T. Garcia, et al. vs. Commission on Elections, et al., 237 SCRA 279, September 30, 1994.
42

Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) asked the Supreme Court to stop the same contending
that a local initiative that proposes an amendment to a national law is invalid. The
Supreme Court held that the COMELEC in scheduling the initiative gravely abuse its
discretion since the measure being proposed is outside power of the local legislative
body and, thus, cannot be a subject of peoples initiative at the local level.
V. Conclusions
Implementing a system of initiative and referendum in a political environment
that is still learning its concept and implications will not be easy. It will take time for the
people to fully utilize it as a tool for pushing for laws that genuinely serve their interest.
It has now been more than 25 years since the Philippine Congress passed the law on
initiative and referendum. Results have been mixed with regard to its implementation.
Referendum can be considered relatively more successful in the sense that the use
thereof to ratify certain acts of Congress has fully empowered the people to directly
express their will. The approval of the establishment of autonomous regions in Muslim
Mindanao, and the rejection of the same measure in the Cordillera region by those
directly affected are clear indications that this system for directly consulting the people
work. The same is true with regard to the conversion of municipalities into chartered
cities (generally resulted to ratification) and creation of new local government units.
In contrast, peoples initiative to enact national statutes has yet to produce a law
although various efforts initiated by civil society organizations (CSOs) are still ongoing.
Previous attempts to amend the Constitution via the system of initiative and
referendum, on the other hand, failed because of legal questions - the inadequacy of R.A.
No. 6735 when it comes to constitutional amendments.
In the local level, there had been successful people initiatives although some
were challenged in the Supreme Court on various legal grounds. Those that succeeded
have opened the eyes of the people regarding their power to enact laws and ordinances.
As people become more aware of their rights and confident about their inherent power
to directly craft laws through the system of initiative and referendum, it can be expected
that more and more attempts will be made by organized groups including civil society
organizations.
Lesson Learned
From the foregoing experience of the Philippines in the operationalization of the
system of initiative and referendum, some lessons can be drawn up, which can be
summarized as follows.
1. Inasmuch as the process of initiative and referendum is an exercise of an
extraordinary power of the people, the law that seeks to operationalize it must
be complete and unambiguous to avoid constitutional challenge. Compliance
with constitutional and legal requirements is a must because any defect in the
procedure followed can lead to the invalidation of the whole process. As shown
by the experience of the Philippines, these omissions and/or defects are fatal:

The failure of the proponents to prepare and show the draft of the
proposed constitutional amendment to the people before they sign such
proposal was the ground cited by the SC in saying that the process was
not compliant with constitutional requirements. It said that framers
envisioned that the people should sign on the proposal itself because the
proponents must prepare that proposal and pass it around for
signature.
The failure of local election registrars to actually verify the signatures of
the petitioners as required by law, and for the proponents to insist the
same, was one of the issues raised against a peoples initiative. According
to a group of lawyers which opposed the peoples initiatives, signatures
that were gathered in at least nine provinces by groups pushing for a
peoples initiative to change the Constitution were found either to have
not been properly verified or not verified at all by election officers of the
Commission on Elections.45

2. Politicians to advance their own interests, especially in seeking to extend their


hold of power, can misuse peoples initiatives. In 1996 a group calling itself
Pirma, urged an amendment that would allow the reelection of the incumbent
president (President Fidel Ramos), which is prohibited by the Philippine
Constitution. The proponents of the initiative to amend the Constitution were
known associates of the then president and were believed to be funded by his
supporters.
The same was true when another attempt was made to amend the Constitution
in 2006 during the incumbency of another president. According to political
observers, the motive for changing the form of government from the familiar
presidential system to the new and untried parliamentary government was not
the national interest. Rather, peoples initiatives were pushed and bankrolled by
the supporters of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to enable her to
remain in power as prime minister under a parliamentary government since her
term as president was about to end. 46
3. It takes time for the people to fully appreciate the power of initiative and
referendum. Even if the Philippines has one of the most vibrant civil society
organizations in Asia, it is only now that organized movements are beginning to
realize the potentials of peoples initiative and referendum to push for their
interest. It is surprising that this realization only came recently despite the fact
that Congress, for years, has failed or refused to enact crucial laws even if the
same are constitutionally prescribed and acknowledged to be important to good
governance.

Only names, not signatures, verified in Sigaw ng Bayan, ULAP-led initiative, The PCIJ Blog (October 12, 2006),
http://pcij.org/blog/2006/10/12/only-names-not-signatures-verified-in-sigaw-ng-bayan-ulap-led-peoples-initiative
46
Abueva,
Jose,
Why
Charter
Change
failed
under
President
Arroyo (2003-2008),
http://joseabueva.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/why-charter-change-failed-under-president-arroyo-2003-2008/
45

4. One of the hindrances for the effective invocation of the peoples initiative and
referendum is the financial requirements to start the process, especially in
gathering the required signatures. Unless there is a big political organization or
private/corporation to back the effort, the chance to succeed of a peoples
initiative organized by ordinary citizenry can be very minimal. It is probably for
this reason that no national initiative has been successfully concluded in the
Philippines despite the lapse of more than 25 years, and that the only ones that
were able to gather adequate signatures nationwide were those backed by
politicians. Because of this, there may be a merit to suggestions that the
government should provide financial assistance to an effort to pass a law to
implement a constitutional mandate (e.g. prohibition against political dynasty). Of
course, safeguards must be put in place to prevent politicians from abusing this
financial assistance for their political interest.
5. It is crucial that the agency tasked to administer or supervise initiative and
referendum is provided with sufficient resources to enable it to carry out these
tasks. This is especially true for election management bodies, like the Philippine
COMELEC, which has to prepare and organize national and local elections every
three years. Unless it is given the required financial, technical and human
resources to organize referendum and initiative related elections, this sovereign
right of the people will remain illusory.