Special Issue
The Queen's Gambits
What went wrong with the Comelec?

The Comelec’s fall from grace

Philippine elections have yet to graduate from the manual counting system — a throwback from the first-ever held local polls more than a century ago. [photos courtesy of Malaya]

TO DESTROY an institution like the Commission on Elections (Comelec), you must first fill it up with handpicked commissioners with questionable credentials and even more dubious impartiality. Then, let them run the constitutional body as if they were ruling over personal fiefdoms. This would then reduce middle-level bureaucrats to mere vassals doing — or forced to do — their every bidding, including perhaps, as the taped conversations involving President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano suggest, rigging the elections in their political benefactor’s favor.

Such is the sorry state today of the constitutionally ordained guardian of the ballot that the pendulum of public opinion concerning its existence swings between two extreme calls: the mass resignation of its commissioners and its total abolition. Comelec’s credibility, which enjoyed highs in the post-Marcos era during the days of Hilario Davide Jr. (now Supreme Court chief justice), Haydee Yorac (former Presidential Commission on Good Government chairperson) and Christian Monsod, has sunk so low, eroded through the years by the unending scandals involving corruption, incompetence, and partisanship.

These days, what was supposed to be an impartial body reeks of the politics of accommodation, one that has allowed politicians to stack it with officials and staff that they have endorsed. “The estimate by directors I’ve talked to is that as much as 93 percent of the entire rank and file are endorsed politically by various local officials and politicians,” says Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform (IPER).

Who is to blame for Comelec’s fall from grace? A visibly appalled Monsod is rather straightforward: “I think it starts from the top. They have appointed the wrong leaders. They appointed commissioners that serve their own agenda. I blame the appointing power and Congress.”

Under the Constitution, the president is vested with the authority to appoint the Comelec’s seven commissioners who each have a seven-year term. Congress, through the bicameral Commission on Appointments (CA), confirms their appointments.

In Monsod’s view, among the presidents who succeeded Marcos, it was only Corazon Aquino who was concerned about institution-building of the commission. Subsequent presidents — Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada and the incumbent Arroyo — have all contributed to the weakening of the Comelec, he says, by politicizing the appointments of its commissioners.

Hiring politicians’ recommendees

Ramos was responsible for putting Bernardo Pardo to the chairmanship that Monsod had vacated in early 1995, even though Pardo himself admitted that he had no background in election law. The former general turned president also appointed two commissioners — Manolo Gorospe and Graduacion R. Claravall (now deceased) — who were bypassed by the CA seven times but whom he kept on appointing until they finally got confirmed.

It was the Pardo Comelec that started the practice of hiring applicants endorsed by politicians to the poll body. In a 1997 article in i magazine, a middle-level Comelec official recalled how Pardo had asked the screening committee to get endorsements from the city mayor in hiring election officers. A discussion among commissioners that the official witnessed revealed that one of them had already promised the position to someone endorsed by a congressman.

Pardo himself was less than conscious about being seen with politicians. On two occasions, he was among Ramos’s traveling companions in the then president’s visits to Mindanao, even allowing himself to be photographed beside the chief executive, flashing Ramos’s signature thumbs-up sign.

Monsod also recalls that during the 1998 elections, Pardo went to Estrada and gave him the Comelec count. “In effect, he told Estrada that he had been elected president,” relates Monsod. “First, it’s not the Comelec that counts the presidential tally, it’s Congress. Second, a Comelec chair should not go to a candidate and present the Comelec unofficial count and say you’ve been elected president.”

As for Gorospe, his stint as commissioner is remembered more for his media antics. At one time, he earned the title “Kissing Lolo” for making unwelcome passes at fellow commissioner Remedios Salazar-Fernando, now appellate court justice, and Comelec secretaries. He was also involved in a tussle with Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, an incident that elicited a remark from the Comelec commissioner about the senator being mad at him only because she was jealous of his shapely legs. “In full view of the TV cameras, he raised his pale (but hairless) leg up for everyone to see,” recalls ABS-CBN reporter Gigi Grande, who covered the Comelec for six years until 2003. By the 2004 elections, Gorospe had morphed into one of Arroyo’s election lawyers.

Many had looked forward to a quieter Comelec when Alfredo Benipayo became its head in 2001. But the former Supreme Court administrator was soon ruing the day he stepped into the Comelec because of the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ that was made up of Estrada appointees Luzviminda Tancangco, Ralph Lantion, Rufino Javier, and Mehol Sadain. Together, they made life as Comelec chief unbearable for Benipayo, now the solicitor general.

Among the major sources of the much publicized petty politics and bitter squabbling in the Comelec was the Gang’s intransigence on projects of the modernization committee headed by Tancangco. This included the Voter Registration and Identification System (VRIS), a P6.5-billion project to computerize voter registration and the voters’ lists awarded to a consortium led by the Photokina Marketing Corp. during the time of President Estrada. The Supreme Court later voided the contract, 14-0, primarily because it was “illegal and against public policy” as the project cost was way beyond the amount appropriated by Congress. Only P1 billion had been allotted for the VRIS project in the 2000 national budget. (See sidebar for other Comelec scams and scandals)

For the Photokina fiasco and other alleged corrupt and unconstitutional acts, Tancancgo faced an impeachment complaint filed by more than 200 local and international civil society organizations under the People v. Tancancgo Movement. But the House committee on justice denied the conduct of a formal investigation in October 2003 for insufficiency of substance. This despite a 280-page complaint supported by official Comelec and Commission on Audit documents.

Unprecedented in Comelec history

Benipayo is the immediate predecessor of current Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos Sr., who was appointed in June 2002. Abalos’s appointment is unprecedented in the commission’s history, because he is a politician and a known Lakas party stalwart. A former chief of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority and three-term Mandaluyong city mayor, Abalos has acknowledged his close friendship with First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, as well as siblings of the president. His personal ties with the Chua family, owners of Photokina, are also known.

Perennial election scene. Confused voters scramble to check the registration lists for their missing names and designated voting precincts.

Arroyo’s other controversial appointees included Commissioners Virgilio Garcillano and Manuel Barcelona Jr. The two were considered only ad interim appointments because Congress was no longer in session when Arroyo named them in February 2004 to replace the retired Tancangco and Lantion. They were bypassed by Congress in June 2004 but were reinstated by Arroyo until their appointments lapsed in June this year.

A Marcos-era election official, Garcillano retired as Region 10 director in 2002 before being resurrected as Comelec commissioner. He has been accused of masterminding dagdag-bawas operations in Mindanao. By the 2004 elections, Garcillano was commissioner for Region 4 (Southern Tagalog).

Barcelona, meanwhile, was put in charge of several Mindanao regions including the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). According to Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Barcelona was “a partisan member of the Gloria Bantay Bayan,” a pro-Arroyo organization that contributed funding to the president’s campaign. But it was apparently the more Mindanao-elections-savvy Garcillano that Arroyo relied upon and called up to “protect” her votes down south.

Every man for himself

IPER’s Casiple says the “reform generation” in the Comelec spawned by Edsa 1, the first “people power” revolt that ousted the Marcoses, has barely managed to survive. “The only remnant of the Monsod reform era who is still there physically is Commissioner (Resurreccion) Borra,” he says. “Sadain would have been reform-oriented also but he never went that far. Tuason (Florentino Jr.) was also a good candidate but he is sickly and just went with the flow. The rest are true blue politicians — Abalos, Javier, Barcelona, and Garcillano. With that kind of combination, you can’t really expect much.”

Guarding the vote.
The Comelec failed to hold a credible election in 2004.

Recent changes have just made matters worse. Casiple points to the commissioner-in-charge (CIC) system being implemented in place of the old bureaucracy of regional directors and an executive director. Under the CIC system, the regional directors have become mere pawns taking orders from the commissioner. At the same time, regional directors — only a handful of whom are civil-service eligible — no longer report to the executive director as they now deal directly with the commissioner-in-charge.

“The collegial character of the Comelec has been lost,” says Casiple. “Many decisions are now made by a single commissioner in the area where he or she is in charge. Basically, these are approved by the Comelec en banc. It has become a sort of bargaining tit-for-tat, if one approves of the actions of another commissioner, then the other also approves of his or hers. In the end, kanya-kanya talaga (it’s every man for himself).”

Over the years, the setup has evolved into a power play with the commissioners usurping the directors’ powers. An extreme demonstration of this was, upon the motions of then Commissioner Tancangco, the executive director was basically stripped of his executive powers. Recounts Casiple: “Nagmukhang tanga ang executive director (The executive director was reduced to an idiot). He can’t attend Comelec meetings when he’s not invited. All documents and reports will have to go through the commissioner-in-charge. That was how absolute the CIC system was in the last elections.”

Even the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS) mission — which had representatives from the International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) — that monitored the May 2004 polls noted in its report that the CIC system is “seriously flawed and largely dysfunctional.” Instead of the chairman and six commissioners functioning as a board of directors overseeing policy matters, the “Commissioners have maintained an undersized and marginalized staff of civil servants, and assumed operational responsibilities over geographic and functional areas.”

Breeding culture of corruption and patronage

To some extent, the report said, this has allowed the commissioners to “focus on expanding and strengthening their personal portfolios.” Such a system, both insiders and observers agree, has only bred a culture of corruption and patronage as officials and staff have become beholden to the commissioners.

“Our professionalism and our being career officials were destroyed under Abalos because those who were promoted were the politicos and the corrupt,” says a Comelec official. He cites the case of an election officer in Metro Manila with a salary grade of 21 whom Garcillano promoted to regional director, which has a salary grade of 28 — a seven-step salary-grade increase when the law allows a maximum of only three steps. Worse, he says, was the Comelec’s accommodation of a losing candidate, to whom it gave the position of Director IV with an equivalent salary grade of 28; the politician-turned-Comelec official eventually left his post to run in the last elections.

There are, of course, Comelec personnel who have remained professional and reform-minded. But as Monsod points out, “Who would dare risk being at odds with a commissioner when seven years already correspond to a third of one’s career in public service?”

In the post-Monsod era, nongovernmental organizations like IPER are also finding it a painstaking task to push for electoral reforms. In fact, when Pardo took over, NGOs that nurtured a partnership with the Comelec through the Consortium on Electoral Reforms (formerly Citizens’ Consortium on Electoral Reforms) had to momentarily disengage for lack of any clear direction of reform initiatives within the poll body.

The working relationship was revived when Benipayo became chairman and came up with a reform program of his own. But it proved to be rather short-lived after the appointments commission bypassed the apolitical Benipayo several times owing largely to the very public infighting in the Comelec.

In contrast, under the watch of Monsod, the CCER, created with the main advocacy of introducing amendments to the Omnibus Election Code and laws enabling the provisions of the Constitution, provided the impetus for the passage of the Party List Act, Fair Elections Act, and the laws on continuing registration, electoral modernization, and the most recent, overseas absentee voting. Still to be hurdled are bills on local sectoral representation, political dynasties, political party reform and campaign financing, and amendments to the party-list law.

Rethinking the Comelec

For all its flaws, there are still those who think the Comelec is still worth saving. Among them is Monsod, who even thinks that President Arroyo, despite the troubles she is in right now, should take the first step by appointing two new, good commissioners. “Let people interpret it the way they want to,” he says. “But if she appoints two good commissioners, that will be good for the Comelec. That is institution-building.”

Slow count. Charges of fraud and one of the slowest counts in election history cast doubt on the Comelec’s integrity.

But a Comelec director thinks that’s not enough. “There should be an investigation of the recordings to find out who were the ones involved,” he says, insisting that such a call is not intended to ruin the Comelec but to strengthen it.”

“That’s why I am not ashamed of what happened,” he says. “I am glad that this happened. Because I hope this will lead to the cleansing of the Comelec.”

One of IPER’s proposals, which the CEPPS mission adopted, is to abolish the commission as a permanent body. In its place would be a secretariat that will handle purely administrative functions like the keeping of records and equipment, and the continuing registration of voters. The commission will only be set up just before an election, its officers chosen by a selection process involving all the political parties and “civil society” organizations. That way, there is concurrence with all the appointees. At the same time, it prevents the undue influence exerted on them since they will be known only days before an election is conducted.

In the meantime, Casiple says, “If they (Comelec commissioners) are statesmen, they should tender their courtesy resignation immediately if only to save the institution and its integrity”

“But it seems there’s a slim chance in that,” he says, “because they’re denying that they’re in crisis. And these are the same people who will handle the upcoming ARMM elections.”