COMMENTARY: Let us respect and strengthen our institutions

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/19 May) — The current controversy surrounding the tampering of computer program codes on the automated canvassing of votes for national candidates from President down to Senators has brought to the fore issues related to our attitudes as a people on our institutions. We seem to have this tendency to take actions that would address a present and pressing situation forgetting about long-term implications on our institutions.

This tendency for short-term solutions is reinforced by our penchant – perhaps because we are still a pastoral society at heart – for seasonality in our actions. The time to prepare the field comes with the onset of the rainy season. Similarly, the time to reinforce the houses is when typhoon season arrives. Thus, when election season comes, we begin to go through the ritual of putting our electoral system in order. The Commission on Elections (Comelec), the body charged with maintaining the electoral system, wakes up after two-and-a-half years of sleep between elections, yawns and groans for another three months and starts working during the last three months to prepare. We as a public then start waving our arms and jumping up and down, shouting at the top of our voices about ensuring free, peaceful and credible elections.

Elections are an important institution in the democracy as we know and practice it in this country. Our ideal for this institution is captured by four descriptives: “free”, “honest”, “credible” and “peaceful”. At this time, the honesty and credibility of elections is being put to severe stress with the tampering of the computer source code in the midst of canvassing the national votes. Protocol was breached, the changes were done without regard to transparency and due process. Comelec made it worse when it tried initially to downplay the incident only to be forced to take it seriously later when the outcry from an adamant public became louder.

The issue of the strength of our electoral institution is highlighted by the hotly-contested vice-presidential race between the leading candidates Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. and Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo. However, the framing of the public discourse has directed the spotlight to the opposing positions of a public that is already polarized by the ongoing partisan electoral exercise. The debate on the issue of cheating and who has the moral ascendancy to occupy the vice-presidential seat has sidelined the more fundamental issue of the need to strengthen our electoral institution in order to prevent future similar situations.

The debate was reduced to the issue of cheating: The Marcos camp cried “computerized cheating” charging the winning vice-presidential candidate Leni Robredo as beneficiary to foul play perpetrated by agents of the current administration. The Robredo camp defended the honesty and credibility of the canvassing, basically echoing the explanation given by the Comelec that the change in the computer code was only cosmetic and did not affect election results.

With this framing, the discourse quickly shifted into a hate campaign against Marcos junior. Many Robredo supporters asserted that Marcos has no right to complain because his family cheated the people and ravaged the country during the dictatorial rule of the Marcos patriarch. It is almost like saying it is acceptable to cheat as long as it was against the Marcoses. This double standard deals a serious blow to the stability of our institutions.

The strong determination of anti-Marcos forces especially those who laid their lives on the line in the fight against the dictatorship drives the action to block by all means possible the Marcos ascent into the vice-presidency. Early on in the campaign, there was widespread shock and alarm when it became apparent that there was growing support by an uninformed public for the candidacy of Marcos junior. Quickly, the former anti-martial law activists mounted a campaign to educate the public of the horrors of martial law. The message was loud and clear: the Marcos family from the living matriarch down to the children were direct participants and beneficiaries in the historical injustice perpetrated on the Filipino people and must be disenfranchised.

Most of the anti-Marcos campaigners supported the candidacy of Leni Robredo.

The fears of a Marcos resurgence seemed to have been confirmed when Marcos led Robredo by about one million votes in the early hours of unofficial canvassing by the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the organization authorized to publicly release results from the Comelec transparency server.

A collective sigh of relief came from the anti-Marcos groups when overnight Robredo overtook Marcos and took the lead, albeit a tenuous one of just over 200,000 votes. When the other vice-presidential bets conceded defeat, the race was down to Robredo vs. Marcos with the former still in the lead. Leni Robredo’s rally from behind was met with jubilation in many quarters. To her public, it was triumph of good over evil. Marcos is a descendant and beneficiary of his namesake Ferdinand Marcos, martial law dictator whose claim to infamy were massive human rights violations and grand plunder of the country’s wealth. In contrast, Robredo is known as a human rights defender with strong ties to ordinary folk, especially the peasants. Her integrity is unsullied.

Until news of the tampering of computer codes broke.

Marcos was quick to the breach, shouting “cheating!”. His camp even tried a show of force in Luneta, but it fell flat on its face when only a handful loyalists showed up. For its part, Comelec came up with a simple – even simplistic – explanation about substituting the character “?” to “ñ” in the names of candidates in the national canvass. They reassured the public that the change was cosmetic and did not affect the results of the elections.

The issue, however, did not go away as wished by many. In fact, it has become as complicated as it is emotional. It doesn’t help that Comelec does not enjoy a stellar reputation for managing free, honest, credible and peaceful elections. Thus, the official explanation met with a lot of raised eyebrows. Why have Comelec/Smartmatic all of a sudden become so fastidious with spelling that they had to violate protocol to correct it? Why in the middle of canvassing? The timing of the tampering of code was uncanny. Marcos took an early lead of about a million votes but was overtaken by Robredo when the code was changed. Robredo’s lead is tenuous and the contest continues to be too close to call.

It would have been a simple matter of doing a thorough audit of the source code to show that nothing more than the cosmetic change has been done. But, Comelec doesn’t seem to be of a single mind to do such a potentially disruptive process. Robredo supporters are also protective of what they see as victory within reach. Anti-Marcos activists, especially those who directly experienced the excesses and corruption under martial law, strongly oppose the restoration of the Marcoses to the forefront of Philippine politics.

The battle for the vice-presidency has, in the mind of the anti-Marcos groups, become the central battle against Marcos restoration.

This is a false analysis of the situation. The strategic issue of respecting and strengthening our institutions takes primacy over the short-term question of who between Robredo and Marcos should win the vice-presidency. This is important to our life as a people because, at the end of the day, the strength of our institutions will prevent a repeat of a Marcos-style manipulation of the nation’s political structures. The two issues have to be separated. We need to get to the bottom of this breach of the integrity of the electoral process not because we want this or that candidate to win or lose, but because we want our institutions to become strong and resilient. This is beyond Marcos and Robredo. This is about our electoral institution.

The vice-presidential race is not the decisive battle against the restoration of Marcos-style rule. In fact, the issue of a Marcos restoration is also about institutions and seasonal short-term actions. In the 30 years that separated the fall of the Marcos dictatorship and the 2016 vice-presidential elections we have allowed our leaders to forget about the sins of martial law. Beyond the hollow annual EDSA commemorations that celebrated cacique restoration, nothing was done to educate the people of the lessons of that dark period in our history. Government had, by half-hearted and dumb-witted attempts at prosecution allowed the plunderers and torturers to go scot-free and keep their loot which they used to buy their way to public office, there to better do rearguard action. And then, every election season we do our anti-Marcos ritual dance to the music of those who stand to gain most from the exercise. The institution of justice was left to atrophy, useful only to elite and cacique machinations.

This type of shortsightedness and blindness to manipulation has got to stop. We have to work to reform and strengthen our institutions as a long-term strategy to nation-building. This opportunity is presented to us by the current crisis of credibility in the vice-presidential elections.

As a first step, we must move to investigate thoroughly this attack on the electoral process. Let the axe fall where it may and institute far-reaching and thorough-going reforms in the system to ensure that it becomes as fool-proof as can be. This is the all-important task that needs to be done, and done quick.

The following actions have to start the day after the President, Vice-President and Senators have been sworn to office:

  1. The President to constitute an independent multi-sectoral commission comprised of persons of proven integrity and independence and who are leaders in their own field to investigate the breach of protocol, audit the source code to establish once and for whether the integrity of elections has not been compromised.
  2. The independent commission to make recommendations to ensure integrity of the automated election system and prevent any similar breaches in the future.
  3. On the basis of the independent commission’s report, for Congress to undertake impeachment proceedings against culpable Comelec Commissioners and for government to prosecute erring personnel to clean up the electoral body.

All freedom-loving Filipinos should exert pressure and watch over the investigation to ensure its probity.

The 2016 elections have unleashed new energy for change among the people. This might be the opportune moment. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Romulo “Billy” dela Rosa is a long-time social development activist who worked with international development organizations in the past decade. Currently residing in Davao City, he spent his formative years in Mindanao and had tasted life in the Marcos prisons during martial law. He obtained his master’s degree from the University of Buckingham in England)