MINDAVIEWS: Comment: Mixed Comelec signals

Confronted by media reports and opposition protests, the Commission sitting en banc as the National Board of Canvassers suspended the canvassing of the Maguindanao CoC (Certificate of Canvass) showing a TU 12-0 sweep with 19 candidates, including Sen. Panfilo Lacson, getting zero vote from all 12 municipalities – a clear statistical improbability.

Good move! And fair, too! The Commission required Maguindanao Election Supervisor Lintang Bedol, PBoC chairman, to present the municipal CoCs to authenticate the apparent statistical improbability in the provincial CoC. To immediately set aside the questioned CoC—as the Genuine Opposition wanted done – was to summarily disenfranchise the voters.

No Show

Bedol did not show up. The Commission ordered the municipal election officers to submit their copies of the municipal CoC for the re-canvass of the Maguindanao senatorial votes by a special board of canvassers. No municipal election officers showed up. The Commission also ordered all Maguindanao local officials-elect to appear before it to show that there was election in the province. Again, no one of the already proclaimed provincial and municipal officials showed up.

When Bedol finally showed up before the NBoC after having been threatened with arrest, he did not have with him the municipal CoCs. They were stolen from his office in the afternoon of May 29 – all ready to be submitted to the NBCoC on May 30, he told the Commission.

All these were gross insubordination and disrespect. But except for strong warnings in the media, the Commission appeared helpless.

Exhausting Remedies

By all indications, the Commission was exhausting all means to have the suspended provincial CoCs proven authentic while GO and critics from media wanted it set aside for good. What the Commission liked to ascertain was whether there was a failure of election.

Last June 20, Commission Chairman Benjamin Abalos and Commissioners Rene Sarmiento and Nicodemo Ferrer, in a fact-finding mission, came to General Santos City to hear the 22 Maguindanao municipal election officers. Lawyers from both the TU and GO questioned them. They submitted the second and fourth copies of the municipal certificates of canvass.

Ferrer, the head of Task Force Maguindanao, said the municipal CoCs appeared genuine. He said: “There is no basis for the claim that they were manufactured. They were carefully stocked and padlocked. I kept them and will turn them over to the en banc.” (INQUIRER.net, June 22)

He clarified, however, that receiving the municipal CoCs did not mean that there was nothing amiss with the Maguindanao election. There might be. “Actually, that’s the very reason why we have to go [to General Santos] …. to find out what went wrong. If you try to find out what went wrong, that in itself is an admission that you smell something.” (INQUIRER.net, June 23)

That the task force has found the municipal CoCs authentic does not bind the special provincial board of canvassers which, instead, has to find out how authentic they are. It could hire handwriting experts to study the signatures and other entries in any questioned CoC, Ferrer said.

The re-canvass by the special board of canvassers started in Sharif Aguak, the capital town of Maguindanao yesterday, Monday. Contrary to Ferrer’s assurance, the opposition lawyers were not allowed to question the election officers and Bedol or the integrity of the CoCs. They were told to do the questioning before the National Board of Canvassers.

Questions

Why hold the re-canvass in Sharif Aguak? In raising the question, the GO lawyers’s big concern was security. They have a good point: If the task force conducted its hearing in General Santos City because of security, why can’t the re-canvass be in Manila or General Santos City for the same reason? There the election officers can be more free to answer questions.

There is a standing Comelec resolution not allowing the transfer of canvassing from the provinces to Manila. Can exception not be given to an exceptional case? Does the resolution also prohibit the transfer of the Maguindanao canvassing to General Santos City?

Questioned was the authenticity of the provincial CoC, not whether there was an election. When Bedol and the municipal election officers failed to submit copies of the municipal CoCs, why did the Commission not use its own copies for the re-canvass? Under the Omnibus Election Code, as inferred in Section 213(2), the second copy goes to the Commission.

Bedol did not submit the municipal CoCs with the provincial CoC on May 25; neither did he do it on May 30. The municipal election officers failed to do the same on June 11. Could this not put in doubt the existence of the CoCs? Could it not be suspected that the copies given to the task force last June 20 were manufactured?

The TU and the GO were not given authentic copies of the municipal CoCs on Election Day as required by law. Neither did the Namfrel (National Movement for Free Election) receive a copy for its quick count. There is no way for GO to cross-check the figures and signatures in the CoCs to be used in the re-canvass.

These questions are now water under the bridge. However, have the opposition and media critics the ground to suspect that the Commission intends to railroad the Maguindanao re-canvass to favor Zubiri? The summary nature of the re-canvass at Sharif Aguak has given them more ground to suspect “railroading”.

Saving Grace

GO candidate Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel, desperate to keep his twelfth place, has petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the Maguindanao re-canvass. The case will be heard today, June 26. This can be a saving grace for the Commission.

Pimentel’s main argument for stopping the re-canvass must be that the votes were fabricated. If the Court is convinced, it will stop the re-canvass; if not it will allow it. By deferring to the Court, the Commission can erase all suspicions about its intentions.

But by all indication, the Commission is not deferring to the Court. The re-canvass of the municipal CoCs is already in progress. By its summary procedure, it may be finished before the Court could hear all sides and decide.

Two things can happen after the Court has heard all parties today. It may restrain the canvassing and hear the case on merits or dismiss the case outright. If the first, it may be too late to restrain the provincial re-canvassing; but there may be time to stop the national canvassing – unless the Commission will be able to outrace the Court.

Should the Court be able to restrain the national canvassing, neither Pimentel nor Zubiri could join the eleven earlier proclaimed. It will take a little more time for the Court to hear the case on merits.

Whether Pimentel or Zubiri eventually wins, the Court will extricate the Commission from some consequences of its mixed signals.

But it appears that, like Bedol daring the Commission to sue him, the Commission is resolved to finish the national canvass this week in time for the installation of the winning twelfth candidate – who is most likely to be Zubiri – on Saturday. (“Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Titus Brandsma for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You may e-mail your comments to patpdiaz@mindanews.com)

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