Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Charter Sabotaged

At Large : Subverting the Constitution

Rina Jimenez-David
Inquirer News Service

IT'S really a shame -- no, a scandal -- that the best instincts for political and social reform that the framers of the 1987 Constitution brought to the creation of our basic law should have been twisted, mangled and corrupted by the very people sworn to uphold it.

The three-part Special Report by Jerry Esplanada, on election irregularities in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), specifically on the dubious conduct and counting of the votes for party-list groups, illustrates how national and local politicians, with the connivance of election officials, have twisted to their own advantage innovations in the Constitution that were meant to set our political system on the road to reform.

Ironically, one of the sources Esplanada relied on for this exposé was the "man of the hour," former Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, now being sought for his testimony on alleged election irregularities in Mindanao, as captured in his phone-tapped conversations with, to use lawyerly language, "a person who sounds remarkably like President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo."

Unaware perhaps just how notorious he would become in the next few months, Garcillano told Esplanada that election anomalies take place in Mindanao "either because of money or pressure from politicians." On hindsight, the phrase can be construed as either a bland admission of guilt or at least complicity, or a symptom of system-wide rot, with payoffs and influence-peddling shrugged off as "part of the game."

Garcillano could at least be credited with honesty (or perhaps frankness would be the better term) in his explanation of several "puzzling" electoral results. More frank, at least, than Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Benjamin Abalos who these days seems content to pin the blame for all of the poll body's ills and sins on the "missing in action" Garcillano.

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ONE of the more promising areas for political reform in the 1987 Constitution was the provision on the party-list system, which would open up membership in the House of Representatives to representatives of marginalized and underrepresented sectors. Under this provision, and as provided for in the party-list law, 20 percent of all seats in the House would be reserved for party-list representatives, who would be representing not themselves or a specific district, but rather their sector or multi-sector parties. As set forth in a recent Supreme Court decision, parties need to prove to the Comelec that they truly represent and are composed of marginalized and underrepresented sectors, some of which were specified in the Constitution.

Since the 1998 elections, party-list groups have come nowhere near the 50 or so seats to which they're entitled. One reason for this was that more than 100 accredited party-list groups were required to fight it out for a very small "universe" of voters, since only a few were aware of the party-list system.

Another reason was suggested in the special report, where Garcillano bemoans the "laxity" of the Comelec in accrediting party-list groups that were obviously unqualified under the Supreme Court's criteria. The so-called "Mindanao expert" of the Comelec also said politicians and political parties had been funding the campaigns of party-list groups, if not creating party-list groups of their own.

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SO EVEN as they talked through one side of their mouths, piously declaring their support for the struggling genuine party-list groups and hailing the system as a promising innovation in politics, politicians were busy subverting the same system, taking advantage of the party-list potential for creating an even wider base of influence and power.

Given the "experimental" nature of the party-list system and the relative inexperience in electoral matters of the groups that chose to participate, one would have hoped the Comelec took a more pro-active stance in protecting party-list groups from being corrupted or co-opted, at least not this soon.

The Comelec, for one, was awfully remiss in educating the public about the party-list system, how to choose the parties, and even what these party-list groups were. Comelec officials were also amazingly cavalier about the counting of party-list votes, setting these aside for counting "later," after the votes for local and national posts were posted. Indeed, the final results of party-list contests in ARMM areas have yet to be determined, with the Comelec failing to act on several petitions regarding shocking "statistical anomalies" in the results. Even Garcillano expressed shock at the brazen cheating, with more votes for party-list groups counted than there were registered voters in these provinces.

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ONE party-list nominee was told point-blank by a local Comelec official that if she wanted her party and herself to make it to the Congress, she would need to pay several millions for the number of votes she needed.

This then would make a plausible explanation for the "anomaly." With deals made left and right, somebody forgot to tally up the number of votes that had been padded onto the lists, thus the "excess."

Given that the Comelec has yet to embark on a serious investigation and formal hearing of the cases filed regarding the statistical wonders of the ARMM voting results, I can only wish it the best in the conduct of the ongoing elections for ARMM officials. I seriously doubt if ARMM residents would lend any credence to the results, given that they have first-hand experience with manufactured elections.

Before any move is made to amend the Constitution—which we have yet to fully implement, by the way -- let's start by cleaning up the electoral system, and making sure that the real will of the people is expressed and obeyed.