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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Why the fraud in the barangay elections?

Makati Regional Trial Court Judge Oscar Pimentel obviously caved in to political pressure and chose not to rule on the guilt or innocence of Sen. Antonio Trillanes and a few others involved in the Oakwood mutiny of July 2003. Last Thursday he was expected to hand down his decision on the case that had been pending in his sala for the last seven years; but instead, his office announced that day that he was deferring to the request from various quarters, including some senators, that he postpone his decision in view of Congress’ expected majority concurrence to the President’s Proclamation No. 50, that granted amnesty to Trillanes and his fellow rebels.

Consequences of Pimentel deferment

This case had attracted so much attention, and comments both for and against amnesty had been made since President Noynoy quite suddenly issued his proclamation two months ago. While some politicians eager to please P-Noy asked Pimentel to defer his ruling out of respect daw for the President’s proclamation, there were others who felt the Judge ought to go ahead and let Congress’ concurrence come later. Weighing in along this argument were some justice officials, led by State Prosecutor Juan Pedro Navera, as well as a number of legal luminaries, columnists and bloggers, who felt that the justice system would be adversely affected if Pimentel were to defer his ruling. The state prosecutors, who had built up a voluminous case against Trillanes et al, especially worried about the witness protection program by the sudden amnesty offer.

Pimentel's decision

At first Pimentel was quoted as saying he would go ahead with his decision, but last Thursday he changed his mind and said he would postpone it to this coming December. But such decision would be quite meaningless already as possibly by early next week, both chambers of Congress would have already voted concurrence to the presidential proclamation. What made the judge change his mind? Perhaps he was convinced by some senators to be more prudent and reasonable. It has been noted that he is retiring this January and his stubbornness in the Trillanes ruling could jeopardize his retirement pay. It would have been incredible if Pimentel had stood up to pressure from the politicians and announced his decision on the rebellion case as scheduled last Thursday. His failure disappointed many followers who were looking for heroes, but it’s quite understandable from the practical standpoint.

Horrifying experience for citizens

Watching the close of the barangay elections earlier this week on TV in various places in the country was a horrifying experience for us citizens, as we saw army tanks rolled out and battalions of soldiers deployed to prevent warlord terrorism in sensitive areas. There was a lot of ballot-snatching, vote-buying, voter-indimidation and all the other dirty practices that we used to see only in big-time election fraud and violence.

But to me the most grievous failing in the barangay elections stemmed from the apparent collusion, as reported by media, between employees of the National Printing Office and the Comelec, who wanted to cash in on the huge budget for delivery of the ballots, which was supposed to have been farmed out to private contractors. Some employees in both offices apparently delayed the printing as well as the preparation of the ballots for delivery, so that they could undertake it themselves. This resulted in the delays in delivery, and therefore failure of elections in at least five percent of barangays around the country. This is the most unconscionable act and it indicates how deep the corruption has seeped into these bureaucratic agencies.

Should the Comelec undertake an investigation?

The problem is that Comelec, after apologizing for the voting delays in some areas and for the utter confusion and disarray of preparations in many places, has said that it’s instigating an investigation of what went wrong in the last elections. But as some House leaders have pointed out, the Comelec should not undertake the investigation since it’s obvious that the manipulations were done within that poll body. How can it investigate itself creditably?

During the House hearings on the automated elections of last May, former Rep. Teddyboy Locsin said in his committee report that the Comelec has become so discredited due to the rampant corruption in its ranks. With the automation the corruption only aggravated, so much so that he refused to endorse it again unless a thorough clean-up of Comelec could be undertaken. The Center for People Empowerment in Governance (Cenpeg), a non-profit organization composed of some of the leading IT experts in the country, has analyzed our recent automated elections and came up with a serious point-by-point indictment of that system. Interestingly, Smartmatic now faces a suit for the failings of its system (more in later blogs).

Where do we begin for clean elections?

The question is, how does this country go about producing a poll agency that’s clean and corruption-free? Where do we begin? How do we send people to jail for acts of corruption big and small within Comelec?

Comelec officials were quoted as satisfied that despite the fact that 5 percent of the barangays in the country had failed to vote, elections took place in the 95 percent. But the Comelec doesn’t state whether the results were fraud-free and truly reflective of the will of the people. Judging from various complaints aired over radio-TV, in many instances they were marred by irregularities.

Why the fight over barangay elections?

The question the citizenry asked as instances of fraud and violence unfolded during the barangay elections was, why the big fight over barangay elections? We have been accustomed to fraud and violence in the big local and national contests over the years, but in the barangays? What’s to be gained from them.

I posed this same question to a keen observer of local politics and he answered, plenty, apart from the salaries these basic local officials now earn. The barangay chair and his/her kagawads, explained this pundit, are the foot soldiers of the mayors and representatives, their local machinery; without them the big players’ victory cannot be assured, which is also why the barangay elections have been infected with money politics.

"Not the sharpest tool in the shed"

A columnist of Star, who was quite involved in the campaign of candidate P-Noy, said of Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, who’s currently embroiled in a plagiarism controversy, that the jurist had the reputation of “not being the sharpest tool in the shed,” and that he begged former President Macapagal Arroyo to appoint him to the SC. In the first place, Del Castillo was nominated, presumably with three or four other candidates to the SC vacancy in 2009 by the Judicial & Bar Council. Even if he had begged and begged GMA, if he wasn’t in the JBC’s short list, it would have come to naught.

Zero backlog for Del Castillo

I checked out Del Castillo’s record in the Court of Appeals where he served from 2001 up to his SC appointment, and I note that he was outstanding for zero backlog. In 2005 he was adjudged the Best Performing CA Justice for 2004 and he received the Justice George A. Malcom Award from the Rotary Club of Manila, arguably the Rotary’s best chapter (which also gives annual prestige awards in journalism). In 2007, Del Castillo received the Presiding Justice Award in the CA for “Out standing Performance.”

It’s truly sad that this lapse in his otherwise sterling court record comes at a time in his life in the High Court when every Justice looks forward to his or her own legacy. But in my book, and in that of many others, what absolves this kind man who has suffered so much in his personal life is the absence of malice in his heart. Perhaps he became a bit careless in that decision for which he’s now paying his dues; but there is no malice in him, which cannot be said of some of those working feverishly for his ouster.

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