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Vargas bid signals clamor for change

Ricky Vargas

MANILA, Philippines – A growing disenchantment over the leadership in Philippine sports has led ABAP president Ricky Vargas to enter the race for the POC presidency but there is concern that the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), formed to oversee the Nov. 25 polls, may disqualify his candidacy and deprive the voting body of an alternative to reelectionist Jose Cojuangco, Jr. who is seeking a fourth term since assuming the position in 2004.

The clamor for change reached a crescendo after Rodrigo Duterte was swept to the presidency of the republic in a landslide victory last May. Vargas wouldn’t have stepped up to the plate if not for the country’s dismal performance in international sporting events highlighted by a seventh place finish at the 2013 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and a drop in the gold medal output at the Asian Games from four in 2006 to three in 2010 and to one in 2014. A silver medal in women’s weightlifting at the recent Rio Olympics failed to douse cold water on the clamor.

For the coming elections, the COMELEC was organized by POC secretary-general Steve Hontiveros. It is made up of retired IOC member Francisco Elizalde as chairman and Rep. Conrad Estrella and De La Salle Zobel president Br. Bernard Oca as members. The COMELEC set a deadline of 12 noon today for the submission of official letters of candidacy. A POC member may file an objection to the candidacy of any aspirant up to Nov. 2. A secret balloting will be conducted to elect the chairman, president, first vice president, second vice president, treasurer, auditor and four executive board members to a four-year term.

The COMELEC recently issued a memorandum reminding prospective candidates that under Section 11, Article VII of the POC Constitution and By-Laws, the chairman and president must show at least four years of experience as an NSA president of an Olympic sport and at least two consecutive years of active participation as members of the POC General Assembly. Supporters of Cojuangco insist that the measure of active participation in the General Assembly is physical presence during the meetings to be determined by the minutes of the roll calls with at least 50 percent plus one attendance. If the COMELEC rules to back that interpretation, Vargas’ candidacy will be in peril as because of scheduling issues, ABAP rotated its representation in the General Assembly with Vargas himself, secretary-general Patrick Gregorio, executive director Ed Picson or head boxing coach Pat Gaspi.

But lawyer and former PBA commissioner Chito Salud said yesterday the issue of active participation in the General Assembly is not grounds to disqualify Vargas regardless of physical presence. “The POC rules are clear,” said Salud. “A member of the POC as defined under its By-Laws is the NSA itself, not its designated representative officer. The COMELEC must therefore look into and ascertain the activity or inactivity of the NSA concerned before it makes a determination (of active participation). Such determination must be based on a clear set of criteria in assessing NSA performance. It cannot be arbitrary or whimsical. In the same manner, the eligibility of a candidate must be determined on the basis of definite guidelines. To limit the measure of a candidate’s activity solely to attendance and physical presence at the POC General Assembly would be inadequate.”

Salud said deciding on a candidate’s eligibility is solely for the COMELEC to resolve in case a question arises. “It is not a matter for anyone of the POC’s officers to prejudge,” he added.

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Sen. Sonny Angara also commented that “active participation is evidenced by deliberate presence at the meetings whether personally or through representatives which shows a conscious effort to follow and be involved in the affairs of the group.”

Former Rep. Robbie Puno said the interpretation of physical presence to mean active participation does not make sense. “When Putin sent Medvedev to sit beside President Duterte during the ASEAN Summit, did Russia participate in that meeting or not?” he said. “It did. Russia was at that meeting, represented by Medvedev. Clearly, this POC interpretation of ‘active participation’ is intended to keep potential candidates from challenging the incumbent.”

Rep. Mikee Romero, chairman of the Subcommittee on Sports in the House, said “let’s make democracy roll and let the NSAs decide on what group to elect.” Romero said the fate of Philippine sports is at stake in the coming POC polls and called on the country’s sports vanguards to come to the rescue. “Our beloved country is now lagging at No. 6 in the SEA Games (2015) and we likewise have a fastly deteriorating sports program,” he said. “We are fighting for the survival of Philippine sports.”

For the COMELEC to disqualify a candidate on the interpretation of physical presence in attending POC General Assembly meetings would be a travesty and an intervention of the democratic process to allow voters the freedom of choice, said an NSA sports official. “If you’re happy with the state of Philippine sports, then vote for the incumbent but if you’re not, what is your choice?” he said.

Vargas, 64, said he took on the challenge to initiate change because “the clamor is too intense for me to ignore.” “I accept the challenge to lead the call for change as asked of me by sports leaders,” he said. “I know it is not an easy task to go up against the entrenched powers that be.” Cojuangco, 82, is seeking a fourth straight four-year term as POC president.


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