Electoral reforms start grinding

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

It is rather unfortunate that the proposed re-setting of the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) elections was immediately shot down before it can be discussed. Outgoing Davao City Mayor and now President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has reportedly rejected the proposal outright. The incoming President noted such postponement of the scheduled elections this October will naturally result to extension in office of the incumbent barangay officials until the reset elections take place.

“The law says that when you end there, you end there,” Duterte was quoted saying why he objects to the proposal to postpone the forthcoming barangay elections. Of course, under our country’s laws, it clearly stated, among other things, all elected officials down to the barangay level, must only serve a fixed term of office.

Therefore, there is a need for Congress to pass a law to make sure that any postponement of barangay elections will make it legal for the incumbent officials to stay in office. This is to ensure that there will be no disruption of public service. Until such time the new ones succeeding them are duly elected and sworn into office to take over, the term of office of incumbent barangay officials will be automatically extended as officers-in-charge (OIC).

The proposal was actually first raised by Commission on Elections (Comelec) chairman Andres Bautista who intentionally sounded out the incoming Duterte administration on the need to consider the postponement of the barangay and SK elections. Bautista made the off-the-cuff proposal during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay last week at Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle in Malate.

Bautista invoked as main reason “election fatigue” in calling for a postponement of the barangay and SK elections. Given the proximity of the just concluded May 9 national and local elections, Bautista said the entire Filipino people and not only the Comelec went through a divisive and hotly contested political exercise.

By holding again electoral contests later this year, it will be another political undertaking, not to mention the cost of P3 to P4 billion of election expenses needed to carry out the elections in more than 42,000 barangays nationwide.

Unlike the national and local elections that used voter counting machines, Bautista said, the country will again be using manual elections in the conduct of barangay and SK elections. And this will entail another re-training of the board of elections (BEIs) going back to manual system.

As a further refinement of his proposed postponement of barangay and SK elections, Bautista suggested to re-set and synchronized them with the selection of delegates for the Constitutional Convention (ConCon) that President-elect Duterte plans to conduct on his administration’s centerpiece agenda to shift to federalism form of government.

In a radio interview yesterday, Bautista said the twin polls should be held simultaneous with the elections of ConCon members to make them cost-effective. By historical basis, Bautista pointed out voter’s turn-out in barangay and SK polls is usually low but it cost taxpayers that much.

Historically also, there is nothing new in the proposed postponement of barangay elections because we had had them before and the same practice of incumbents being in OIC capacity was followed. Duterte himself once served as OIC Vice Mayor a few months after late President Corazon Aquino was swept into office at the end of the 1986 February EDSA People Power Revolution.

While the incoming President expressed he is against the proposal, there is nothing that stops any elected members of the new Congress to initiate and start the national debate on postponement of the barangay elections.

It goes without saying the proposed postponement of barangay elections will have to be debated in the 17th Congress even if the incoming Duterte administration has reportedly mustered already the majority at the House of Representatives. Through Duterte’s newly elected allies led by Davao del Norte Rep. Pantaleon “Sonny” Alvarez, the PDP-Laban stalwarts have bandied about wrestling the leadership in the 17th Congress from incumbent Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. of the Liberal Party (LP).

Any proposed postponement of the barangay elections must emanate from the House of Representatives as a local bill. If indeed Alvarez has already secured the majority, it is still no guarantee they could stop the initiatives to postpone the scheduled barangay elections. However, with the imprimatur from the new Chief Executive, the incoming House leadership can stall and effectively kill the proposal once submitted to Congress.

But the Comelec chief is realistic enough to prepare already for the October schedule of the barangay and SK elections if there is no presidential support to this initiative.

By all comparison, Bautista believed the seven-man Comelec did “a very good job” in the conduct of the latest synchronized elections for President, Vice President, Senators and Congressmen and local officials. The Comelec chief cited no less than the foreign observers who monitored the conduct of the last May 9 elections credited the poll body for being able to carry out honest and credible elections and with much reduced election-related violence that otherwise marked the past elections in our country.

Marred by electronic cheating during our third automated elections, the Comelec chief underscored the need to update and amend for this purpose the existing automated election law in the country to make it synch with the latest technology of elections we have been using since 2010.

Thus, more important than the proposed resetting of the barangay and SK elections, Bautista cited also the imperative for the 17th Congress to start the ball rolling on electoral reforms and other proposed amendments to the 1985 Omnibus Election Code, or Batas Pambansa Bilang 881.

Offhand, one of the suggested electoral reforms that the Comelec chief believes will improve our system is to desynchronize the national and local elections. This early, Bautista should start scouting for lawmakers in the 17th Congress to champion the cause of Comelec for electoral reforms bill.

* * *

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. is our featured guest in today’s Kapihan sa Manila Bay at Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle in Malate.

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