Who’s speaking for the Comelec?
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - February 15, 2019 - 12:00am

The official campaign period was off to a good start last Tuesday as far as the Commission on Elections (Comelec) chaired by Sheriff Abas saw it. Noticeably, the Abas Comelec found no need to fully engage media for any information campaign before the kick off of the national campaign for all senatorial and party-list group candidates.

It would seem a walk-in-the-park for the Comelec, especially now that it is conducting for the fourth time the Smartmatic automated election system in the coming May 13 mid-term elections. In fact, the seven-man poll body was confidently laid back watching from the comfort of their respective air-conditioned offices at the Comelec headquarters in Intramuros, Manila while the campaign circus rolled out in various parts of the country.

They left this media job for the poll body to the indefatigable Comelec official spokesperson James Jimenez. A very grateful Jimenez could only be thankful for the trust and confidence of his seven immediate superiors to act as the voice and the face of the Comelec.

Along with veteran election lawyer George Garcia, Jimenez attended my weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay breakfast forum at Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle, Malate last Wednesday. Or this was a day after all political machineries rolled out their respective national campaign vehicles. With his heavily bearded face, we teased Jimenez as fitting the profile of a typical Muslim more than Abas is.

Jimenez was only too quick in defending his Comelec superiors led by Abas, citing it was a unanimous decision by the Comelec en banc “to speak with one voice” as the better mode for the poll body.

Unlike his media-savvy predecessor, Abas apparently opts to lead the Comelec in low-key manner.

 Without going into details, Jimenez was obviously referring to those days when Comelec commissioners locked horns against each other behind closed-door sessions and at times reported in media. But from leaked sources of information apparently from within the poll body, those bitter debates and personality clashes during Comelec en banc sessions were reported in media.

At 39 years old, Abas is the youngest to become Comelec chairman. He is also distinguished as the first Comelec chief to hail from Mindanao, like President Rodrigo Duterte. A nephew of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, the country’s first-ever Muslim elections chief will serve until Feb. 2, 2022.

Abas was a sitting Comelec commissioner when he was appointed by President Duterte to succeed former Comelec chairman Andres Bautista who cut short his term over family dispute and resigned in October 2017. Abas and Bautista were first appointed, as commissioner and chairman respectively, on April 28, 2015 by then-president Benigno Simeon “PNoy” Aquino III. Abas is serving the unexpired seven-year term of Bautista.

As the incumbent Comelec chairman, Abas passed with flying colors having led a generally peaceful and orderly conduct of two plebiscites on the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). The two plebiscites were held one after the other under the supervision of the Comelec in the areas proposed to be included in the BOL.

Yesterday, the Comelec officially proclaimed the inclusion of 63 barangays of North Cotabato to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) after the holding of the second plebiscite last Feb. 6. Only the province of Sulu and the city of Isabela in Basilan rejected their inclusion in the BARMM during the first plebiscite on the BOL held on Jan. 21.

The creation of the BARMM is partly an implementation of the government’s peace agreement with the MILF entered into during the PNoy administration. The BARMM will supplant the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) that was created in compliance to the previous government’s 1996 peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Although the voting and counting were done manually, the results of the two Comelec-supervised plebiscites apparently satisfied all parties concerned. As of this writing, there is no official complaint filed yet before the poll body of any alleged cheating or vote-buying except for those verbal claims of anti-BOL groups and politicians who opposed the inclusion of their provinces in the BARMM.

While the Abas-led Comelec could indeed be credited for the successful conduct of the two BOL plebiscites, the national and local mid-term elections this coming May, of course, are far larger in scale. Jimenez conceded the Comelec is “not a super body” that can address each and every concern of candidates and voters as well while coping with the new challenges that will crop up.

Jimenez cited the Comelec is currently busy attending to public complaints against illegal campaign posters by certain senatorial and party-list candidates. Incidentally, he warned, the Comelec started already its own campaign to go after violators of the campaign poster rules and regulations.

In fact, Comelec commissioner Rowena Guanzon announced over the radio yesterday at least 34 of the 62 senatorial candidates were issued with notices of poster violations. This is the three-day notice given by Comelec within which they would voluntarily remove their respective illegal campaign posters wherever they may be. The three-day notice ends today.

Guanzon named some of them, saying she personally know some of them but that does not stop her to send them warning and make them public. She named former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, former Deputy Speaker Erin Tañada and re-electionist Senators Bam Aquino and Sonny Angara as among the candidates who reportedly violated the Fair Elections Act due to their illegal posters.

Speaking in Visayan dialect, Guanzon warned: “Yaw-yaw ko kayo dyan lahat.” Rough translation: “I will berate you all.” Guanzon invoked her being the designated head of the Comelec’s voters’ education committee. A former mayor, Guanzon has been making herself visible and audible to the media for the past two days.

At least, somebody has the balls to speak up boldly for the Comelec.

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