The real play

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Now entering into his fourth year in office, President Rodrigo Duterte is off again to another of his most favorite device to help guide his governance. As he has repeatedly revealed in his speeches, President Duterte admits to his style to shake the tree, so to speak, to generate debate so he can get the sense of the most popular public opinion.

To shake (one’s) tree is an idiomatic expression that means to provoke or compel one into taking some sort of action or reform.

The tree that President Duterte is currently shaking is the Commission on Elections (Comelec). And apparently, the President’s object in shaking the tree of the Comelec is for the poll body to drop Smartmatic as its contractor of our country’s automated election system (AES).

The President’s call came almost three weeks after the Comelec conducted midterm elections last May 13 when they used anew the optical mark reader (OMR) technology provided by Smartmatic for the conduct of the AES in our country. The Chief Executive particularly expressed his extreme disappointment over the high incidence of reported malfunction of Smartmatic’s vote counting machines (VCMs) in the latest elections.

The just concluded AES is actually the fourth we had in our country. So it should have been less problematic for the Comelec since Smartmatic has the same technology provider used in the past three other elections. No less than the former Davao City Mayor won the May 2016 presidential elections.

 The latest problems were largely due to the 961 VCMs – the same ones used in the previous May 2016 presidential elections – that conked out. These came from the same VCMs leased from the Smartmatic in the May 2016 polls.

Further, a total of 1,665 secured digital cards, or SD cards, purchased by the Comelec from another supplier turned out to be defective units. What made matters worse was the almost seven hours long that the transparency server of the Comelec, supposed to transmit election results to election watchdogs and media, bogged down for still suspicious technical glitch.  

While in official trip to Japan last week, President Duterte issued this call in his off-the-cuff remarks addressed to the seven-man Comelec. Speaking in his usual extemporaneous remarks before overseas Filipino workers in Tokyo, the President obviously was careful in his choice of words when he called out the Comelec. Himself a lawyer and once a lawmaker, the former Davao City Mayor acknowledged that he cannot dictate nor impose his will upon an independent constitutional body such as the Comelec.

Under Section 1, Article IX (A) of the country’s 1987 Constitution, it explicitly states: “The Constitutional Commissions, which shall be independent, are the Civil Service Commission, the Commission on Elections, and the Commission on Audit.” While the President appoints the seven commissioners, including the chairman of the Comelec, they are also among the officials of constitutional bodies who can only be removed from office through impeachment proceedings in Congress.

Take note how the President obviously couched his words to shield him from being accused of intruding into the independence of the Comelec. “I will tell the Comelec, do not use that mechanism again,” President Duterte said. “I would like to advise Comelec now, I won’t wait for it (SONA) anymore: dispose of that Smartmatic and look for a new one that is free of fraud,” he added. The President was apparently referring to his traditional state of the nation address (SONA) at the joint opening sessions of the incoming 18th Congress.

At every SONA, the Chief Executive spells out his legislative priority agenda to the members of Congress. While there maybe a lot of questions and complaints over the glitches-marred midterm elections, majority of the candidates of President Duterte’s ruling administration party PDP-Laban routed their rivals in the Senate race as well as in congressional contests across the country.

Veteran election lawyer George Garcia earlier made a very sensible proposal to remove the quasi-judicial powers of the Comelec and just make the poll body the chief administrator of our country’s elections. Garcia pointed out the Comelec could not be expected to rule on alleged fraud in election protests where they can be implicated as a party at fault.

Already, a number of election protests were filed at the Comelec. To date, however, the Comelec always cite none of past election protest was due to VCM fraud. 

But there is still a live case at the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) involving the questioned results of the 2016 vice presidential contest.

Incidentally, the joint congressional oversight committee on the automated elections system is scheduled tomorrow to conduct a public hearing to look into these reported glitches aside from the reported rampant vote buying that marred the midterm elections.

Also in Japan, veteran journalist Ramon Tulfo revealed in his column last Saturday at The Manila Times that he joined the trip of President Duterte. The President supposedly intimated to him his purported desire to make a final push on federalism by way of amending the country’s 1987 Constitution. Known to be a very close friend of President Duterte, Tulfo was recently reappointed as his public diplomacy ambassador to China.

According to Tulfo, the President told him he has been pushing both the Senate and the House of Representatives to pass a law providing for a constitutional convention to amend the present Charter. Under Duterte’s proposed federalism, Tulfo disclosed, each region in the Philippines would be autonomous with a central governing authority to be headed by the president or prime minister. Under the same set-up, Tulfo added, there would be a unicameral legislature which will effectively abolish the Senate. 

The President’s having most of his endorsed senatorial bets winning the last elections may likely remove the possible obstacle to scrapping the Senate. If indeed that’s the real play.



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