Vested interests at play
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - September 30, 2020 - 12:00am

From all angles, we have seen the continuing effects of the coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19 pandemic in every facet of our lives in the Philippines and the rest of the world. In the particular situation of Filipinos, the COVID-19 contagion has lately raised fears and concerns at this early on its impact on our next presidential elections coming in May, 2022 yet.

Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel “Mikey” Arroyo echoed this concern on the holding of 2022 elections if the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is still not contained before that period. Top officials of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) during deliberations last week by the House committee on appropriations on the proposed 2021 budget of the poll body, Rep. Arroyo pointedly asked them of contingency plans, if any, on how to conduct the upcoming elections under COVID-19 pandemic situation.

So we ask the same question to Comelec? Are you prepared? It was not a stupid question. Methinks, it was a valid query. Our country is holding its third round of automated elections in less than 21 months from now. Up to present, the Comelec’s vote counting machines remain under the clouds of allegations and suspicions of being susceptible to the so-called electronic cheating.

With the advent of COVID-19 pandemic, it gave rise to the contact-less activities and transactions through digital and online system as one of the chief means to prevent local transmission of the virus. But in the case of Comelec system, it is both a combination of manual and machine. As we have done in the past automated elections, we will still have to line up and sit in makeshift Comelec booths using folders. Then ballots are cast on machines that will electronically count them at the end of the polling day.

But instead of picking up this concern, administration critics jumped to spinning conspiracy theories of supposed “no-el” plot based from a very clear question of Rep. Arroyo. Because he is the son of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, his mother’s most bitter detractors ganged up on him with all sorts of accusations as supposedly pushing the “no election” (no-el) plot.

The Arroyo’s are staunch allies of President Rodrigo Duterte. On her third and last term in Congress, Mrs.Arroyo joined President Duterte’s PDP-Laban and subsequently was elected as Speaker of the House during the 17th Congress. Making a comeback to politics, the younger Arroyo is back on his first term in the 18th Congress, representing the Lubao, Pampanga district of his mother but still under Lakas-CMD.

In a press conference last Monday, Comelec chairman Sheriff Abas admitted it is difficult to rule out possible postponement of polls. Even in the country’s 1987 Constitution, Abas noted, it sets election on the second Monday of May in an election year “unless otherwise provided by law.” And such law, Abas pointed out, is up to Congress. Thus, the  Comelec chief underscored, making a decision on whether or not the elections should push through is beyond their mandate.

Speaking of mandate, former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales questioned the validity and legality of a memorandum order issued by her immediate successor as a clear violation of the mandate of a constitutional body like the Office of the Ombudsman. This is on the memo issued by Ombudsman Samuel Martires that bans access to public officials’ Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).

From out of the blue, Martires issued on Sept. 1 a memo added more restrictions that effectively prevent public’s access to SALNs. These new restrictions are over and above existing requirements that the public, including media. The most ridiculous new restriction of Martires is requesting party must first secure the consent of the public official who owns the SALN, among other new conditions, before the SALN request can be granted by his office.

“It (Martires’ memo) goes against the Constitutional principle that the public office is a public trust,” Morales declared. In an ANC interview last week, the erstwhile Ombudsman sternly reminded Martires on the letter and spirit of the law under Republic Act (RA) 6713. This is the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials which mandates disclosure of SALNs to the public as long as the one making the request shoulders the cost of reproduction and mailing of the SALN copies.

Morales cited RA 6713 mandates filing of SALNs, and that the public shall be entitled to even photocopy or reproduce SALNs of public officials and employees for as long they don’t commit prohibited acts against morals and public policy.

Himself a retired justice, Martires defended his move as a way to protect the public officials from being wrongfully accused since the SALN is allegedly being “weaponized” by political rivals.

But why the bleeding heart for these politicians Mr. Ombudsman?

Ironically though, Malacanang officials led by presidential chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo and presidential spokesman Harry Roque defended Martires just because Morales, a known Duterte critic attacked the Ombudsman. Panelo and Roque justified the obvious overstepping by Morales of his mandates.

There is the long list of many former government officials, both appointive and elected ones, who have been found guilty of violating RA 6713. And most of them got convicted because their SALNs showed how they have enriched themselves while in public office.

President Duterte, for the nth time last Monday night, ranted anew against corruption in government. Surely, he would frown upon anything that would make RA 6713 a dead letter law.

The howls of protests over a valid concern on possible impact of COVID-19 pandemic over our next presidential polls are intriguing, to put it mildly. This paled in comparison with the lame, limp-wristed reactions of leaders of the 18th Congress and other elected government officials over a dangerous precedent of this Ombudsman’s memo order that supplants an existing law of the land.

Clearly, vested self-interests are at play here.

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