Manila Bulletin - The challenge of elections

News & Interviews
17 June 2019

By Atty. Gregorio Y. Larrazabal | Manila Bulletin


It is quite easy to point fingers and blame whomever for the failures or problems of the last midterm elections or any and all elections before. To understand how elections are undertaken, however, is, to say, the least technical. The problem is when something goes wrong, immediately, the next tact is to just point fingers and blame someone or some office for failures.

Then again it is just something that is expected; how many elections have we had and how many of which did not see a candidate or candidates filing for a case complaining of fraud. The proverbial saying is no one loses elections in the Philippines, only cheated. What we fail to ask is “why”? It is quite easy to just say it is because of the Filipino culture, and this we say and hear in almost everything we do every day, from following traffic rules and regulations to queuing, to complying with requirements and getting through processes without having to look for someone we know or related to us. This is simplistic on the other hand, to say the least, if applied to elections.

Hearing the same complaints over and over should have already led us to reforms, how best to finally do away with complaints and establish credibility to our elections. It is after all the backbone of any democracy but sadly the attention given to it by policy makers does not show this significance in any way. We have to understand how elections are conducted from start to finish. What and how preparations are made, the significance of data collation and systematization and security, and the fundamental need to maintain communications with the public to name just a few, are all important components of elections. How much of these are given attention by our policy makers, even the public?

Once policy makers and the public understand all of these, it is possible to assess if the Comelec as it is now has been able to perform its mandate adequately. Make no mistake, the primary job of the commission is to ensure elections go smoothly, fair and free, in a word, credible. Of course the other work of the commission, the quasi-judicial functions, are important, even integral to this objective of ensuring free and fair elections. The question, however, is if this has to be performed by the same body or agency.

During the deliberations in the Consultative Committee to Review the 1987 Constitution (ConCom), we were invited as resource persons in the Committee on Suffrage and Political Reforms. The primary question to us guests is whether the quasi-judicial functions of the Commission of Elections (Comelec) are a good arrangement and should be retained. I proposed to the committee that the quasi-judicial functions be performed by another tribunal or body. In the past, the Comelec used to be just a body that administers elections and did not perform quasi judicial-functions. This means that the commission’s work was to make sure elections go on smoothly. This was, however, seen then as inadequate. Hence in the 1987 Constitution, the framers thought it should be given quasi-judicial powers.

By quasi-judicial functions, the commission settles disputes and or responds to legal-technical complaints of candidates and or any concerned party against a candidate and or political parties. From qualifications and disqualifications of candidates and political parties to election fraud and related complaints, it is the Comelec that primarily hears it first and if the decision of the commission is not acceptable to any and all parties, they can only go to the Supreme Court. Some cases though are devolved to the Municipal Trial Courts and the Regional Trial Courts, but decisions of these courts are still appealed to Comelec. It goes without saying that the commission is really a powerful agency and a very busy one at that. This also means that so much is expected from the commission.

This power should be examined if it is in fact consistent with what it is and how it is perceived to be by the public. By power, some assume that the commission can literally do anything and everything as an agency to ensure the elections go smoothly. Yes, given enough resources and enough preparations, in theory it could. There are other factors though that should be considered. This is why it is important to look at the mandate of the commission and the powers afforded to it by law. Then we can properly determine if its performance is commendable or not, and identify who is supposed to be given credit.