Manila Bulletin – Should SC start rethinking PET rules?

By Rj Nieto | Manila Bulletin

THINKING PINOY

Over three years have passed since former Senator Bongbong Marcos filed an electoral protest case against Vice president Leni Robredo, yet we’re still barely halfway through the process. At the rate things are going, this case may outlive the six-year vice-presidential term that justifies the protest’s own existence.

There have been five Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) cases in Philippine history.

First, PET dismissed 1992’s Defensor-Santiago v Ramos (Case No. 1) after the complainant ran for senator in 1995, which the High Court interpreted as a relinquishment of claims. Second, 2004’s Poe v Macapagal-Arroyo (Case No. 2) ended when the complainant died shortly after filing.

Third, 2004’s Legarda v De Castro (Case No. 2) ended for pretty much the same reason as Case No. 1. Fourth, 2010’s Roxas v Binay when Binay’s term ended in 2016 with the case still unresolved, thus rendering the issue moot.

And today, we are witnessing Marcos v Robredo, docketed as PET Case No. 005 and filed in 2016.

Most Marcos supporters allege that the system is rigged in favor of Robredo, while Robredo supporters will say it’s the other way around. Regardless, what’s clear is that electoral protests move so slowly that the system inevitably favors the incumbent too heavily.

I recognize that the Supreme Court justices handled boatloads of various cases and it’s unfair for these cases to stop progressing for extended periods just because someone filed a petition at PET. However, I believe that something must be done to speed up electoral protests because the system, in its current form, appears to be little more than lip service.

First, the cost of filing a protest is so prohibitive that only a few will be able to mount a credible legal offense. Moreover, the system unintentionally incentivizes massive electoral fraud as it increases the costs of recounts, which is a function of the number of precincts under protest.

Second, there are so many ways to delay a case, i.e., all an incumbent can file motion after motion until his term expires. Hence, PET cases that pass the two-year mark squishes complainants between a rock and a hard place, as they ask themselves if it’s more practical just to throw in the towel and run for some other position, or hope against all hopes that they’ll eventually win a historically unwinnable electoral protest.

The electoral protest system is so restrictive, costly, and long-drawn-out that praying for such a judicial relief results in a judicial migraine, and I think it’s time for some serious electoral reform.

Here are some ideas.

First, adopt Senator Tito Sotto and Senator Cynthia Villar’s Hybrid Election Act (SB No. 7).

Under the Hybrid Election System, votes are manually counted at the precinct level while electronic transmission and canvassing on all other. The hybrid system allows greater transparency in the electoral process, helping boost public confidence in the system’s integrity and by extension, the entire electoral process.

With a hybrid system, everyone can more readily verify the real contents of each ballot right on election day, as opposed to giving shady personalities enough time to pour battery acid in erstwhile sealed ballot boxes or perhaps insert organic matter that accelerates the decay of ballot paper.

Second, SC may opt to focus solely on PET for a few months after elections.

What if the Supreme Court, instead of scheduling PET hearings like any other regular case, focus solely on PET protest for, say, the first three or six months starting on the first day of a presidential term? Additionally, PET could shorten maximum response times of both parties, e.g., from the usual 20 days to just five or ten.

PET protests often contain multiple independent courses of action that can be handled simultaneously, so each course of action can be handed over to an SC division, then discussed during weekly En Banc sessions. These reforms recognize the more time-sensitive nature of electoral protests compared to regular cases.

Third, automatic short-term hold departure orders for key persons involved in the vote-counting process.

The integrity of the electoral process is a matter of national security, so I guess we can somehow argue that limiting the right to travel of key persons in the vote-counting process, starting on election day and for up to, say, 3 or 4 months, isn’t too much to ask.

This way, we can avoid these people from doing a Marlon Ramos in the future. Marlon Ramos is a key Smartmatic official who PET was supposed to interrogate, but he fled the Philippines even before the courts could issue a subpoena.

The bottom-line? I seriously feel that the electoral protest system, in its current form, leaves much to be desired.

What we need are not just legal remedies, but realistic and reasonable ones. In the interest of substantial justice, we should implement electoral reforms, starting with the system for handling presidential and vice-presidential protests.

Opposition figures may not feel the need for such reforms as far as Vice President Robredo’s current case is concerned.

But they may want to give it a second thought, especially since the tables are about to turn in 2022.

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