By Antonio Contreras | The Manila Times
WHILE the public is eagerly awaiting the decision of the Supreme Court sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo’s camp and followers are busy prematurely celebrating the alleged ponencia of Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa who they claim is recommending the outright dismissal of the election protest of former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., allegedly for lack of basis. They crow that based on the results of the manual ballot recount for the three pilot provinces identified by Marcos, Robredo’s lead has even increased. They anchor their arguments on the technicality of Rule 65 of the PET which, as constructed, directs a dismissal of a protest if there is no evidence of a substantial recovery of votes in the pilot areas.
In an earlier article in this space, I argued that deciding a protest solely on the sole basis of a manual ballot recount is insufficient to truly ascertain the real will of the people. For one, a massive pre-shading operation, coupled with a coordinated tampering of election returns, will not be detected by a ballot recount. The non-existence of actual voting, where ballot boxes have been stuffed with ballots shaded by only a few individuals, will likewise not be detected in a manual ballot recount.
Furthermore, to rely merely on three pilot areas identified by the protestant as the sole basis for deciding an election protest would be a travesty as it would be handing the fate of our democracy to a small percentage of the entire country. It also amounts to the possibility of a candidate being declared as the winner not on the basis of the true will of the people, but on the error of the protestant in not identifying the “right” pilot areas. One needs to ask what the scientific basis is for choosing only three pilot areas, and not more, or even why there is a need to have pilot areas in the first place, when what should be the focus is the entire country.
It is also problematic that the results of manual ballot recounts in these pilot areas would become the basis to reject any motion to look into other kinds of election fraud, such as vote buying, massive pre-shading operations, electronic tampering of the automated election system, and even the non-existence of actual voting. One would argue that Marcos should have then proposed the three areas in ARMM, where allegedly there is evidence pointing to the existence of widespread fraud, such as pre-shaded ballots and tampered or inauthentic election returns which were detected during the physical examination conducted by election officials in relation to another protest.
There are alleged cases when the signatures of the persons who voted are different from those who are registered under their names. It is also alleged that signatures of election returns from different precincts that are far apart appeared to be from the same set of persons. These acts of fraud, however, will require a different mechanism to reveal and prove, which would include the forensic physical examination of other documents and the presentation of witness testimonies. A mere manual ballot recount will not suffice, and in fact will just affirm the fruits of the fraud considering that the pre-shaded or fraudulently accomplished ballots will still be read as shaded without inquiring into the fraudulent acts anent to their existence. Hence, had Marcos chosen these areas as his pilot, it is most likely that the manual ballot recount would have yielded the same results. After all, the purpose of the recount is simply to ascertain the sufficiency of the shades, and not to detect if the ballot had been pre-shaded, or shaded by someone else other than the registered voters.
It is therefore obvious that there is something broken in our electoral system, something which cheating operators have already perfected to navigate and game. And it is a travesty that this is something that Rule 65 of the PET enables. Cheaters know this fully well. They have learned their lesson from past election protests. They also now take advantage of the new automated election technology on one hand, and an outdated system of resolving election protests on the other. And they make sure that their fraudulent acts will not be traceable in the ballots. They instead commit acts that produce ballots which when manually inspected will affirm the manipulated outcome.
This is precisely why the election protest of Marcos against Robredo gives the country an opportunity to get away from Rule 65, and enable us to open the landscape toward the resolution of election protests that go beyond the manual recounting of ballots. For a long time now, our election rules have been gamed to thwart the real intent of the voters. It’s about time the Supreme Court, sitting as PET, once and for all abandon Rule 65, and decide election protests in their entirety. It’s about time that the ascertainment of the will of the people should not sink or swim based on the outcome of manual recounts of pilot areas, but should consider, either simultaneously or as stand-alone motions, allegations of election fraud. The PET should no longer allow itself to become a mere mechanical vote counter, but truly a court that admits evidence of election fraud and use it as the basis to unseat any official who assumes a post through fraud.
Robredo’s followers argue that Rule 65 cannot be changed. They should be reminded that it is a creation of the PET, and the PET can decide to abandon it, if it is for the higher purpose of ascertaining the true will of the people. After all, anyone confident of victory would not fear an inquiry into allegations of fraud, and would not hang on to the technicality of Rule 65 that for all intents and purposes will not establish if those allegations are true or not.