By Jeanne Michael Penaranda
MANILA – Newly installed Chairman Saidamen Balt Pangarungan of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) vowed to preserve the independence of the poll body as he and two newly-appointed commissioners officially assumed office and immediately held an en banc session.
Pangarungan was joined in his pledge by newly appointed Comelec commissioners George Garcia and Aimee Neri in separate statements who vowed integrity and fair elections. The three will have to be confirmed by the Commission on Appointments but this maybe delayed because Congress is in recess.
“The sanctity of the vote shall be our guiding principle…We will not let the Filipino people down,” Pangarungan said at his turnover ceremony.
“I never will condone election-related violence. Hindi talaga ako papayag (I will never allow that) – terrorism or intimidation. This is for those who believe in me and those who do not,” Duterte said.
Duterte also warned against violent electioneering.
The Comelec, meanwhile, said it will stop dismantling campaign materials in private properties following the Supreme Court’s (SC) issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the controversial “Oplan Baklas.”
The SC’s TRO was issued in response to the petition filed by the St. Anthony College of Roxas City, Inc. and two self-proclaimed supporters of presidential candidate Leni Robredo.
Duterte appointed Pangarungan, a San Beda fraternity brother, as Comelec chairman and lawyers George Garcia and Aimee Neri as commissioners replaced officials who had ended their terms of office.
“We aim to strengthen this Commission so that we can perform our most important mandate, and that is to preserve the sanctity of the vote and the independence of this Commission,” Pangarungan said in his message during the formal welcome ceremony at the Comelec Session Hall in Intramuros, Manila.
Pangarungan, a lawyer and former governor of Lanao del Sur, thanked President Duterte for appointing him to replace retired Comelec chair Sheriff Abas.
“I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to President Rodrigo Duterte for the trust he has bestowed upon this humble public servant to lead one of the most instrumental institutions of democracy. I come here with the mission of further strengthening this Commission. Let me chart this Commission’s course as we take this journey together,” he said.
Pangarungan also urged all the commissioners to join him in raising the level of integrity of the Commission.
“As a collegial body, I know my fellow Commissioners will work with me in elevating the level of integrity of this Commission. This is imperative as the Comelec embodies the very essence of democracy,” he said.
Despite his link with the President, Pangarungan said he would be independent.
“I stand before you today as a defender of democracy who will be independent and conscientious in giving life to the fundamental freedom of suffrage,” Pangarungan said.
Under his leadership, Pangarungan pledged that the commission will honor the Constitution in its every decision and in every single vote it counts.
Garcia, a veteran election lawyer and College of Law dean at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, and Neri, a former undersecretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, reported on their first day in the job amid concerns about their integrity and experience.
They joined Commissioners Socorro Inting, Marlon Casquejo, Aimee Ferolino, and Rey Bulay.
In a separate statement, Neri emphasized her background as a lawyer for 15 years.
Neri was a consultant to the Davao City Mayor’s office before joining the Duterte administration in various capacities at the Department of Justice, Bureau of Immigration, and Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).