ON DISTANT SHORE: Comelec is vital to credible elections

With the national elections just three months away and the official campaign period on, the Commission on Elections still has to decide on three disqualification cases against former Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.

A total of eight disqualification cases were filed against Marcos, all citing his failure to file income tax returns when he was governor of Ilocos Norte, for which he was convicted by the courts and mandated to pay the tax deficiencies and a fine. The petitioners said Marcos never paid neither the deficiencies nor the fine. They say the conviction and the failure to tax returns constitute crimes of moral turpitude, which is a ground for disqualification.

Four of the cases were dismissed outright, and the Comelec’s Second Division dismissed one of the four remaining cases on Jan. 15. The Comelec panel ruled that there were no grounds to cancel Marcos’ candidacy and disagreed with the petitioners’ argument that Marcos made false representations in his certificate of candidacy that shows he’s eligible to run despite a 1995 tax conviction.

The three remaining cases had been consolidated and assigned to the Comelec’s First Division, which was chaired by Commissioner Rowena Guanzon. On the day the Second Division’s ruling was announced, Guanzon said her division would announce its ruling by Jan. 17.

The date came and passed, and there was no ruling. Finally on Jan. 27, or 10 days after she said the ruling would be announced, an exasperated Guanzon prematurely released her opinion, which sought to grant the three petitions to disqualify Marcos on the basis of having committed a crime of moral turpitude.

Guanzon said Marcos committed a crime of moral turpitude when he failed to file his income tax returns (ITRs) from 1982 to 1985, when his father was president of the Philippines. By failing to do so, Guanzon said Marcos showed a “serious defect in one’s moral fiber.”

But Guanzon did not stop there. She said the commissioner assigned to write the ruling, known as the ponente, Commissioner Aimee Ferolino, has not been replying to her texts and those of the other member of the First Division, Commissioner Marlon Cosquejo. She also said she suspects a politician is pressuring Ferolino to delay the promulgation of the ruling until after her retirement on Feb. 2, which could invalidate her vote and her opinion.

She then criticized Ferolino for delaying the ruling and said it was a senator “close to the President” who was pressuring her colleague to delay its promulgation.

That started a nasty word war with Ferolino, who in a letter to Comelec Chairman Sheriff Abas, denied that she was delaying the ruling and accused Guanzon of “conditioning the public’s mind” when she prematurely released her separate opinion.

Ferolino said she was “reviewing three consolidated cases, among others, thoroughly to craft an objective resolution.” She said it was Guanzon who was interfering as Guanzon was telling her to adopt her opinion.

Amid the catfight, Abas, who was also set to retire on the same day as Guanzon, kept his silence, prompting Guanzon to take a jab at the Comelec chair for failing to intervene in her feud with Ferolino. “It’s a leadership problem,” Guanzon said.

While Ferolino may be right in saying she was “reviewing the cases thoroughly to craft and objective opinion,” and that she needed more time to come up with the fair decision, she must also be made aware that a prompt ruling is necessary to remove the uncertainty that continues to hang over the election because of the pending disqualification cases.

As pointed out by writer Juju Z. Baluyot in Yahoo News, Comelec rules do not support Ferolino’s bid for more time to decide on the cases. Baluyot said Section 8, Rule 18 of the commission’s Rules of Procedure specifically states that any case heard by a Division shall be decided “within ten (10) days from the date it is deemed submitted for decision or resolution, except in special actions and special cases which shall be decided or resolved within five (5) days.”

Disqualification cases, like those filed against Marcos Jr. before the COMELEC, are considered special cases, he added. Based on this and the fact that the cases were deemed submitted for resolution on Jan. 9 or 10, meaning a decision must have been made by Jan. 14 or 15.

Besides, seven of the eight disqualification cases were filed in early December and the commissioners, including Ferolino, must have read the petitions or at least read the news reports on the petitions. If she were diligent enough, she should have studied the cases, knowing that eventually the cases would reach her, either in one of the Comelec divisions, or en banc. And yet, almost one month has passed since the cases were submitted for resolution and she still does not have her ruling.

Now that Guanzon has finally retired, her separate opinion and her vote would no longer count. And since a replacement has not been named, the ruling could be delayed until after the election, a scenario feared by some pundits.

Speculations – or rumors, if you must – abound in the social media, saying that if Marcos and his running mate Sara Duterte-Carpio won the elections, and a disqualification ruling is announced after the May 9 elections, Sara would assume the presidency.

While, again, this is pure speculation at this time, those who are making them cannot be completely blamed because the two left in the First Division that would make the decision – Ferolino and Casquejo – were both appointed by Sara’s father, President Rodrigo Duterte, and both hail from Davao City, where Sara is mayor and the Dutertes are the kingpins. And the third person who will replace Guanzon in the panel will definitely be appointed by Duterte.

It is unfair for the voters and the presidential candidates, especially to Marcos, to go into the campaign and the elections with the uncertainty of the outcome of the disqualification cases. Are the cases so complicated as to take so long to decide? There have been so many disqualification cases in the past to fall back on for precedents and the laws on disqualification look clear enough to even the non-lawyers. Why are they sitting on the decision?

It is also not an ideal scenario for the campaign, the elections and the tabulations to be conducted while the Comelec is plagued by infighting, a clear case of inefficiency, lack of leadership, and a serious case of credibility problem.

The people have only one chance every six years to elect the leaders they deserve. And the Comelec has a big role in making sure they get clean and honest elections.