CBCP TO ARROYO: IMPLEMENT POLL REFORMS, CHANGE COMELEC CHIEF
MANILA, JULY 10, 2007 (STAR) By Edu Punay - Roman Catholic bishops want the Arroyo administration to implement much-awaited poll reforms, starting with the removal of Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Benjamin Abalos and other officials.
In a pastoral statement at the conclusion of its semi-annual plenary assembly, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines said replacing Abalos and other Comelec commissioners should jumpstart electoral reforms. The assembly was held at the CBCP office in Intramuros.
“A full revamp of the Comelec, beginning with the appointment of a new chair and commissioners with unquestioned integrity and competence, especially in systems and management, is needed,” the CBCP statement said.
“These appointments are going to be in the hands of the President and Commission on Appointments of the Philippine Congress, and it is our collective responsibility to monitor closely the process of selection, appointment and confirmation,” it added.
The CBCP did not recommend possible replacements for the officials.
Abalos will seek an audience with the members of the CBCP, hoping he could explain the poll body’s side amid accusations that the Comelec failed to stop irregularities in the May 14 elections.
“We hope to sit down with them and recommend the possible electoral reforms that would fast-track the proclamation of the winners, among others,” he noted in a press briefing.
He claimed the Comelec is doing its best but there are “many flaws” in the election system. But the fact that the opposition won the senatorial elections was an indication that cheating had been minimized. he said.
Malacañang said it would be impossible for Mrs. Arroyo to revamp the Comelec because its officials have constitutionally-mandated tenure.
“We view it (CBCP proposal) in the constructive spirit that we received it. But there are constitutional provisions governing the tenure of commissioners,” Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said, adding that the “only way to remove the commissioners is through impeachment.”
In the CBCP statement, the bishops urged the Arroyo administration to exert “serious efforts to depoliticize and professionalize the bureaucracy” at Comelec.
At a press briefing after the release of the statement, re-elected CBCP president and Jaro Archbishop Angel Lagdameo said that the majority of the 85 bishops who attended the plenary assembly were not satisfied with the performance of the Comelec during the last elections.
“We’re still not confident on the current setup at Comelec,” Lagdameo said, adding that he is open to a partial revamp “since there are already a few credible commissioners there (Comelec).”
Apart from a Comelec revamp, CBCP said the government should resolve poll fraud issues by “holding those responsible for anomalies in past elections and the recently concluded ones accountable to the people.”
CBCP also said “good career people in the Comelec can be a catalyst for the renewal of the institution.”
But Lagdameo said the “Hello Garci” scandal wasn’t tackled during the meeting “since we have already elected new officials anyway.”
Garci, the name mentioned by Mrs. Arroyo in her wiretapped conversation with a Comelec official, is believed to be former elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano.
The bishops also reiterated their appeal for the modernization of the electoral process, and that there should be “broad-based and transparent discussions on what type of poll automation is appropriate and how it is to be piloted and implemented.”
“Particular attention should also be given to ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) and the problem of ‘wardlordism’ since it is of the scale that can affect the national elections… historically, those in power have found it useful to rely on the brazen exercise of power through intimidation, violence and fraud,” CBCP said.
The bishops also called for a review of current electoral laws, specifically the ones on party system, party-lists, overseas absentee voting, political dynasties, and nuisance candidates.
For instance, Lagdameo said most bishops are unhappy with the party-list system because they feel it “allows too many groups to win and practically every group to join.”
The bishops also batted for a mechanism that would enhance the political education of voters and make them more aware of the importance of public accountability of officials as well as youth and citizens’ groups.
Regularly updating the voters’ list and making it available to voters way before the date of elections would also ensure orderly and honest polls, according to the CBCP.
Past calls unheeded
The bishops said they have long been calling for electoral reforms but their appeals have been falling on deaf ears.
“We are mindful of the many evils that continue to plague our electoral exercise. As we have done in the past, we condemn the dirty conduct of elections in some provinces,” CBCP said.
“The buying, padding and selling of votes have embarrassingly become systematic and threaten to become a cultural element of our elections,” it added.
The bishops also spoke strongly against political dynasties, which used the elections to keep themselves in power.
“We also express our disapproval of candidates coming from the same family or clan, thus keeping power and influence within the family. We hope and pray that implementing norms be approved to arrest the spread of this malaise.”
But the CBCP clarified there were also positive developments in the last elections, specifically the bigger number of poll volunteers.
“There also were signs of increased maturity among the electorate as the election results demonstrated that sheer popularity or celebrity status and huge media expenditures do not necessarily translate to election victory,” the CBCP statement read. “These results may also be an indicator of some success in the voters’ education efforts.”
One of the most active electoral watchdogs in the May 14 polls was the Church-based Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting or PPCRV chaired by Henrietta de Villa, former Philippine ambassador to the Vatican.
The two-day plenary assembly also gave the bishops the opportunity to report specific cases of poll violence and irregularities in their respective dioceses.
Balanga, Bataan Bishop Socrates Villegas gave personal accounts of poll fraud and violence in his province.
The Catholic bishops also expressed alarm over the unabated political killings and urged the government to come up with a better formula to stop them.
Lagdameo, for his part, suggested that bishops tap parishioners in identifying the cause of the problem and how it could be solved.
“We must be able to identify the source and circumstances. We cannot just easily issue judgment on the situation. I believe the citizenry would be of big help,” he said.
Senators join call
Senators made their own appeal for a Comelec revamp and for the implementation of the law on poll automation, saying these could give Mrs. Arroyo the chance to leave a good legacy in 2010.
Sen. Richard Gordon, one of the authors of the Poll Automation Law, said he had been asking Abalos to step down for failing to implement the law and modernize the election system even just in some areas. Sen. Edgardo Angara co-authored the bill.
“Look what’s happening? We cannot proclaim the 12th senator, this should not be the case,” Gordon said in a phone interview from the US.
The automation was set for pilot-testing in six provinces and six highly urbanized cities in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao, but the plan did not push through.
Gordon said it was time for Mrs. Arroyo to “walk the talk” by providing the budget for the measure.
“This should be part of her legacy. She must be able to put us out of the dark ages. It is a moral responsibility. It will be very good way to exit from the presidency,” Gordon said.
Gordon said Mrs. Arroyo should appoint new commissioners with “impeccable credentials.”
Earlier, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said Mrs. Arroyo was not addressing the real problems of her government with her reluctance to fire officials with tainted records, He said the President must use her influence to install new Comelec commissioners.
“My unsolicited advice (is that) instead of reforming bureaucracy, I suggest strongly that (Arroyo) call for a Comelec revamp,” Lacson said. “It is a constitutional body but she can always exercise influence. Let us prioritize electoral reforms, we get stuck every time we have an election,” he added.
“It would serve her well if she calls on Comelec commissioners to resign to give her a free hand. And when she appoints new commissioners, there should be no political color to cleanse the coming elections,” Lacson said.
“That (cheating controversy) was the root of all her problems, when the Garci tapes were exposed. We are not seeing any changes because the Comelec does not have credibility,” he said.
“She can ask the commissioners to help out in cleaning the electoral process in this country. It’s a patriotic act,” he said.
Gordon also said Mrs. Arroyo should make Abalos account for the P1.3 billion paid to Mega Pacific Consortium for substandard counting machines. “We cannot just smile and say sorry we lost P1.3 billion,” Gordon said.
The Supreme Court had declared illegal and voided the contract between Comelec and Mega Pacific. But the Ombudsman exonerated the Comelec officials despite the SC’s ruling. “Abalos should be made accountable for all these things,” Gordon said.
Under an automated election system, tally results are transmitted immediately to the Comelec, political parties, media and other poll monitoring groups. The system involves paper-based records for easy verification of votes.
Automated 2010 polls
Bunye said the automation of elections in 2010 is definitely part of the Arroyo administration’s agenda.
“We all want clean elections so it is time for us to implement the automation of elections,” Bunye said.
“We have more than enough time to automate and I think that will eliminate all possibilities of irregularities and we will have a process that we can be truly proud of,” Bunye said.
But it’s the Comelec that will eventually decide when to implement the poll automation law, which was signed in January.
The law was supposed to have been partially implemented in the last elections but the Comelec said it did not have enough time to it. - Paolo Romero, Aurea Calica, Marvin Sy, Sheila Crisostomo