Government News Analysis

Comelec’s Night of the Long Knives

Andres Bautista, chairman of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is under fire as all six of his commissioners issue a memo accusing him of “failed leadership” throughout the 2016 presidential election campaigns.

The charges cover a number of alleged infractions and call into doubt Bautista’s competence as the Commission’s leader. They charge him with being in breach of the government’s financial rules, unexplained absences amounting to a virtual dereliction of duty, and failure to act on serious issues which had the potential to bring the Commission into disrepute.

These are serious allegations and the likelihood of Bautista’s survival is clearly in doubt, despite the fact that his commissioners are not calling for him to resign and he has stated that he has no intention of doing so in any case.

While heated post-election disputes involving Comelec are the norm – The sport of presidents – this one threatens to be a particularly incendiary conflict amounting virtually to a civil war within the Commission’s own high rank with a potential for broad public outcry.

One thing is for sure, it is not going to go away as so many Comelec disputes have in the past. Those normally involve outside challenges to the body and are generally dealt with by Comelec officials circling the wagons and stonewalling. That can’t happen here. The public is likely to pile in; public confidence in Comelec, as in much of the government machinery, is extremely low.

This is the second memo that the six commissioners have publicised. The previous missive, which criticised Bautista’s autocratic style, called on him to address 10 areas of grievance. That list is reproduced here. [We have added some explanations in brackets]:

• Delay of more than 15 days in the payment of election-duty allowances for teachers, an election offense and financial fraud because the cash cards handed out to them were unfunded. [This concerns the payments to 476,000 public school teachers who fulfilled the function of Board of Election inspectors and support staff during the May elections. Comelec had a US$37.2 million budget for the payments. To date, 66,000 workers, 14% of the total, have still not been remunerated].

• Exposing Comelec officers to possible criminal raps when Bautista blamed them in a press conference as the cause of delay. [Relating to the above].

• Unilateral declaration to postpone the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections. [These were postponed until October. Bautista’s reason for his ruling was: election fatigue emanating from the May national and local elections; the manual, labour-intensive and high-cost nature of the count, and the historically low voter turnout in barangay polls – which would seem to contradict his second point].

• Failure to act on the hacking of the Comelec website, in which was leaked confidential personal information of millions of voters. [This attack was staged by the hacker group, Anonymous Philippines, on Sunday 27 March to draw attention to flaws in the website’s security, demanded that the Commission install better protection on its PCOS vote-reading machines to avoid fraud. The data of 55 million registered electors – that’s every registered voter in the country – was stolen and leaked].

• Refusal to appoint an acting regional director for Negros Island. [Requests from Negros Occidental Governor, Alfredo Marañon Jr. for the appointment of an acting Comelec regional director for the Negros Island Region (NIR) were left unanswered. He had expressed concerns over confusion among the police and army and a number of government departments of having NIR voting being administered by the Western Visayas region].

• Failure to inform the en banc of a demand letter for P700,000-damages, from a mall which Bautista had assigned as voting area without clearance from the en banc. [This relates to the scrapping of the much-vaunted plan to locate polling stations in shopping malls right across the country. The plan was dropped just over one week before election day. Comelec had drawn up a list of 10 mall operators nationwide and had signed memorandums of understanding with two of them – Ayala Malls and Robinson Malls. Presumably the damages demand comes from one of them].

• Unexplained absence and unexplained refusal to attend en banc sessions preparatory to the May 9 elections. [No specifics on this, other than the six commissioners have mentioned that Bautista showed an unwillingness to participate in “crucial preparatory” meetings for the polls].

• Refusal to preside and resolve issues related to vote canvassing. [No further information].

In all this, Bautista maintains that the 2016 elections were, in most people’s opinion, “the fastest, most organised and successful elections in Philippine history.” With Leni Robredo’s claim to the vice presidency now the subject of a Presidential Electoral Tribunal, those words might be a little premature. Marcos’s VP court-challenge to Robredo