Government News Analysis

Face off creeps closer

Finally, the Philippine Supreme Court – in this case sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) – has made some progress on the seven-months-plus-old election-result protest filed by former senator, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, against Vice President, Leni Robredo. His underlying assertion is that he, not her, is the rightful occupant of the Office of the Vice President.

True to form though, the Philippine courts system is moving at the pace of glue, and all this progress actually amounts to is to affirm that there is a case that can be put before the court. In short, the PET has ruled that a plea issued by Robredo to scrap Marcos’s protest has itself been scrapped. To find that out has taken more than half a year.

And so, when this matter will eventually be brought before the court and resolved is anyone’s guess. But certainly, don’t hold your breath. The question though is why? Is the court docket so full that ‘Marcos versus Robredo’ is now in a queue awaiting scheduling? If so, what are the other cases being handled by the PET? And are they really as pressing as one involving the validity of a result that determines who is the Republic’s rightful vice president – the second most powerful position in the land?

We can understand why the Robredo side would welcome any delay in settling this issue. And we’re pretty sure her legal counsel is working hard to keep this out of court for as long as possible – even though a statement from its spokesperson, Romulo Macalintal, states: “Our aim is to expedite an early resolution of the case in order to avoid further speculations on its status”.

Well, we’ll see. But if they do draw this out that’s sort of to be expected; it’s all part of the game and it’s what they’d be being paid for if delays are seen as advantageous. Let’s look at this clinically: Marcos has all to gain and nothing to lose; Robredo has all to lose and nothing to gain.

Furthermore, from all anecdotal evidence that we’ve seen, starting prior to the election – our best bet back in April was for a Duterte-Marcos win ticket – Marcos’s popularity across the country has always far outweighed that of the sitting VP. Their public exposures will have played some part in that. Up until stepping down to make their separate bids for the vice presidency in 2016, Marcos was a member of the Philippine Senate and had served three terms as a member of the House of Representatives; Robredo had served just one term as a House member.

The latest evidence of their individual popularity comes in the form of a four-hour online live-poll staged last night by, the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper’s official website. That poll, which simply allowed visitors to the site to chose their preference between ‘TeamLeni’ (Robredo) and ‘TeamBongbong’ (Marcos), in what could be seen as a rough facsimile of an election. That poll ended at 10:30 pm. Here are the results:

‘TeamLeni’ – 24,368. ‘TeamBongbong’ 102,394. So, not even close. Let’s do the arithmetic on that. Of the total vote of 126,762, Robredo garnered 19.2234%; Marcos got 80.7765%.

Of course, we can expect all sorts of explanations for this result from the Liberal Party camp of Leni supporters. They’ll no doubt claim that the poll was high jacked by pro-Duterte trolls who’d been tipped off ahead of time of the survey – albeit, as the website points out, an unscientific one.

Who knows what they might claim – vote-buying, an inaccurate count; the sort of claims they tried to have dismissed in Marcos’s protest to the PET. Anyone drawing that sort of parallel, however, would be dismissed; for as we’ve seen before with the Libs, what’s sauce for the goose, they believe in a situation like that, shouldn’t be sauce for the gander. Heavens no!

But getting back to the tribunal, in the interests of timeliness, and in the interests of justice being seen to be done, is it not in the public interest for the PET to expedite this at the earliest opportunity? Isn’t that, in fact, what they’re being paid for? And given the statements just issued by each side, seeking a quick resolution to this matter, it would seem there is little on that score to prevent that.

Marcos’ legal spokesman Victor Rodriguez said of the tribunal’s decision: “We are hoping that with this resolution, there will be an end to all these delays and we can finally move forward”. And that, we’re fairly sure, is the country’s wish as well.

In the meantime, Robredo’s legal team is going to have to work much harder than it did in compiling her plea to halt the Marcos protest with the PET. In short, that amounted to a once-over-lightly counter charge that the petitioner’s allegations of cheating and vote-buying amounted to little more than “a series of wild accusations, guesses and surmises”.

The Marcos legal brief, we understand, is substantial; and it’s going to take much more than a few off-the-cuff remarks like that to show that the vote as it stands is correct and that the required vote-counting and vote-scrutiny processes during the 2016 election were fully adhered to. There’s going to be a lot of technical analysis submitted to the court and vague depictions of the evidence in rebuttal will carry zero weight.

Marcos’s protest involves a number of allegations concerning the vice-presidential vote in last May’s national elections – a contest in which he was recorded as loosing by a margin of 263,473 votes. This constituted a margin of 0.61%, the second narrowest in history. The narrowest was the 0.37% margin secured by Fernando Lopez who became vice president to Marcos’s father, Ferdinand Marcos Snr, in the 1965 election. He had defeated – by just 26,724 votes – Gerado Roxas, father of last year’s presidential runner-up candidate, Manuel “Mar” Roxas, for whom Robredo was his running mate. (In passing, The Volatilian™ has a few question marks hanging over his vote total).

The Marcos side claims that voter fraud robbed him of a win. Furthermore, they say they can show a number of irregularities to substantiate this – among them, that there were script changes in the transparency server that altered the results by allowing an elector’s vote to be switched from the name of the candidate chosen to that of another.

They allege there was pre-shading of ballots, pre-loaded secure digital cards, misreading of ballots, malfunctioning vote-counting machines, massive vote buying and an “abnormally high” unaccounted number of votes recorded – an ‘undervote’ they’ve claimed is in excess of 3.2 million.

In it’s determination the PET refuted the Robredo side’s claim that the protest lodged by Marcos was inadequate, stating: “… the Tribunal has found the protest to be sufficient in form and substance”. Giving him the green light to prove his assertions – none of the evidence at this stage has been either proved or disproved – “The protest contained narrations of ultimate facts on the alleged irregularities and anomalies in the contested clustered precincts, which the protestant needs to prove in due time”. He now has that opportunity.

However, ‘in due time’ means – in the first instance – once the tribunal can set up a preliminary conference. This will allow the Marcos side to produce the list of witnesses it intends to call, along with the evidence it wishes to present. After that, a schedule for the hearing can be established. Then it’s just down to court time – how long it will take to present the evidence and hear challenges to it before the PET can make its final adjudication.

Part of that process will involve the recall of ballot boxes from a number of provinces. These votes will then have to be manually counted, verified and revised where required. Having watched this process unfold at an earlier sample recount over there, this is a highly recommended event for insomniacs – the indoor equivalent of watching grass grow, it’s slow, laborious and painfully dull.

And all that – if previous hearings concerning political disputes in the Philippines are anything to go by – amounts to a moveable feast. It will end when it ends choose how many fat ladies sing in the meantime. Certainly, if it looks like judgement is likely to favour the Marcos protest, this will be dragged out as long as possible with delays and requests for more time from the other side.

But while the actual court process itself shouldn’t be hurried – this is a big case and the political ramifications are huge – it needs to be conducted with the minimum amount of adjournments and deferrals. The electors, the people whom this case is ultimately all about, have a right to know exactly what went on in respect of the vote count last May.

How could it be, many wonder, when they went to bed on 9 May – with a full 80% of the vote already counted – Bongbong Marcos was ahead of Robredo by almost 1 million votes, and yet when they woke the following morning, Robredo had pulled ahead?

Claims of voter irregularities and voter fraud regularly attend the outcome of elections in the Philippines; they’re practically become part of the election process. And the fact is that challenges to election results there are rarely upheld. That, of course, should not influence the PET one iota; this case should be looked at on its merits in a wholly non-partisan fashion. If the PET does that, it will be doing its job – not just in terms of its judicial function but as a branch of government that puts the rights of the people above all other considerations; in other words, fulfilling its prime purpose of delivering justice ‘without fear or favour’.