Government News Analysis

The case of Mr Bautista

chairman of the Philippines Commission on Elections (COMELEC) Andres D. Bautista

Yet again, we’ve been entreated to another insight into the world of the Manila elite; this time though, through allegations of the questionable wealth of a high-ranking government official – no less a figure than the chairman of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), Andres D. Bautista (photo).

This came to light courtesy of his wife, Patricia, who felt it her public duty to inform the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, that the man who oversaw the last national elections in the Philippines, had amassed as much as PHP1 billion worth of unexplained wealth. Clearly, we’re not looking at the marriage of the century here, but when the rest of that dirty linen is aired we could be looking at more than bank-account entries.

This latest drama of the country’s rich and famous has the potential to go well beyond the usual tortuous cases surrounding the propriety, or otherwise, of a person’s net worth – a common endless saga in the Philippines. This could be the tip of a long fuse that goes all the way to a powder key at the heart of COMELEC.

Specifically, it could call into serious question the integrity of he 2016 presidential election and has the potential to completely destroy the Philippine Liberal Party whose former leading light and standard bearer, former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, appointed Bautista to head the Commission just 12 months before the country went to the polls.

In fact, that’s already started. Harry Roque Jr the Kabayan Party List member in the House of Representatives, who claims that Mrs Bautista’s revelations “raises serious questions about the integrity of the May 2016 National Elections, wracked as it has been with allegations that the same elections have been rigged to favour certain candidates for national posts”.

Currently, two high-profile members of the Liberal Party who won their respective races in that election – Leni Robredo who became the country’s vice president, and former Aquino Justice Secretary, Leila De Lima, who won her bid for the Senate, though who’s presently in police custody for alleged drugs offences – are the subject of protests lodged respectively by Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos with the Presidential Election Tribunal, and Francis Tolentino with the Senate Electoral Tribunal.

Certainly, these are cases that need to be answered and the Philippine public is running out of patience with the courts which, as usual, are dragging their feet. It would seem to most Filipinos that the courts don’t share their need to establish the truth of what happened on Monday the 9th of May 2016 when the nation went to the polls to exercise their franchise to vote for their next leaders.

Roque has tabled a resolution to look into this matter. In it he drew attention to the alleged script-tampering of COMELEC’s transparency server by a “Venezuelan technician”. He’s also brought up the issue of an alleged secret operations room – equipped with Smartmatic voting machines – in the Novotel Manila, a hotel in the Araneta Center in Cubao, Quezon City, owned by Mar Araneta Roxas, the Liberal Party’s presidential candidate in the 2016 race.

And right on cue, another leading Liberal, Ifugao Representative, Teddy Baguilat Jr – a member of the so-called ‘Magnificient Seven’, an anti-Duterte bloc comprising the remnants of the Liberal Party’s House membership – has raced to dampen Roque’s efforts to bring everything out into the open. He urged his colleagues “not to be hasty in entertaining impeachment proceedings or congressional inquiries” – hasty though his own colleagues have been to entertain them where Duterte is concerned.

More tellingly, he added: “Likewise, I caution against allegations that might link this controversy to political issues like last year’s elections and current protest”. As well he might, for this could collapse the whole house of cards. Baguilat’s considered appraisal of the disclosures was this: “Right now, it appears to be a marital spat”. He hopes that’s what it is – so do his fellow ‘Magnificents’ along with Roxas, Robredo and De Lima. And who knows who else.

The last thing the Liberal Party needs right now is a political scandal of this potential magnitude. The Philippine public – diehard Liberals aside – has lost all respect for ‘the party in yellow’. This – if it turns out to be the case that there was collusion between the Liberal leadership and COMELEC over the 2016 national election results – will be the final nail in the coffin. From an outrage of that proportion there would virtually be no coming back.

Bautista – a former chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government – is no stranger to controversy where last year’s election is concerned. On the eve of Duterte being sworn into office, all six of his commissioners issued a memo accusing him of “failed leadership” throughout the 2016 presidential election campaigns.

The charges, covering a number of alleged infractions, called into doubt Bautista’s competence as COMELEC’s leader. They had 10 areas of grievance. Among these, they claimed he was in breach of the government’s financial rules; they questioned his unexplained absences amounting to a virtual dereliction of duty, and his failure to act on serious issues which had the potential to bring the Commission into disrepute.

The most serious of those was his failure to act on the hacking of COMELEC’s website, by which confidential personal information of 55 million registered electors – that’s every registered voter in the country – was stolen and leaked. That attack was staged by the hacker group, Anonymous Philippines (AP), on Sunday 27 March to draw attention to flaws in the website’s security. AP demanded that the Commission install better protection on its PCOS vote-reading machines to avoid fraud.

He’d also failed to inform the en banc of a demand letter for PHP700,000-damages, from a mall which Bautista had assigned as a voting area without clearance from the en banc. This related to the scrapping of the much-vaunted plan to locate polling stations in shopping malls right across the country. That 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 came from one of them.

Elsewhere, they vented their frustration at the Commission chief’s “autocratic” style. They slated him for his comments to the press – concerning what they regarded as his impropriety over claiming the ‘script tweak’, causing the alleged digital altering of electoral votes (referred to by Roque) – that “There was no cheating whatsoever”; that the script change was “merely cosmetic”.

Those comments, according to the Commissioners, were “in effect, already an exoneration” for any potential wrongdoer. “This is not a solitary incident,” they said. “The chairman should not grant interviews on matters not yet decided by the Commission en banc. He must make clear that his personal opinion is his alone and not attributable to the entire organization,”

Separately, Bautista came under fire from Commissioner Christian Robert Lim for disappearing to Japan for three days to accompany his son on a trip to Tokyo. Lim – who had no knowledge of the trip – had been the head of the Commission’s Campaign Finance Office.

On 20 June last year he tendered his “irrevocable resignation” from that position over the en banc’s decision to extend the period for filing the Statement of Contributions and Expenditures to accommodate a request from the Liberal Party. An extension had been granted from the “final, non-extendible” 8 June deadline to 30 June. He’d also sought to deny a similar request for an extension from the party’s then presidential candidate Mar Araneta Roxas.

Lim cited the poll body’s “policy shift resulting from granting the request for extension without any sanctions on the erring candidates and parties” – despite their being a penalties provision for late filing.

And yet with all that – plus those two pending case which claim the wrong person is occupying the Office of the Vice President and that one of the chairs in the Senate is also bogusly occupied – Bautista maintains that “most people believe [the 2016 election] was the fastest, most organised and successful elections in Philippine history”. We’d love to see the results of a poll that questions that assertion.

We don’t know what part, if any, Bautista played in establishing any piece of last year’s election results, any more than we know whether there’s a sinister reason for his alleged huge wealth or that he accumulated it by fair and scrupulous means.

But what we do know is that stories like this continue to tarnish the public image of the Philippines and its claims of being an open and transparent democracy. These aren’t stories that come out of places where there’s good governance; these are the stories of banana republics and kleptocracies.

Sleaze and allegations of sleaze in Philippine official circles, are as common as the beggars in the country’s streets. The difference between the two is that the beggars would be happy with the odd peso while the lordly figures at the top of the heap are looking to get their hands on millions. While the beggars want little more than a charitable handout, the office bearers and functionaries of the government, both centrally and locally, hope to seize fortunes. So, the one a simple mendicant trying to survive; the other an egregious thief determined to supplement his wealth.

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