I write this column after voting in yesterday’s elections, together with millions of Filipino voters. If you are reading this column this Tuesday, then it has come to pass that yesterday’s midterm elections have gone agreeably enough to earn the confidence of majority of the Filipino people. Or it might be too early to make that judgment and we have to wait a few more days. Certainly, the elections will not be perfect in what I have called before our messy democracy.
My family’s experience has certainly been mixed. It took me three hours, first under the scorching heat of the sun and then enduring an unseasonal downpour, to finish voting. My wife lined up even longer for five hours. Unfortunately, my eldest son Eman, who has strong political views and enthusiastic about voting, was disenfranchised. We could not find his name in the voters’ list both online nor in the precinct where we all voted in 2010. It is understandable then why he posted in his Facebook timeline how disappointed he was with Comelec for “messing up my registration and preventing me from practicing my democratic right to vote.”
From monitoring the media reports, Facebook posts and tweets, our family’s experience is not unique. While many of my Facebook friends found the process easy, even pleasant (especially those who went early to the voting centers and those who checked their registration status online and had problems addressed before election day), there were still too many who continued to experience obstacles (not just inconvenience which we must all accept as a price for democracy) in exercising their fundamental political right to select our country’s leaders.
It is also likely that doubts will be raised in the coming weeks with regards to the results of the elections, senatorial and local, with claims of fraud by losing candidates. Hopefully, the national and international consensus would be that these elections were credible enough, and that much of the results can be accepted.
If so, then alongside poll watchers and other vigilant members of government and civil society, the Commission on Elections led by its Chairman, Sixto Brillantes, can rightfully take some credit for the day. In the past few months, the agency and its people had been challenged, criticized, and even maligned.
The fact is, as borne by the Factcheck Program of the Ateneo de Manila University, this Comelec has been very activist, highly proactive, quite revolutionary in its preparations and policies, perhaps more so than any time before, with all the virtue and all the vice—and controversy—that results.
No doubt Comelec in general, and Brillantes in particular, have been particularly hard-nosed in all aspects from management of the automated elections, to management of party-list accreditation. In a past column, I had worried about the Chairman’s pugnaciousness in brushing off the agency’s critics, especially with regard to the precinct count optical scan source code. Some believe that the glitches that marred the PCOS test runs, or the very late public disclosure of the source code due to the legal battle between Smartmatic and Dominion, are enough to cast doubt on the electoral results. To be fair, the agency had advanced on addressing PCOS-related issues that surfaced during the 2010 elections, though it did fall short in the source code release (as noted above), a voter-verified audit trail, and the absence of digital signatures. These issues must be resolved properly for the elections to be proclaimed credible.
Equally hard-nosed had been the agency’s attempts to manage campaign finances (and, on a related note, vote-buying), the party-list system, and the risk of violence. We also recall the agency’s decertification of a swath of organizations registered as party-lists, and campaign airtime limits, both of which went to the Supreme Court.
On the matter of campaign financing, the agency has gone as far as to create a dedicated office, the Campaign Finance Unit, to watch how the candidates raised and spent their funds. On the controversial approval of party-lists, this time the agency had been stricter in accreditation, with a fifty per cent rejection rate (though Comelec could have been more forthcoming in how it conducted the accreditation process, to improve said process’ accountability). This is also a Comelec that’s been willing to lay down the law on erring candidates and parties, and hold them to the campaign finance, airtime, materials, and other limits. In the process, it has hit candidates, parties, both Administration and opposition coalitions, even local Catholic Churches—and suffered the rebuttals from these respondents.
If I had to describe the Comelec of 2011-2013, it would be with the words “with an excess of zeal (for good or for ill).” In its activism Comelec has overreached in some cases—in the extended and money bans for example, subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court. Perhaps Chairman Brillantes could have exercised a softer touch, the proverbial jar of honey, towards his critics, or towards the shortcomings of the electoral process. But I will not deny him his due. He and Comelec, an agency that long suffered suspicions, have done a good job. We had elections. We will have elected officials. We can rest but only for the real battle ahead: governance.