HE WOULD have long left his post at the Commission on Elections by the time Filipinos cast their ballots in the 2016 elections. But chances are some of Sixto S. Brillantes Jr.’s actions as Comelec chief would still be felt by voters even then.
For instance, three days before he retired last Jan. 30, Brillantes signed – despite strong opposition from various sectors – a P268-million deal with Smartmatic to repair 82,000 voting machines for the elections next year. Many had been against the deal because of problems with the Smartmatic-supplied PCOS machines used in the 2010 and 2013 polls. Critics have also alleged that the machines were prone to tampering.
Then again, controversy and public distrust are nothing new for Comelec. Many of its officials – from Commissioners to election officers in the field – have been embroiled in allegations of corruption, incompetence, and partisanship in the post-EDSA People Power revolt era.
In fact, of the eight chairpersons appointed to the poll body since 1986, a few have even gained infamy for brokering plum deals with contractors and for wasting billions of public funds in botched election modernization projects.
Yet even those that did not gain notoriety have been hounded by perceived and actual conflicts of interests because of the ties that bind them to politicians. This is even as they have a sworn duty to safeguard the integrity of the ballot and to protect the will of the people expressed through suffrage.
The Commission is tasked by the Constitution to enforce and administer all laws and regulations concerning the conduct of regular and special elections. The Constitution also designed the poll body to be constitutionally independent from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government to ensure the conduct of free, fair, and honest elections. Aside from election administration, Comelec also performs judicial, regulatory, and administrative functions.
Comelec is composed of a chairman and six commissioners, each of whom is appointed to a term of seven years without reappointment. The appointing power is the President, although the Commission on Appointments would still have to confirm each appointee.
The commissioners are supposed to act as a collegial body in election administration and policymaking. In deciding on election cases and pre-proclamation controversies, however, the Commission sits in two divisions initially. It decides en banc on motions to reconsider a division decision.
Both Comelec insiders and observers say that the Commission will be hard put to eliminate partisanship among its highest officials if the very politicized and opaque nature of appointments to the poll body is not reformed. Yet in a 2009 paper, political scientist Cleo Calimbahin of the University of East Asia and the Pacific says that President Corazon C. Aquino may have been the only President who was serious about reforming the poll body.
Former Comelec Chairman Christian Monsod, in an interview with PCIJ in 2005, also noted that all Philippine Presidents after Corazon C. Aquino – from Fidel V. Ramos to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – had made politicized appointments to Comelec.
For sure, some might find that observation self-serving, as Monsod was one of two Comelec chairmen appointed by Cory Aquino. But his observation is not without basis. Appointed by Aquino as Comelec chief on June 6, 1991, Monsod enjoyed consistent satisfaction ratings in nearly four years that he was poll body chief. In fact, the Monsod Commission is hailed to this day as having ushered an era of reform in the poll body.
Under Monsod’s watch, Comelec welcomed the contributions of nongovernment organizations such as the Citizens’ Consortium on Electoral Reforms (now the Consortium on Electoral Reforms) in advocating for the introduction of amendments to the Omnibus Election Code and laws enabling the provisions of the Constitution. This later led to the passage of landmark election laws such as the Party List Act, Fair Elections Act, and the laws on continuing registration, electoral modernization, and overseas absentee voting.
With Monsod at the helm, Comelec also conducted the first synchronized national and local elections in 1992, which saw the first non-majority President elected: Fidel V. Ramos. Consequently, the first presidential protest case was also filed before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal by Ramos’s closest rival, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, due to the narrow margin of votes by the former.
Monsod’s appointment as Comelec chairman, however, was not entirely smooth-sailing. Shortly after Monsod was appointed chairman, Renato Cayetano, the late father of Senators Alan Peter and Pia Cayetano, questioned Monsod’s qualification to head the Commission. According to Cayetano, Monsod had not “engaged in the practice of law for at least 10 years,” a requirement stipulated in the 1987 Constitution. Cayetano filed a petition before the Supreme Court to declare Monsod’s appointment null and void.
A lawyer by profession, Monsod had begun his career in his father’s law firm. He later worked for the World Bank group. He also served as CEO and legal consultant for various companies, including Meralco. In addition, he was Secretary General and National Chairman of the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections, or NAMFREL.
The Supreme Court later dismissed Cayetano’s petition, citing that the “(p)ractice of law means any activity, in or out of court, which requires the application of law, legal procedure, knowledge, training and experience.”
Rules of Procedure
Monsod, though, led Comelec for less than four years, or from June 6, 1991 to Feb. 15, 1995, because he was just serving the unexpired term of Hilario Davide Jr., the first post-EDSA Comelec chairman who was appointed by Aquino in February 1988. Prior to his appointment to the poll body, Davide had been a member of the Constitutional Commission.
Davide is widely known as the Chief Justice who presided over the impeachment trial of ousted President Joseph Ejercito Estrada. Less known is the fact that in his brief stint as Comelec head, Davide sought to restore order in election administration by introducing the Comelec’s Rules of Procedure. The detailed protocol regulated all aspects of Comelec decision-making, including the handling of candidates’ disqualification, election protests, and election-related cases filed before regional trial courts.
Davide gave up his Comelec post in January 1990, when he was designated to lead a five-person fact-finding commission – later called the Davide Commission – tasked to investigate eight military coup attempts against the Aquino administration.
The following year, Davide was appointed as associate justice of the Supreme Court. In November 1998, Davide was appointed Chief Justice by then President Joseph Ejercito Estrada.
(After Davide left Comelec, Commissioner Haydee B. Yorac served as acting Chairman for more than a year. In that short period, Yorac managed to subdue election violence and strictly enforce the gun ban, even in areas in Mindanao that were ruled by warlords.)
Inertia under Pardo
Davide was not the only Comelec chief who went on to the Supreme Court. Like Davide, the term of Monsod’s successor Bernardo Pardo as Comelec chair was cut short when President Estrada appointed him associate justice of the Supreme Court in October 1998 – less than four years after he was appointed Comelec chairman by President Fidel V. Ramos. Pardo had become head of the poll body on Feb. 17, 1995, less than three months before the 1995 mid-term elections. Before that, he had been associate justice in the Court of Appeals, where he was likewise appointed by Ramos.
The conservative Pardo’s term in Comelec had been characterized by inertia, which was made even more acute in the aftermath of the dynamism and reforms introduced by the Monsod Comelec. In fact, when Pardo took over, NGOs that used to engage with Comelec had to disengage for lack of any clear direction or reform initiatives within the body.
Pardo’s impartiality was also questioned, as he was seen traveling with Ramos to Mindanao on two occasions. It is also said that during the 1998 elections, he himself went to Estrada to give the Comelec count. It was also the Pardo Comelec that started the practice of hiring applicants endorsed by politicians. Too, it was during Pardo’s term when Aquilino Pimentel popularized the term “dagdag-bawas” referring to vote-padding and vote-shaving, or the wholesale cheating during the elections.
The next two Comelec chiefs who succeeded Pardo would be embroiled in very public infighting among the Commissioners at the time.
Harriet Demetriou was appointed chair by Joseph Estrada in 1999, and served from Jan. 11, 1999 to Feb. 15, 2001. Her rise to power – from being a regional trial court judge to Comelec chairperson in a span of just a few years – was described as nothing short of meteoric.
Demetriou gained national prominence in 1995 when, as a judge of the Regional Trial Court of Pasig, she convicted Laguna Mayor Antonio Sanchez of raping and killing UP Los Baños student Eileen Sarmenta and of murdering her companion Alan Gomez in 1993. From being RTC judge, she became an associate justice of the Sandiganbayan. In 1998, Demetriou became Presidential Legal Counsel of the Estrada administration. The following year, she was appointed Comelec chair.
At the poll body, Demetriou opposed a huge contract to modernize the elections – the P6.5-billion Voter Registration and Identification System (VRIS) deal with Photokina Marketing Corporation. The contract was being pushed hard by a faction among the commissioners even though Congress had allotted only P1.2 billion for the VRIS project in the 2000 national budget. The faction was led by co-Estrada appointee and ex-acting chair Luzviminda Tancangco, who Demetriou replaced.
Following Estrada’s impeachment and eventual ouster, Demetriou resigned from her post as Comelec chief.
Demetriou’s successor, former Supreme Court administrator Alfredo Benipayo, soon found himself in the middle of the same bitter squabbling within the Commission. Benipayo, who was President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s first appointee to the poll body’s chairmanship in February 2001, also opposed the Photokina deal on the VRIS project. This became one of the main sources of friction between Benipayo and Estrada appointees Tancangco, Ralph Lantion, Rufino Javier, and Mehol Sadain – Comelec’s so-called ‘Gang of Four.’
Benipayo introduced his own reform program to Comelec. Unfortunately, his stint as poll body chief lasted only 15 months, as he was forced to step down on June 5, 2002 after being bypassed by the Commission on Appointments several times.
Politics in charge
The apolitical Benipayo was replaced by politician Benjamin S. Abalos, who was appointed by Arroyo on June 17, 2002. Abalos would head Comelec for nearly five years – the longest period served by a Comelec head since 1986 – and leave a legacy of scandals and eroded credibility.
Abalos’s appointment was unprecedented; at the time of his appointment, he was still sitting in the national directorate of Arroyo’s party Lakas-NUCD. Prior to his stint at Comelec, Abalos was chief of the Metro Manila Development Authority and a three-term mayor of Mandaluyong City.
He has acknowledged a close friendship with First Gentleman Miguel ‘Mike’ Arroyo, as well as with the siblings of Arroyo herself, and with the owners of Photokina, the Chua family.
Under Abalos, Comelec’s credibility, integrity, and independence suffered the most, registering a sharp decline in net trust ratings. From a high of +49 in February 2004, the commission’s trust ratings plummeted to -17 in March 2006 and -10 in September 2006 in surveys done by the Social Weather Stations.
The public’s distrust of Comelec could be attributed to the scandals that tainted the poll body under Abalos’s watch. A PCIJ report cited, among other mistakes, P2.3 billion of taxpayers’ money wasted in the election modernization program for the 2004 elections that the Abalos Comelec bungled. This included a P1.3-billion contract awarded to a consortium led by Mega Pacific e-Solutions, for the purchase of automated counting machines (ACMs). The Supreme Court later invalidated the contract for irregularities in the bidding process. Comelec, however, had already paid Mega Pacific P1.04 billion. Another P1 billion went into the voters validation system, which was suspended in December 2003 in the absence of any budgetary allocation.
The ‘Hello, Garci’ scandal that rocked not only the poll body, but also the Arroyo administration unfolded during the Abalos Comelec. The focus of much of the public’s ire, however, would be Arroyo herself and Virgilio ‘Garci’ Garcillano, the Comelec commissioner whose wiretapped phone conversations with the President revealed the manipulation of the 2004 election results in Mindanao.
Three years later, Abalos himself would be implicated in a controversy. Among other things, he was alleged to be the “broker” of the $329-million National Broadband Network project awarded to China’s Zhong Xing Telecommunications Equipment Limited (ZTE) project, for which he reportedly even offered millions of pesos in bribes to concerned officials.
Abalos resigned as Comelec chair and commissioner amid the NBN-ZTE scandal, an act that a PCIJ report said mimicked that of Richard Nixon in 1974. By resigning, Abalos effectively eluded an imminent impeachment trial brewing in Congress on the basis of a complaint filed at the House of Representatives.
The gargantuan task of restoring Comelec’s tattered image in the wake of Abalos fell on the shoulders of former Supreme Court Justice Jose Armando R. Melo. Prior to his appointment as Comelec chief on March 25, 2008, Melo had been tasked by Arroyo to head an independent fact-finding commission on extrajudicial and political killings.
But the poll body under Melo ran into yet another controversy, this time involving a P690-million contract for the purchase of special ballot-secrecy folders for the May 2010 elections. Comelec later scrapped the deal after admitting a “lapse” in judgment in awarding the “extravagant” contract.
Melo retired on Jan. 15, 2011 after serving as poll body chief for nearly three years. His unexpired term was taken over by Sixto S. Brillantes Jr., who was appointed by President Benigno S. Aquino III on Jan. 16, 2011.
Brillantes is the son of the late Ilocos Sur Governor and Comelec Commissioner Sixto Brillantes, who was appointed to the poll body by President Ramon Magsaysay on Dec. 20, 1956.
An election lawyer
The appointment of the younger Brillantes – an accomplished election lawyer – was met with doubts about his independence, with critics saying that he might not be able to resist political pressure from his former clients.
Indeed, in his long career, Brillantes had lawyered for some of the country’s top politicians, including presidential candidates Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. (1992), Joseph Ejercito Estrada (1998), Fernando Poe Jr. (2004), and Benigno S. Aquino III (2010).
From 2007 to 2009, he also served as legal consultant of the United Opposition (UNO), which was created by Vice President Jejomar Binay to unite all politicians against then President Arroyo. From 2001 to 2006, Brillantes was general counsel of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), which Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco Jr. heads as chairman emeritus.
Brillantes’s ties with Cojuangco, however, go back several decades. From 1972 to 1982, he was assistant vice president/legal affairs officer of the Cojuangco-owned Northern Cement Corporation. He continued to be involved in the company until 1986. From 1978 to 1986, he was legal counsel of the Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. Group of Companies, as well as the group’s director and corporate secretary from 1983-1986.
For all his critics’ dire predictions, Brillantes has led a Comelec that at least has been able to strictly enforce the rules on campaign finance and political advertising. – PCIJ, February 2015