Choosing credible Comelec leaders

MANILA, Philippines–THE RESIGNATION of Benjamin Abalos Sr. highlights the need for a new credible head of the Commission on Elections. Aside from the chair, however, there is another vacancy in the seven-member commission. And come Feb. 2, 2008, two more commissioners (Resurreccion Borra and Florentino Tuason) will retire, thereby presaging a full leadership change.

Some preliminaries. At the outset, let me tackle a few housekeeping legalities. Sec. 2 of Article IX (C) of the Constitution says, “Appointment to any vacancy (in the Comelec) shall be only for the unexpired term of the predecessor.” So, an appointee to the chairmanship now will hold office only until Feb. 2, 2007 when Abalos’ original term expires. The chair to be appointed after Feb. 2 shall serve the regular term of seven years, from 2008 to 2015. Nonetheless, the chair who may be named now cannot be reappointed to the seven-year term beginning in February 2008 because the Constitution bars “re-appointments.”

For the same reason, none of the present commissioners can be appointed chair (“Matibag vs Benipayo,” Apr. 2, 2002). In the meantime however, the incumbent members may designate one from among themselves to be an “officer in charge,” as they have already done.

Note that the incumbent commissioners shall select the officer in charge. The authority of the President to name, with the consent of the Comelec, the chair and the commissioners does not include “acting” or “temporary” appointments. “In no case,” declares the Constitution, “shall any Member be appointed or designated in a temporary or acting capacity.” In “Brillantes vs Yorac,” (Dec. 18, 1990), the Supreme Court nullified appointments “that are revocable at will,” because they undermine the independence of constitutional commissions.

Nevertheless, the President can immediately fill-up the commissionership that became vacant in February last year. The appointee shall hold office only until February 2013, not for the full seven years. “Gaminde vs Commission on Audit” (Dec. 13, 2000) ruled that the tenure of the commissioners shall expire at the end of the seven-year term “regardless of the dates of their appointments.”

Ideal poll officials. When fully constituted, the Comelec should have a chair and six commissioners who must all be (1) natural-born citizens; (2) at least 35 years old; (3) college degree holders; and (4) must not have been candidates in the last elections. Moreover, a majority of the commissioners “including the chairman” shall be lawyers who have been engaged in law practice for at least 10 years.

The Comelec has been granted the “exclusive original” power to decide “all contests relating to the elections, returns, and qualifications of all elective regional, provincial and city officials.” Moreover, its decisions regarding appeals of lower court judgments involving municipal and barangay elections are final. In short, the Comelec performs critical judicial functions; thus, its members–especially its chair–must possess the constitutional qualifications of judges, namely “proven competence, integrity, probity and independence.”

Equally important, the Comelec has been mandated to “enforce and administer” all election laws. Thus, its commissioners–again, especially its chair–must also be capable executives and visionary leaders. It is very difficult to find a person who possesses the qualities of both a judge and a leader. A jurist is a loner–cold, stoic, unreachable and unfathomable; a perceptive thinker and an ingenious writer, who composes personally all his or her decisions.

In contrast, a leader/executive is an incandescent team player who is versed in people skills; a consensus builder who systematically delegates authority and responsibility. A jurist is a recluse who meticulously follows precedents; who would rather play solitaire than toast cocktails or swing in ballrooms; a leader is an action person who innovates, re-engineers and reinvents new and better ways to propel an organization towards its vision, mission and core values.

Transparent process. The viability of our democracy depends on a credible Comelec led by an incorruptible chair and commissioners. To stress, these officials are rare, for they are both judges and leaders at the same time. And naming them becomes even more delicate due to the political pressures that bedevil the process and the choices.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is of course the indispensable player in choosing them. The integrity of the process and the quality of her choices will be her lasting legacy to democracy. Credible appointees will, I am sure, elevate her public trust rating, which per the latest SWS survey is now a dismal negative 11.

For the country’s sake and also for hers, the appointment process should be transparent, and participated in by the poll watch groups that have sacrificed their time, talents and treasures in the name of free elections. They should be invited to nominate candidates, to scrutinize their credentials, and in general, to monitor the process.

Before she exits in 2010, GMA would have named all seven members of the Comelec, including the three incumbents (Romeo Brawner, Rene Sarmiento and Nicodemo Ferrer) whom she appointed earlier. Will she bequeath to the nation an independent, competent and trustworthy Comelec that will finally reform and automate our archaic electoral system, and conduct credible, speedy and peaceful elections?

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