MANILA, Philippines–HOPE. THAT IS WHAT RETIRED JUSTICE Jose A. R. Melo’s appointment to the Commission on Elections brought to those who want to strengthen the normal constitutional method of changing leaders. The Supreme Court may be the last bulwark of democracy but the Comelec is the first. Honest, orderly and peaceful elections are impossible without a trustworthy Comelec. And a trustworthy Comelec begins with a competent, courageous and credible chair.

Nominated by independents. Despite a less than transparent process of choosing the Comelec head, President Macapagal-Arroyo has nonetheless chosen someone nominated by independent poll watchdogs, notably, the Volunteers for Clean Elections headed by former Comelec Chair Christian Monsod, and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting led by former Ambassador to the Vatican Henrietta T. de Villa.

Monsod and De Villa did not know Melo. But after Malacañang floated his name as a possible appointee, both civic leaders requested me to arrange separate meetings with him. To be fair, Melo initially refused to meet them because he might be perceived as lobbying for support. “I am not applying for the job but if offered by the President, I will accept it to help reform our electoral process,” he said. I persuaded him to see them so they could be convinced of his credentials. And convinced they were, as shown by their unsolicited endorsements.

During a dinner I hosted in our house for the Catholic Bishops? Conference of the Philippines on Jan. 26 (the first day of the CBCP annual meeting), Melo was a major topic of conversation. De Villa, whom I invited to the affair, put to rest the bishops? doubts about his fitness for the job. After all, she knew all the bishops who in turn relied on her lay evaluation of current events.

At the dinner, I got the distinct impression that most of the bishops I had spoken with were, like me, willing to collaborate critically with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo despite their deep reservations about her checkered political governance and the many scandals rocking her administration, provided there is assurance of a peaceful and democratic transfer of power come the elections in 2010 (and provided corruption is abated). This assurance is not possible without a credible Comelec chair.

Three criticisms. Melo has not been spared of criticisms. The first concerns his age. In May this year he will be 76. Nonetheless, I believe he is still physically strong and mentally agile. This is evident from the way he conducted the hearings of the Melo Commission on extralegal killings. He was alert, brisk and forthright.

Those who have seen him wallop golf balls will easily attest to his stamina. Chronological age is not a measure of mental and physical agility. Look at Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Joker Arroyo. Both are many years his senior, but I dare anyone say that they are too old to serve.

The second objection relates to his presence during the Senate investigation on the ZTE broadband imbroglio, where media cameras caught him seated behind resigned Comelec Chair Benjamin Abalos. His explanation to me was simple, “I had nothing to do with Abalos. I was seated in the row reserved for lawyers, because I was asked by Secretaries Romulo Neri and Leandro Mendoza to render legal advice to them in accordance with Senate rules.”

Third, some fear that his “closeness” to GMA may taint his actions. True, Pepe Melo’s family had known the Macapagals for decades. President Diosdado Macapagal and Pepe’s father, Rufino, had been friends since their teaching days at the University of Santo Tomas. But long-time friendship does not necessarily imply subservience or docility. The new Comelec chair may be mild-mannered but he is not a wimp. He listens patiently to opposing views, but once he makes up his mind, he is resolute and unwavering.

Besides, to be effective, Melo would need the cooperation of the President and Congress. A tactless and naive Comelec chair who unnecessarily taunts the Executive and Legislative departments will not get the necessary logistics to automate and reform the electoral process. He must also have the support of the military, the police, the schoolteachers, and, of course, the Comelec staff. All these require delicate balancing and visionary leadership.

I consider Pepe Melo a dear friend, despite our many disagreements during our seven-year encounter in the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, our friendship has endured to this day because it is based on mutual respect, not on servility or platitudes. Indeed, we have differed on principles without being difficult in person.

As a friend, I will always remind him that beyond the appointing authority, there is media to scrutinize him, history to evaluate him, a grateful nation to cheer (or jeer) him and an all-knowing God to judge him.

Wisdom and courage. I do not think we should expect GMA to appoint—and the Commission on Appointments to confirm—a Comelec head who is hostile or indifferent to them. Neither should we expect GMA to appoint one who unflinchingly accommodates the critics of the President. It is enough that the Comelec chair has the wisdom to discern what is best for our country, and the courage to carry it out no matter how difficult it may be and no matter how long it takes.

Having known Pepe Melo for over 50 years now, I can honestly say that he possesses such essential wisdom and courage. And patriotism, too. Indeed, he has engendered hope for honest, peaceful and orderly elections.

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