Vigilance still needed; hail Archbishop Soc

THE SUPREME COURT cleared the legal obstacles to election automation posed by Harry Roque and his band of concerned citizens. The Commission on Elections may now conduct the 2010 polls pursuant to the contract it signed with the Smartmatic-TIM consortium. However, the duty to safeguard the election process remains as vital as ever.

Legal, not technical, issues. As I wrote on June 7, computerization hastens the counting and canvassing of the votes, but it is neither fraud-proof nor error-free. In fact, the Court’s decision (Roque vs Comelec, Sept. 10, 2009), penned by Justice Presbitero J. Velasco Jr., debunked mainly the legal, not the technical, issues.

It said that the contract was neither unconstitutional nor violative of the Anti-Dummy Law, the “minimum system capabilities” set by RA 8436 and the Comelec bidding requirements. Citing Comelec’s back up plans, the Court assured that a “failure of elections consequent to voting machines failure would, in fine, be a very remote possibility.” Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno concurred, “With these safeguards, the fear of automation failure should not overwhelm us.”

But Justice Antonio T. Carpio was not convinced. He anchored his dissent on the need to phase automation and to limit it to urban areas to be selected by the Comelec itself. He warned that nationwide automation is too risky to undertake all at once. Justice Arturo D. Brion deplored Comelec’s sharing its complete control of the elections with Smartmatic.

Significantly, the justices did not discuss at length the non-legal issues like possible system failures, computer glitches, logistical problems and technological difficulties. Being technical in nature, they are best left to the Comelec to address. As Justice Renato C. Corona’s separate opinion explained, the Court’s “function is merely to decide if automation and its implementing contract(s) are legal or not.”

Roque et al. may have lost the legal battle, but they still performed an important civic duty in pointing out the vulnerabilities of the Comelec automation system. In turn, having read and heard the many automation pitfalls during the course of the hearing, the poll body, I am sure, will be more careful in its work.

Equally important, the elections watchdogs will be more knowledgeable in safeguarding the electoral process. The Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting can now focus on voter education especially for the rural folks who have little exposure to computerization and the teachers who will run the voting booths on Election Day.

Next time, I will discuss (1) the pitfalls of automation and (2) the Comelec’s back up plans if automation fails, so as to minimize election frauds and avoid failure of election and no-proclamation scenarios.

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Soc Villegas elevated. Halleluiah to Monsignor Socrates B. Villegas for his promotion to the archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan, vice Archbishop (Abp.) Oscar V. Cruz who retired. Popularly known by his nickname “Soc,” Archbishop Villegas will celebrate his 49th birthday this September 28 as the youngest incumbent archbishop of the country.

There are over 100 Catholic bishops here, but there are only 16 archdioceses headed by 14 archbishops and two cardinals (Gaudencio B. Rosales of Manila and Ricardo J. Vidal of Cebu). A third Filipino cardinal, Jose T. Sanchez, lives in and works as Emeritus of Rome and does not preside over an archdiocese here. Cardinals are normally chosen from the ranks of archbishops.

Geographically, the residential archbishop – or in Church language, the “metropolitan” –
of Lingayen-Dagupan has jurisdiction over the capital of Pangasinan, two cities and 15 municipalities in the province. Its suffragan dioceses include Alaminos, Cabanatuan, San Fernando (La Union), San Jose (Nueva Ecija) and Urdaneta.

Though a metropolitan has no direct power of governance in the suffragan dioceses, he –
according to Canon Law 436 – “is competent (1) to exercise vigilance so that the faith and ecclesiastical discipline are observed carefully and to inform the Roman Pontiff of abuses, if there are any; (2) to conduct a canonical visitation for a cause previously approved by the Apostolic See if a suffragan has neglected it; and (3) to designate a diocesan administrator according to the norms” of canon law.

Cardinal Sin’s ward. After his sacerdotal ordination on Oct. 5, 1985, Archbishop Soc worked as secretary to Jaime Cardinal Sin. He gained national acclaim for assisting the well-known cardinal during the Edsa revolutions of 1986 and 2001. He was named bishop of Balanga (Bataan) on Aug. 31, 2001.

According to his very close friend, Monsignor Gerardo O. Santos, president of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines, Archbishop Villegas has an elephantine “capacity to listen and to respond as a man of dialogue. He has inherited the mantle of prophecy from Cardinal Sin in the same way that Elisha did from (the biblical prophet) Elijah.”

I have personally known Archbishop Soc for over two decades. He was the first person I called on the early morning of Jan. 20, 2001 – at the height of People Power II revolution – to tell him that then Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr. had agreed with my proposal to swear in Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Archbishop Soc celebrated the Eucharist during major events in my life and career, including the one held during my retirement ceremonies as chief justice on Dec. 6, 2006. I believe he will follow in the footsteps of Cardinal Sin, his mentor and spiritual father.

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