Election queries answered at ehope2010.ph

THE COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS IS A POWERful agency. To be able to conduct honest, orderly and peaceful elections (hope), it had been amply armed with both executive and judicial powers by our Constitution. Like the president of the Republic, the Comelec enforces and administers laws, except that this executive authority is limited to “laws and regulations relative to the conduct of an election, plebiscite, initiative, referendum and recall.”

Grave abuse. Like the courts, it decides controversies. Hence, it is often referred to as a quasi-judicial agency. In general, its actions and decisions on electoral matters are final and unappealable, except by certiorari when they are issued beyond its authority, or “with grave abuse of discretion.” There is grave abuse of discretion when an act (1) is done contrary to the Constitution, the law or jurisprudence, or (2) is executed capriciously, whimsically or arbitrarily out of malice, ill will or personal bias.

Only on these grounds may the Supreme Court (not any other tribunal) reverse or modify a Comelec decision. Furthermore, the high court is deferential to the presumed expertise of the Comelec on electoral matters. Despite the finality of its actions and the difficulty of contesting them, the commission has opened itself to questions posed by media and by our people in general. Such transparency and accountability should beget the trust of our people.

At my suggestion, it opened last Oct. 28 a website, ehope2010.ph, where it agreed to post its replies to comments raised in this column. Readers may also send questions directly to Commissioner Rene V. Sarmiento (rvsarmiento@pacific.net.ph), with copy to me for monitoring purposes. Alternatively, queries may also be posted directly on the website.

The website is intended to be a reliable authority on poll automation. Ultimately, its goal is to assure the public of the Comelec’s readiness to conduct the 2010 polls and to minimize, if not totally banish, lingering fears of a failed election.

In a visit at my home last Oct. 28, Commissioner Sarmiento and Ateneo Professor Renato B. Garcia (IT consultant of Comelec Chairman Jose A. R. Melo), accompanied by lawyer Albert Rodriguez and Sarmiento’s IT consultant Antonio Villasor, assured me that all questions would be answered via the website. Next Sunday, I will write more extensively on our conversation.

Rx to Estrada problems. The question “How do you solve a problem like Estrada” asked in this space last Sunday elicited interesting reactions. In his Oct. 26 column, my Inquirer colleague, Neal H. Cruz, answered, “Let the people decide!” He capped his comment with an oft-cited legal maxim, “Vox populi vox dei. The voice of the people is the voice of God.” If Estrada wins the 2010 polls, “this means that the sovereign people have forgiven him … and want him to be their elected official.”

After initially arguing that Joseph “Erap” Estrada was forbidden by the Constitution from running again, Malacañang turned around and conceded that he deserved a new crack at the top post. To justify the volte-face, Press Secretary Cerge Remonde cited another Latin axiom of the same genre, “Salus populi est suprema lex. The voice of the people is the supreme law. It is wiser to let the people decide.”

My Supreme Court colleague, retired Justice Vicente V. Mendoza, put the issue in juridical language: Erap’s eligibility posed “a question of interpretation… the question is not what voters think but what the Supreme Court reads (the Constitution) to mean, that is, the question is not political” in nature, but a legal one.

In other words, whether Erap should be allowed to run for president should be deemed a “justiciable” issue to be settled in accordance with legal principles, not a “political” question to be left to the people to vote on. On this basis, he thinks the reelection ban is “forever.” However, if the tribunal fails to resolve the issue on time and Erap is “somehow” voted president, then his election would be a fait accompli. Thus, he said, the Court would be faced with a dilemma similar to (though not identical with) the infamous Javellana vs Executive Secretary (March 31, 1973).

Simple solution. On the other hand, reader Henry Ong has a simple solution, “Comelec should just disallow Erap from filing his Certificate of Candidacy and let Erap go to the Supreme Court.” However, I reckon that the Comelec will probably wait for the proper parties to file their petitions challenging his eligibility and then, after appropriate proceedings, decide. This is an essential part of due process that all agencies of government are bound to observe.

True enough, at the Kapihan sa Maynila forum on Oct. 25, Comelec spokesman James Jimenez said that the poll body would give due course to Erap’s COC. His name would therefore be printed on the ballot, unless the eligibility suit is finally decided against him by the Supreme Court prior to the ballot printing on Jan. 9 (which is improbable).

At bottom, in whatever way the Comelec and the Court resolve the Estrada riddle, there will be brickbats, leading another reader, Dr. A. P. Samson, to bemuse, “Erap’s problems will cause the justices (and the Comelec commissioners) constitutional headaches of sorts. I just wish none of them has hypertension. In which case, I will be happy to volunteer my expertise and treat them pro bono.” Such typical Filipino humor is always refreshing in the face of the toughest crises hounding us.

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