A great Filipino; Comelec dilemma

OSCAR M. Lopez, the patriarch of the Lopez business empire, has been named one of The Outstanding Filipinos (Tofil) for 2009. He and his pedigreed family are known for their business acumen, old wealth and philanthropy. But what truly distinguish him are—in my view—his vision, values and principles, and his unyielding courage to uphold them regardless of cost.

Truly great Filipino. I first met him in early 2007, after I retired from the Supreme Court, when he (along with Meralco chairman Manolo Lopez and ABS-CBN chairman Gabby Lopez) invited me to join First Philippine Holdings Corp. (and later on, Meralco too) as an independent director.

Although his family controls First Holdings and its affiliates, OML (as he is fondly called) never bulldozes his way. Quite the contrary, he always seeks and respects the views of every director. When decisions are made, the main question is not merely, “Is the transaction economically viable?” The questions are equally, “Is the proposal legal, moral and ethical in every way? Will it enhance not only the interests of investors, customers and employees but also the community and the people at large?”

Many of the Lopez enterprises are highly regulated by the government. That is why it is very tempting for the patriarch to be always on the right side of high government leaders. And this is not really difficult to do because the Lopez empire includes a huge media network that could be used to mouth partisan biases.

But OML stubbornly refuses to use his formidable clout to sidle up to politicians or to polish regulators. He never compromises truth, good governance and ethical behavior to be able to build a much larger business conglomerate or to earn much more money. He always stands for what he believes is right and lasting, rather than what is convenient and passing.

Over the years, the Lopez Group has been victimized, wounded, unfairly treated, even taken over illegally and arbitrarily, but like the proverbial phoenix, it has risen from the ashes and has been restored, revitalized and reborn even stronger, larger and mightier.

The Tofil award is being given for his many achievements in business. However, I think Oscar M. Lopez should be honored for being a truly great Filipino.

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To print or not to print. The Commission on Elections is now weeding out the ineligible, unqualified and nuisance candidates. This process can be long and arduous considering that the ousted candidates may appeal Comelec decisions all the way to the Supreme Court.

A good example is Joseph “Erap” Estrada. The challenges to his eligibility had been started in the poll agency but will probably reach the high court. The Comelec has already publicly said that while the case is pending, Erap’s name would be printed on the automated ballots; otherwise, he cannot be voted, even if he eventually wins the legal challenge to his eligibility. I took this up on Oct. 25 and will no longer belabor the discussion.

The question now is: would the Comelec treat all candidates in the same manner? For instance, will the names of presidential bets Mark Jimenez, Oliver Lozano, etc. be also printed on the ballot? The constitutional right to equal protection of the law seems to demand an affirmative answer.

But this answer may be impossible to implement. You see, the Comelec says that the automated ballot can be loaded with only 300 names, 150 on each side. The front side will be devoted to national candidates and the reverse side, local candidates. All in all, 99 have filed certificates of candidacies for president, 20 for vice president, 158 for senators and 306 for party list; a total of 583 national candidates! Clearly, it is impossible to print even 50 percent of these bets on the front side of the ballot.

Party-list knot. Like the presidential candidacies, cleansing the party list is tough. In Banat vs Comelec (April 21, 2009), the Supreme Court decreed that party-list representatives must, repeat must, fill 20 percent of the House of Representatives. According to the Comelec, there are 222 congressional districts. Ergo, there should be at least 55 party-list seats. Note that 306 groups are vying for these 55 seats. In the name of equal protection, will the Comelec also print these 306 party lists on the ballot pending the finality of the judgments ousting some of them? Remember that the front side can load only 150 names, including those running for president, vice president, senators and party list.

Decisions on party-list accreditations are sometimes knotty. For example, in ousting Ang Ladlad, which espouses gay rights, the Comelec invoked wobbly religious and gender grounds. While this decision is on appeal to the Supreme Court, would Ang Ladlad’s candidacy, like that of Erap, be printed on the automated ballot?

Instead of inventing new grounds to reject party-list applications, the Comelec should just enforce the eight clear guidelines set by the Supreme Court in Ang Bagong Bayani vs. Comelec (June 26, 2001 and June 25, 2003) and reaffirmed in Banat vs. Comelec (April 21, 2009).

In sum, the Comelec will have a formidable legal dilemma determining who would be printed on the limited space of the automated ballot. It will have to walk a tight rope balancing the real “nuisances” who ought to be eliminated outright and those with borderline cases who should be retained on the ballot pending final determination of their eligibility or qualifications. Not an enviable job by any measure.

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