Prepare for manual election now

MANILA, Philippines—In the early days of 1986, President Cory Aquino appointed Rene A. V. Saguisag as a member of the Supreme Court. Only in his forties at the time, Saguisag declined his signed appointment and opted to continue as presidential spokesman. Later, he won a seat in the Senate.

Politics-free selection. About the same time, Avelino V. Cruz—also in his forties then—was likewise offered a seat in the high court. But he also turned it down, preferring to remain as deputy prime minister, second in rank to Vice President Salvador Laurel who was the concurrent prime minister. At that time, the nation had a semi-parliamentary government, as provided under the 1973 Constitution.

As an aftermath of the Aquino-Laurel estrangement in late 1986 and of the effectivity of the 1987 Constitution that abolished the parliamentary system and re-instituted the presidential system, Ave Cruz (not to be confused with former Defense Secretary Avelino “Nonong” J. Cruz Jr.) was orphaned. He returned to the ACCRA Law Office where he is now chairman.

Both Saguisag and Cruz were bar topnotchers, outstanding lawyers and surely deserved seats in the high court. Had they accepted their membership, anyone of them could have been promoted chief justice. Consequently, Hilario G. Davide Jr., Reynato S. Puno and myself may not have reached the top because the duo would have been more senior in service, though younger in age, than the three of us.

A meticulous planner, Ferdinand Marcos lined up several justices on the seniority ladder so they could in time become chiefs. Among them was Ameurfina A. Melencio-Herrera, the second woman to cop the first place in the bar exam and a brilliant jurist of unquestioned integrity. But the Edsa revolution intervened and President Aquino reorganized the Supreme Court.

Although reappointed to the high bench in 1986, Justice Herrera was however pushed back in the seniority ladder and did not reach the top post. But she never complained nor recriminated. Neither did she lobby nor use political maneuvers to claim what could have been hers. She retained her judicial equanimity and served the Court with grace, dignity and independence.

My point is: The chief justiceship is a matter of destiny. In time, one of the present senior justices—who are all qualified—will probably become chief justice. The Judicial and Bar Council has started the selection process. All the legal eagles of the country have aired their comments. Even the leading presidential bets (Noynoy Aquino, Manny Villar, Erap Estrada and Gibo Teodoro) have opined that the new president should appoint the new CJ.

Let destiny take its course. Let not politics soil the integrity of the appointment. Otherwise, as the Jan. 17 Inquirer editorial so aptly put it, “no lawyer worth his or her salt would even contemplate accepting the poisoned chalice of a bogus chief magistracy from the President.”

* * *

Prepare for manual elections now. I was told that if India, with over 700 million voters, could successfully computerize its elections, so could the Philippines with only 47 million electors. The comparison is baseless. Being parliamentary, India does not conduct national elections similar to ours; it holds the rough equivalent of our local polls. Its president, vice president, senators and party lists are not elected directly by the people. Despite that, its automation was implemented in stages over many years. It is much simpler (but more cheating-prone) since paper ballots are not used; instead, “buttons” in the machines are pressed.

In contrast, our automation is time-constricted, complicated and national in scope. The ballot is huge: 28 inches long and 8.5 inches wide. Reader Ferdinand DeRamos says the Guinness Book of Records will surely include it as the “longest and most expensive” in the world.

From the onset, Comelec had been time-starved. Counting from the legal validation of its automation in Roque vs Comelec on Sept. 10, 2009, it had barely eight months to implement a problematic, dispute-plagued, nationwide computerized system. Worse, unnerving delays now bedevil its implementation and its logistics, not to mention many other unresolved enigmas, like the source code review, the training of teachers, the machines’ security and the ballot verification safeguards.

At bottom, Comelec cannot be totally faulted for its spotty automation record. But it must now recognize the impossibility of perfecting its computerization program on time and the real risk of failed elections in too many places that could collectively result in a failure of proclamation for the presidency and other national offices. While Comelec can escape blame for its failure to computerize due to reasons beyond its control, it cannot dodge responsibility for neglecting or failing to prepare for the old manual system.

After it decided to cancel the automation of the 2004 election, the Supreme Court had to release its decision in Information Technology vs Comelec on Jan. 13, 2004 because it knew that Comelec needed about four months to “manualize” the polls scheduled on May 10, 2004.

The 2010 election is less than four months away. Unless preparations are started now, Comelec cannot implement the old manual system come Election Day. Knowing now the formidable problems bedeviling the automation program, Comelec officials can no longer escape responsibility for that failure to implement manual polls and would have to face the wrath of our people.

 

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