How Arroyo can prolong her stay

MANILA, Philippines — In a pastoral statement issued last weekend, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP)—through its new president, Bishop Nereo Odchimar—urged the Commission on Elections to “make sure that there are prepared fallback positions that can be quickly adopted when there are glitches in the (automated election) system and in the logistics.” I take this as a reverberation of my opinion that Comelec should “prepare for manual polls now.”

PCOS tests inadequate. Comelec Chairman Jose A. R. Melo promptly replied that the commission “was still open to the possibility of reverting to manual polls,” a far cry from his earlier bluster of “apocalyptic predictions.”

Like most people, I too want liberation from the fraud-prone and super-slow manual system. However, the many unnerving delays, unsolved logistical problems, and unanswered technical questions have convinced me that Comelec can no longer perfect its automation system in time for the May 10 polls. The solution? Go manual all the way. “Hybrids” at this point would be risky because, like the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) system, there is no more time to test them properly.

In a media briefing on Jan. 27, Comelec Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal declared that the PCOS machines have successfully passed their laboratory and field tests. Granted arguendo. But I am not ready to rejoice because these tests involved only very few PCOS that were not representative of the total 82,200 machines.

More important, passing these generic hurdles is not an assurance of success in the actual run of the machines. Properly, the tests should be made after the machines have been calibrated to count the ballots specifically printed for each of the 1,630 towns in the country. Credible tests can be made only when the PCOS are already, to use Comelec’s own lingo, “precinct specific.”

Stated differently, a dry run should be conducted in each of these 1,630 towns, using the real ballots with the local candidates’ names (mayors, councilors, etc.) printed on them. This means that the ballots should first be printed correctly, delivered correctly to each of these towns and inserted correctly to the machines, which in turn must have also been correctly calibrated and correctly delivered. Unfortunately, Comelec has no more time for these crucial tests.

How “no proc” can happen. Let me grant, for the sake of argument, Comelec’s bravado that no “nationwide” automation failure would happen. Nonetheless, Comelec admitted during the congressional hearing last Jan. 27 that there may be automation problems in about 30 percent of the country. This is what worries me: problems and missteps—whether intended or not—in several towns and cities which, when put together, can legally trigger a failure of proclamation (no proc) for president, vice president and senators.

Consider this. The latest poll surveys indicate that the presidential race is getting tighter. Manny Villar appears to be closing the wide gap jump-started by Noynoy Aquino. Without predicting who will win, let us assume that the margin of the winning candidate would not exceed 10 percent of the votes cast. Since Comelec estimates that 40 million (out of the 47 million registered voters) would actually cast their ballots, the winning margin would not exceed four million (10 percent of 40 million), still a veritable “landslide.”

Glitches in 15 percent (not to say 30 percent) of the country would result in no-proc for the presidential race since 15 percent of the total votes cast (six million) would not be counted. Legally, when the unaccounted votes are determinative of victory, no one would be proclaimed winner, because these unaccounted votes could overhaul the lead of the front-runner. So, there would be no-proc for national offices, especially for the presidency.

How Arroyo can stay. On the other hand, there being no similar problems in 85 percent of the country, the local winners in these areas (governors, mayors, congressmen, including putative Rep. Gloria M. Arroyo) would be proclaimed. Hence, the House of Representatives could thereafter convene and elect its speaker.

Without a duly-proclaimed president come June 30, 2010, who would run the country considering that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Vice President Noli de Castro, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Speaker Prospero Nograles would all end their terms of office on that date? Answer: Arroyo can claim to be “holdover” president. Once elected speaker, she could then continue her reign as “acting” president, per the succession prescribed by the Constitution.

Can the Senate elect a new president after Juan Ponce Enrile’s term ends on June 30, 2010? No, the 12 remaining senators whose terms would end in 2013 will not constitute a quorum to do business. On the other hand, the new replacements would also suffer the “no-proc” syndrome.

In sum, a failed election in 15 percent of the country would give Arroyo the opportunity to become a holdover president, and then an acting president. These events could be dovetailed by a Cha-cha (sans a functioning Senate) installing a parliamentary government that would elect her as prime minister. All these grim scenarios will surely be elevated to the Supreme Court. This explains why, sadly, political maneuverings abound in the selection of the new chief justice.

What are the alternatives to these scenarios? Martial law? Military takeover? People power? Civil strife? All these? Heaven help our country.

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