Probing poll frauds

The Joint Panel, created by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Comelec Chairman Sixto Brilliantes Jr., is all set to conduct an investigation into the alleged massive cheating during the 2004 and 2007 elections. Separately, Congress is also poised to begin its own probe.

Rationale for proclamations. Critics immediately belittled the investigations as repetitive and partisan witch-hunts to discredit the former regime. They said that the charges are nothing new and have already been laid to rest when Congress proclaimed Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as the duly elected president, and Noli de Castro as the duly elected vice president of the country.

The critics added that the legitimacy of the proclamation was confirmed when the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), composed of all of the justices of the Supreme Court, dismissed the election protests lodged by the late Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ) against GMA, and by Loren Legarda against De Castro. To understand the issues, it is best to review (1) the rationale for the proclamations, (2) the dismissal of the protests and (3) the purposes of the new probes.

The Constitution mandates Congress to proclaim the winners of the presidential and vice presidential races. To do this, Congress does not count the ballots cast by the voters. It just adds up the total votes shown on the face of all the certificates of canvass prepared by the boards of canvassers in each province or city. It merely passes upon the “authenticity and due execution” of each city and provincial certificate of canvass. Once Congress is satisfied that the certificate of canvass is authentic and duly executed, it accepts the figures shown on the “face” thereof and no longer digs into other documents.

This is why, despite the protestations of Sen. Tito Sotto to open the ballots or election returns supporting the certificate of canvass, the presiding officer during the 2004 congressional canvass, Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, merely responded with “Noted,” leading Sotto to christen him “Mr. Noted.”

The election was held on May 10, 2004. “Not later than 30 days after the day of the election,” the Constitution required Congress to begin the canvass. Congress had a very limited time to canvass because the winners would begin their terms of office on the following June 30. Indeed, it had only about a month to canvass and had no time to look at the ballots and other documents supporting the city and provincial certificates of canvass. GMA was proclaimed winner in the wee hours of June 24, 2004 and took her oath of office at noon of June 30, 2004.

Dismissal of election protests. Refusing to concede defeat, FPJ and Legarda filed separate election protests in the PET, which is authorized by law to examine the ballots and to recount them. On Dec. 14, 2004, during the pendency of his protest, FPJ died of “cardio-pulmonary arrest, secondary to cerebral infarction.”

“To ascertain the true and genuine will of the electorate,” FPJ’s widow, Susan Poe, moved to be substituted in place of her deceased husband. However, the PET denied her plea because she was not a “real party in interest.” The PET said that, even assuming that GMA cheated in the elections, Mrs. Poe could not be proclaimed president since nobody voted for her as such. Thus, the PET dismissed the protest without passing upon the election frauds asserted by FPJ.

Had Vice President De Castro or Loren Legarda intervened, the PET hinted that the substitution could have been granted, the protest allowed to continue, and the claimed irregularities ruled upon.

Later on, the PET also dismissed Legarda’s protest because, among other reasons, she ran for and won as senator in 2007. By assuming the office of a senator, she was deemed to have abandoned her claim to the vice presidency because she could not hold the offices of senator and vice president simultaneously.

Purposes of new probes. Given that the two protests had been dismissed, may the Joint DoJ-Comelec Panel and Congress still investigate the alleged poll cheating? Yes, but not to remove GMA from the presidency. That is no longer possible, her term having expired on June 30, 2010.

However, the Joint Panel can investigate for the purpose of determining whether electoral crimes have been committed and by whom. Congress may conduct a separate inquiry for a different purpose: to craft or amend legislation governing the canvass of presidential and vice presidential contests. Verily, the Constitution expressly authorizes Congress to enact laws to determine the “authenticity and due execution” of the provincial and city certificates of canvass, as well as to “promulgate rules for the canvassing of the certificates.”

On the other hand, GMA would be within her legal rights to keep silent and to decline any request for comment on bare allegations against her. Indeed, when in jeopardy of criminal prosecution, it is best to follow the legal advice to be silent. Any statement made could be used against the declarant in a subsequent legal proceeding. But, for being self-serving, the declaration cannot be used in favor of the accused.

***

Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales will turn 79 on Aug. 10. His repeated request to be allowed to retire has finally been approved. In characteristic humility, the low-key cardinal wants to be remembered as a simple worker in the vineyard of the Lord, without public adulation or human reward.

Meantime, the faithful eagerly await his successor as archbishop of Manila. Abangan!

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