THE Commission on Elections’ en banc resolution allowing an extension of the final and non-extendible June 8 deadline for the filing of Statements of Contributions and Expenses (SOCE) by candidates in the May 9 elections constitutes not only an extremely dangerous precedent but, above all, a grave abuse of discretion and a patent violation of the law. It is null and void ab initio.
Commissioner Christian Robert Lim is reportedly set to resign today as head of the finance campaign office, in protest against the ruling, which seeks to set aside the provision of the Omnibus Election Code and Comelec Resolution 9991, by a vote of four to three. Both PDP-Laban, the President-elect’s adopted political party, and Vice President Jejomar Binay’s UNA have denounced the ruling as illegal, without saying whether they are taking any concrete action against it or not.
To the Supreme Court
For his part, election lawyer Manuelito Luna, who figured prominently in the celebrated citizenship case against the defeated presidential candidate Grace Poe Llamanzares, will be asking the Supreme Court in his capacity as a concerned citizen and taxpayer to invalidate the Comelec ruling and restore the “status quo ante.” This should happen sometime today.
Under the law, as clarified by Comelec Resolution 9991, a winning candidate may not take his oath of office if he or his party fails to file his SOCE within the deadline fixed by law. All the candidates have filed their individual SOCEs on time, but their party—the ruling Liberal Party—has failed to do so and has asked for a 14-day extension of the non-extendible deadline.
The campaign finance office called for strict compliance with the law and denial of the requested extension, but the banc decided to extend the deadline until June 30. The law does not grant the Comelec any such authority, but speaking for the banc, Commissioner Rowena Guanzon, one of the four commissioners who voted to extend, said that “procedural rules cannot prevail over the people’s sovereign will.”
Justifying the ruling, the Comelec spokesman pointed out that if the law were followed to the letter, the Vice-President-elect, five senators-elect, 40 governors-elect and 115 congressmen-elect would not be able to assume office, with incalculable adverse consequences to the operations of the entire government. This would be an absurdity, the spokesman said.
We respectfully disagree. Indeed, it would be most unfortunate if all these elected candidates were barred from taking their oath of office because their party had failed to do its basic duty. But this would be merely a consequence of the normal operations of the law. There is nothing absurd about the law, so by no means could we call it an absurdity.
Indeed, it would be an absurdity if, during the time that the candidates and the LP were preparing their SOCE, a major earthquake, tsunami, epidemic, terrorist attack or any other kind of force majeure struck and destroyed the nation’s cities and countryside, and all LP offices everywhere, and yet the Comelec insisted that they submit their SOCE on time, as if the national calamity did not exist.
Without any force majeure occurring, a real absurdity would arise if hundreds of winning candidates and their respective parties neglected to comply with the simplest legal requirement and yet were spared from any penalty because those who were supposed to enforce the law had decided to bend it, believing they possessed a power they did not have. What the Comelec has done to prevent a so-called absurdity is the real absurdity, which seeks to trample upon the law.
Commissioner Guanzon’s statement that procedural rules cannot rise above the people’s sovereign will, properly applied and understood, merits no debate. But there are written and unwritten rules attached to the grant of a sovereign mandate to ensure its validity and legitimacy. One such condition is that no candidate must accept financial contributions from an illegal or prohibited source nor spend more money in excess of the amount allowed by law.
For this purpose, the candidate and his party are required to submit a complete and accurate SOCE within an inflexible period fixed by law. This requirement cannot be waived because it is supposed to perfect a candidate’s and his party’s participation in the electoral process. If the SOCE shows that the candidate or his party had received donations from an illegal source, or had spent more money than was allowed by law, then he would have to be summarily disqualified by the Comelec, regardless of his claim to a “landslide victory.”
There have been high-profile examples of this, the latest being the popular candidate E.R. Ejercito, who won the 2013 governorship of Laguna, but was disqualified for spending more than he was allowed by law, according to his SOCE.
All winning candidates will have to take their oath of office at noon of June 30 in accordance with law. The June 8 deadline allows the Comelec a reasonably sufficient time to go through the SOCE of winning candidates to see whether each of them, together with their respective political parties, had complied with the law governing campaign contributions and expenses. Extending that deadline to June 30 would deny the Comelec the material time needed to examine the SOCE properly, especially those filed on the last day or the last few days.
It would thus reduce the filing of the SOCE, and its reception by the Comelec, into mere ministerial acts. The Comelec would no longer have the material time needed to discover that a particular candidate was in willful violation of the law governing the execution of this important document and had to be prevented from taking his oath of office.
The fact that the Vice-President-elect, five senators-elect, 40 governors-elect, and 115 congressmen-elect will not be able to take their oath of office because of the LP’s failure to comply with the law is not a problem of the Comelec, whose duty it is to enforce the law, but solely that of the candidates and the LP, which has failed to comply with the law. This should ultimately lead to LP’s disenfranchisement as an “irresponsible party,” even without the massive post-election migration of its members to Duterte’s new party.
I am not competent to describe the scenario that should obtain if and when the elected candidates mentioned above are unable to assume office. I can only speculate it would be scary. In the case of the Vice President, the Constitution provides that “whenever there is a vacancy in the Office of the Vice President during the term for which he has been elected, the President shall nominate a Vice President from among the Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives who shall assume office upon confirmation by a majority vote of all the Members of both Houses of the Congress, voting separately.”
But aside from the SOCE issue confronting Vice-President-elect Leni Robredo, her election is under serious question by her closest rival, Sen. Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos, Jr., who has alleged massive fraud, particularly in Muslim Mindanao, and has announced his intention to file a formal election protest before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, on June 28. This complicates the issue of vacancy in the Office of the Vice President, and how the above-quoted constitutional provision will apply.
Effects on Senate presidency
With respect to the vacancies occurring in Congress, the Constitution provides for special elections to fill up such vacancies. Meantime, the five Senate vacancies would reduce the 24 regular Senate members to only 19; in the House, the 115 vacancies would leave 177 active members. Both Houses would still have enough members to constitute a majority, but in the Senate, the five vacancies could alter the fight for the Senate presidency.
Sen. Aquilino Pimentel 3rd, the PDP-Laban’s lone member, was earlier reported to have sewed up with the support of the LP. But with Senate President Frank Drilon, top-ranking LP, and four others out in the cold, another senator could emerge to challenge Pimentel’s prospective Senate presidency.
In the case of the 40 governors-elect, they will simply be succeeded by their vice governors, thereby ensuring the uninterrupted operations of the provincial governments concerned. The LGUs are the least likely to be adversely affected by these developments.
Should the Supreme Court sustain the Comelec and confirm the extension of the SOCE deadline, President-elect Duterte might be encouraged to seriously consider his earlier “promise” to remove unwanted and unhelpful elements in government and simplify the running of government.
The simplification of his inaugural appears to be but a first step. Instead of holding the inaugural at the Rizal Park, where past Presidents had held theirs, President-elect Duterte will hold his at the Rizal Ceremonial Hall of Malacañang Palace, before a limited and controlled audience of 500 guests. He will be sworn into office by Associate Supreme Court Justice Bienvenido Reyes, a fraternity brother of the Lex Talionis Fraternitas at the San Beda College of Law, where they both studied law.
The choice of Reyes to administer the incoming President’s oath of office is reported to have caused “palpitations” on the part of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, whom President B.S. Aquino 3rd pole-vaulted from the most junior position to her present post after he had the late former Chief Justice Renato Corona impeached and removed from office on one “non-impeachable” offense by paid members of the House and the Senate impeachment court. At the time Reyes, a 2011 Aquino appointee, was offered the chance to become Chief Justice, but he formally declined being included in the “short list” of nominees “out of respect for the senior justices.”
Chief Justice fears
Although Duterte has not telegraphed any moves against the Chief Justice, Sereno appears to entertain fears that what Aquino had done to Corona the new President might do to her, without his having to invent any valid grounds for her impeachment and removal the way Aquino invented grounds against Corona. It is not clear whether Sereno has been invited to the Duterte inaugural.
Although the Vice President is traditionally sworn into office together with the President, this will not happen this time. Even if the High Court resolves the SOCE issue in favor of the LP, and all legal obstacles to Leni Robredo taking her oath are withdrawn, the plan is for her to hold her own separate oath-taking somewhere else. We do not have the precise details as of now, but we can be sure it will not be held at the Quirino Grandstand, and neither Sereno nor any other SC justice will administer her oath. Regardless of the venue, according to reports, a barangay official from Caramoan, Camarines Sur, will do the honors.
The apparent motif is one of extreme simplicity, which should create the intended news headlines. But the barangay official concerned might not have the competent authority to administer the oath to the incoming Vice President, especially if he or she would perform the act in Metro Manila, far away from his or her territorial jurisdiction.