Less than two months before the presidential elections, the Commission of Elections (COMELEC), the Philippines' independent electoral authority, has been mired in controversy itself. It is high time to reform one of the oldest election commissions in the region.
Leading Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. continues to have disqualification cases at the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), casting a shadow of a possible constitutional crisis if a final decision is not resolved before election day on 9 May.
The electoral commission found itself in a quandary when groups, including former political detainees during the dictatorship, challenged the certificate of candidacy of Marcos Jr. given his 1995 conviction for tax evasion. The Omnibus Election Code makes mention of certain types of conviction as a ground for disqualification. The particular case of Marcos Jr. falls into a grey area. For effective electoral dispute resolution, the commission had fifteen days to rule, a prompt decision-making timetable that protects the integrity of the electoral process.
Rowena Guanzon, one of the Commissioners, had retired in early February. On the eve of her retirement, Guanzon accused a fellow election commissioner of delaying the commission’s decision in favor of Marcos Jr., so that Guanzon’s vote against his candidacy would not count. Guanzon alleged that the fellow commissioner had delayed the release of the ruling at the behest of a Senator from Davao. Davao is President Rodrigo Duterte’s stronghold, and appointments to many key government positions have gone to his fellow Davaoeños.
The very public exchange of the internal adjudication workings of the commission is unprecedented. While disagreements among election commissioners are not uncommon, there was always an attempt to work with collegiality and come out with a united position as judicial agents in addressing any electoral dispute.
The adjudication duties of the COMELEC relate to its election administration duties. The electoral process is timebound and crucial to the predictability of the process and ultimately to political stability. Therefore, electoral disputes need prompt resolutions, and if parties are unsatisfied, they have the option for a timely recourse in the Supreme Court before elections, as in the case of Grace Poe for the 2016 elections.
The accusation that a clientelistic relationship exists between an election commissioner and a Senator is a serious charge to volley at the COMELEC. If the reason behind the delay in the dismissal case of Marcos Jr. is to silence the vote and opinion of a senior COMELEC commissioner (Guanzon), this exposes cracks in an election administration body that has never quite thoroughly shaken off its past.
A COMELEC in Continuum
The episode above reveals a COMELEC in a continuum. This purportedly independent election commission continues to suffer from institutional weakness and by issues of clientelism and capacity. As a result, elections in the Philippines appear unwieldy. The COMELEC is a constitutional commission designed to have more autonomy than other government agencies. Its full slate of seven commissioners are appointed by the president and hold seven-year terms. The COMELEC’s mandate is to administer elections and resolve all disputes arising from the electoral process. It is not a mere spectator to the machinations of dominant political players and actors, but is the authority on all matters related to the electoral process and its administration.
At the beginning of the 2022 electoral cycle, the filing of certificates of candidacy had multiple placeholder candidates, which effectively made a mockery of the electoral rules. When political parties use placeholder candidates, disparate forces with political and economic interests can still come together. It is a strategy that buys candidates time to build on their name recognition, negotiate alliances and create strategic, political smokescreens. An election commission intent on showing its authority could have released official statements to admonish political parties and sent a strong warning to stop this practice.
An election management body is not a mere spectator to the machinations of dominant political players and actors. Instead, it should be the authority on all matters related to the electoral process and its administration.
It is time to examine possible reforms in the Philippines’ election management body. One potential area of reform is the decoupling of the administration and adjudication duties of the commission. This can lead to a more effective election commission. As administrators, election management experts can work alongside election law experts (the adjudicators) with duties delineated within the commission. In other countries, a vetting framework exists for election management bodies. In the absence of genuine political parties in the Philippines and the increasing ‘anarchy of parties’ (referring to their low levels of institutionalisation and increasing fragmentation), the burden to vet candidates need not be left to voters alone.
The second area of reform is a participatory vetting process. By law, the COMELEC accepts the self-declaration of the certificate of candidacy (COC) as true and correct. As part of its regulatory function, the commission can publish the COCs for the public to scrutinise, coupled with a campaign encouraging voters to do so.
Third, appointments matter. Because of the nature of elections, impartiality establishes electoral integrity, made important even more so in a politically polarised environment and where political suspicion could potentially encourage extra-constitutional actions similar to the riots conducted by Trump supporters at the US Capitol in early 2021. Just the mere perception of partiality or fraud can create political instability and undermine the credibility of the electoral process.
The COMELEC is one of the oldest election commissions in the region. However, it does not appear to be impartial. It is led by commissioners appointed by President Duterte with close ties to him and his allies. It will take a charter change to modify the current framework of appointments that favours the executive. Models in other countries include a public nomination for commissioners and accountability mechanisms with oversight functions.
The COMELEC has the mandate to lead the electoral process with integrity and credibility. However, for this to be a reality, the pace of reforms within the commission needs to pick up. The reforms should combine administrative reforms that do not require constitutional change, an appointment framework that will require constitutional change and reforms through legislative action.
Congress needs to update the 1985 Omnibus Election Code for the commission to meet the expectations of a modern election management body. The election code is older than the constitution and was created when COMELEC was widely known to be partisan and in favour of the Marcos dictatorship. Improving the quality of elections in the Philippines means having an electoral commission that can effectively regulate competition among power-seekers and level an increasingly expensive electoral playing field limited to a few.
Cleo Calimbahin is Associate Professor of Political Science at De La Salle University-Manila.