Friday, July 13, 2007

After the Elections, Before Electoral Reforms

Written by Patrick Patiño / IPD
Monday, 25 June 2007

Like the 2004 elections, the recently-concluded senatorial and local elections cry out for reforms --reforms in the rules of elections. There is a need to reform the extensive powers and functions of the Commission of Elections. There is a need to reform a system of elections that is capital-intensive, (photo mula sa; and prone to violence and fraud. Reform is also required because electing leaders is still based on personality, money, coercion and the patronage of political families. It is also crucial to delimit the powers of the Presidency, which have proven capable of abusing electoral institutions, rules and processes for partisan interests.

Is there possibility for electoral reforms? The political environment shaped by the 2007 elections provides the opportunity. But the more important question is – what kind of reforms, if there are?

The Congress
It is in the halls of Congress where national laws and reforms are legislated. Can we expect genuine and substantial reforms from the forthcoming 14th Congress in the next three years?

The incoming Senate is expected to be the arena of traditional, independent-minded and of a reformist opposition. The entry of young Senators trained in the obstacle (dis-)course in the House of Representatives will re-shape the deliberations in the Upper Chamber. We can expect the Senate to initiate electoral reforms. On the other hand, it is a different matter if the Senate can push the passage of proposed reforms. There are three factors. First, it is not easy to get the support of the House of Representatives, being the bailiwick of traditional politicians and pro-administration representatives, without a trade-off or compromise. Second, some individual Senators will already gear up for the 2010 presidential elections. Third, the energies of the Senate will likely be spent in opposition to the administration’s attempt to resurrect the revision of the Constitution, especially if such a project threatens the ambition of some Senators for 2010.

The in-coming House of Representatives is now overwhelmingly dominated by representatives and political parties aligned with the Arroyo administration. Even with new faces, majority of congresspersons are traditional politicians and representatives of political clans. Ninety-three of the incumbent representatives that supported the thrashing of the impeachment complaint against GMA were re-elected. Malacanang had contributed massively to their victories in the last elections.

The administration coalition is now stronger than before. Despite its decrease, from 116 members to 92, the Lakas-CMD is still the dominant party; Kampi with 46; NPC with 27; LDP – 5 and PDSP – 3. The dominance of the administration coalition may place the 14th Congress in an awkward situation -- where the the “Minority” posts may end up being occupied by the pro-administration majority and not by the opposition. If this happens, it would be easy for the administration to push its agenda, especially the ones that were not consummated during the last Congress because of the minority rights exercised by the opposition.

On the other hand, the increase in the size of the administration coalition has also spurred competition among political parties and individual politicians. Anticipate the manifestations in the upcoming maneuvers for the positions of Speaker, Deputies and Chairs of the different House Committees. In the next three years, dissent within the coalition will be constant and break-up will be a possibility. Coalition-maintenance costs in terms of pork barrel disbursements can thus rise especially when crucial legislation needs to be pushed.

The Arroyo administration failed to alter the equation in terms of the balance of forces in the Senate, though it has succeeded in solidifying the wall of defense in the Lower House against an impeachment of Ms. Macapagal-Arroyo. The victory of the majority of administration allies in the local elections (municipalities, cities and provincies) entrenched the political base of GMA. Expect the administration to take advantage of the barangay elections in October to further deepen its political base. The Malacanang spin-doctors are currently highlighting the economy’s performance, while the president goes hopping in various countries to attract foreign capital. In this way, the administration hopes to expand its “Let’s move on” social base.

From this position of strength, GMA can de-fuse antagonism between her and the opposition. She did this first by conceding to the defeat of the administration’s Team Unity in the Senate race, and then calling for stability and laying her 8-point 2007-2008 development agenda without waiting for the official proclamation of the Senate race winners. Despite the administration’s strength in the lower house GMA appears to want some distance from issues that may re-ignite opposition and popular fervor. It would be better for GMA to leave the opposition as it is – an opposition operating within institutional confines that Malacanang can influence.

The interest of the administration to tinker with the Constitution remains - possibly with new innovations. Part of any innovation is to avoid the identification of the project with Jose de Venecia possibly by re-locating the debates that will ensue away from the House of Representatives.

It is possible that the move within the administration party Kampi to find a House Speaker to replace de Venecia is related to this de-centering of the charter change project from the House of Representatives. It is also likely that there will also be moves within the administration coalition in the House of Representatives to pursue constitutional change via the Constitutional Convention mode -- as an act of contrition perhaps for the hare-brained attempt to convert the Lower House into a body that would re-write the Constitution, all by itself.

If Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is indeed now in “legacy-mode” and no longer fighting for survival she will also want to have a House of Representatives that will focus on putting in place the legal prerequisites of her programmatic agenda as “the economist-president”. The sustained economic growth of the recent semesters may well be fashioned by Malacanang as the center-piece of that legacy.

GMA believes that she can only leave or establish the imprint of her development program through a strong Presidency if there are no hitches from the legislature; if she is able to put in place economic and trade policies along the framework of “counter-terrorism” and “neo-liberalism.”

For political purposes, the Charter change project (as distinguished from a Charter change project focused on the long-term agenda for revisions or amendments) can also be used by the Arroyo administration as a mechanism for the institutional mediation and containment of recurring antagonism between and among political and economic elites, organized political forces and civil society formations.

It may be too early to say that the outcome of the 2007 election has provided GMA the political environment to shift either into legacy mode or towards a post-2010 agenda. The battles waged from within an insurgent Senate may yet spill beyond its institutional confines. Before GMA can move forward or look calmly towards 2010, her administration must find a formula for establishing political stability despite the tempest of issues, controversies and antagonism that were let lose by the administration itself.

It is possible for the administration to dangle Constitutional Convention as the mode for Charter Change. There are three factors that may nudge the administration towards the Con Con mode. First, the administration has the capacity to dominate the election of delegates that shall compose the Convention. Second, the schemes for Constituent Assembly (Con Ass) and the People's Initiative (PI) have completely lost feasibility due to several failures. Both Con Ass and PI easily expose partisan and narrow motives of Malacanang. Third, the Con Con mode could easily muster support from sectors that were previously anti-Con Ass and PI.

The downside of it is that the call for an election of delegates to the Constitutional Convention may bring to the fore issues concerning elections, particularly on the role of the Commission on Elections (Comelec). Of course there is no change of the constitution that can happen without popular ratification; inevitably the credibility of the COMELEC is a matter that even the administration may want to give attention to.

The Comelec
The Comelec, as the constitutional body tasked with administering elections is expected to put electoral reforms on the agenda (besides Congress) as one of its institutional functions. But Comelec can may have lost credibility as an initiator of reforms because its own officials have been implicated in several failures and anomalies. Chairman Benjamin Abalo's term of office expires next year and if he is not made accountable for the failures and anomalies within the Commission, we can not expect credibility for the major reforms that may be launched from within the Comelec itself.

Chairman Abalos has to explain why the fact-finding investigation of the Hello Garci scandal was not pursued by the Commission and why a new Commissioner (Sarmiento) had to take it upon himself to ask the Commission to carry on with its own self-assigned investigative task? Is the inefficiency of the Comelec in the recent election – the usual consequence of an institutional flaw or was this all feigned and planned? Were the anomalies in the printing of election materials a result of inefficiency or of a plan -- this appears to have been a prerequisite to the selling of ballots and election returns on election day and during the canvassing of votes. Were the delays in the public release of the Computerized Voters' List that resulted in the massive sale of CVLs without Comelec receipts a result of institutional inefficiency or of a plan; and what of the numerous double-entries of registered voters in the project of precincts, etcetera.

Besides Abalos, three other Commissioners are also retiring next year. The power to appoint the Chairman and members of the Commission rests on the President with concurrence from the Congressional Committee on Appointments. After the Garci scandal this presidential power should at best be seen as an anachronism. Expect that issues against the mechanism and process of appointment will add fuel to the discourse for electoral reform. It is critical to pose two questions: can electoral reformers intervene in making the mechanism and process of appointment transparent, consultative and criteria-based, in the immediate term? How far can substantial electoral reforms be pushed in the long term?

The Reform Movement
Chances are nil that Congress, Malacanang and Comelec can seriously initiate and push the realization of substantial electoral reforms. These institutions may finally come out and implement a computerized voting and counting system in 2010 but fundamental problems in election rules, conduct and supervision remain.

The disposition and capacities of political parties; popular political formations; the academe, media, business, church and organized reform groups are decisive in the aggressive push for electoral reforms. It seems that the impetus will come from nowhere else. There is an urgent and important need for electoral reforms but the reform base and constituency appear to be very thin. We have seen how electoral reform movements become prominent during elections. Most of these, however, demobilize after that.

There is a need for various electoral reform movements to weave the threads of their different initiatives into a coherent movement; come out with comprehensive and concrete reform proposals and shape various forms of campaigns and lobbies until reforms are realized. Congress stays as the bailiwick of anti-reformers but there is that potential working with “electoral reform blocs” among legislators – whether of the opposition or not. It is important and it might be possible, that local politicians with hard-earned wisdom concerning our problematic electoral rules can be drawn into the electoral reform movement. The likes of Governor Grace Padaca, Governor Ed Panlilio, Mayor Jesse Rebredo, among others can contribute to invigorating the advocacy for reform.

Since Philippine elections was re-introduced in 1987, aspiration for genuine and substantial electoral democracy has always been a fool's hope. The policy environment for electoral reform remains dim and complicated but there is no other recourse but to steadfastly hope and push.

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