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Marcos PET case takes an unusual turn

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It looks like the ongoing election protest filed by ex-Sen. and 2016 vice presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. against the proclaimed winner, Leni Robredo of the Liberal Party (LP), has taken a controversial turn in the Supreme Court sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET).

In a resolution written by Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa and promulgated last week, the PET appears to have declared its intention to expedite the revision of ballots in the election protest by allowing reference to computer generated election returns, instead of a manual count of the ballots in questioned election precincts.

“A manual count is a matter of right on the part of the protestant in the election protest.

It will be recalled that in the final canvass of the May 2016 vice presidential election, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) announced that Robredo purportedly obtained some 200,000 votes more than Marcos did. The balloting and the canvassing of ballots were done using expensive computer equipment which the Comelec leased from Smartmatic, a controversial service provider, which faces credibility problems overseas.

Some three hours after the start of the canvass, Marcos was already leading Robredo by over 1.2 million votes. A week later, it was Marcos who was apparently trailing Robredo by about 200,000 votes. At the end of the canvass, Robredo was proclaimed winner. This led Marcos to file his election protest.

The election protest alleged extensive fraud in the computerized canvass conducted by Smartmatic in certain voting districts nationwide. From the evidence so far gathered by the Marcos camp, many ballot boxes in precincts protested by Marcos had wet or damaged ballots and returns, and even some apparently uniform-looking pro-Robredo ballots dumped en masse inside ballot boxes.

In his election protest, Marcos petitioned the PET for a revision of the ballots in contested precincts he listed in his official pleading. Revision of ballots is a term in election law which means that a manual recount of the ballots inside contested ballot boxes shall be undertaken. The tedious recount is actually done by groups of official revisors appointed by the PET, always under the watchful eyes of private revisors hired by both the Marcos and the Robredo camps. No one among the justice-members of the PET does the actual, physical recounting of ballots.

As for the fees one has to pay to the PET, it is based on the number of ballot boxes which are to be revised. Naturally, the more ballots sought to be revised, the bigger the fee to be paid to the PET.

It is evident, therefore, that in revision cases, a manual count is a matter of right on the part of the protestant in the election protest, especially when the computerized voting and canvassing system are suspect.

So far, the election protest seems to be taking a long time to resolve. As of this writing, it had been pending in the PET for more than two years already.

The resolution of the PET promulgated last week appeared to allow a shortcut in the revision of ballots by allowing reference to election returns. This path is fraught with big problems because, as noted in the resolution itself, some of the election returns which are supposed to be inside their respective ballot boxes are missing — which is in a red flag suggesting election fraud.

Relying on the election returns, as the PET seems inclined to, defeats the very purpose of the revision sought in an election protest. This purpose becomes underscored particularly because Marcos contests the accuracy and reliability of the computerized election system employed by Smartmatic.

Allowing a reference to election returns when they are available, and not allowing it when they are not, is a lopsided, unreliable, unfair and inequitable way of carrying out a revision of ballots where manual counting is required in the first place.

Critics of Smartmatic maintain that the company is discredited abroad as a reliable computerized election systems provider. Naturally, that should have been enough reason for the Comelec not to hire Smartmatic, but it did.

It will be recalled that several Smartmatic computer experts who arrived in the Philippines before election day were billeted by the Comelec at the Novotel Hotel at Araneta Center in Cubao, Quezon City. That move had all the badges of irregularity.

For starters, that hotel is owned by the powerful Roxas-Araneta family, which has been solidly behind the LP since the post-war years. It is the same LP which fielded ex-Sen.

Manuel “Mar” Roxas II for its presidential candidate and Robredo for vice president in the May 2016 elections. In fact, Novotel was the command center of the LP during and in the days after the campaign period.

Days before the election itself, the Comelec command center was located at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City. There are many respectable hotels in that area. Why did the Comelec insist on billeting the Smartmatic computer experts at Novotel?
The story gets more interesting.

On election day, news reports indicated that several Smartmatic voting machines were sighted inside some of the rooms in Novotel. The Comelec sent an inspection team but the inspection was limited only to a few rooms selected by the Novotel management. After that charade, the Comelec declared that it did not find any voting machines inside the hotel.

Good grief!
Later on, a Smartmatic expert was discovered to have replaced a vital device in the master control of the computerized counting system. That device was a check against fraud.

Marcos protested but his complaint was practically ignored by the Comelec.

Weeks earlier, it was discovered that private revisors in the payroll of Robredo and the LP attended a private party of the official revisors of the PET at some out of town resort. It was reported in the news that the LP revisors contributed food to the PET merry-makers.

The Marcos camp protested the callous display of impropriety on the part of the Robredo-LP revisors. An investigation was supposed to have been conducted.

Even the PET Resolution suffers from a credibility problem. Justice Caguioa, who wrote it, has been identified by the Marcos camp as a staunch supporter of ex-President Benigno Aquino III. It was also learned that Caguioa’s wife is a known supporter and campaigner of Robredo and the LP in 2016.

After Marcos demanded the inhibition of Caguioa, the latter simply asked his colleagues’ opinions. Soon thereafter, Caguioa decided not to inhibit himself from further participation in the election protest.

A basic rule in due process states that a judge must not only be impartial; he must also be publicly perceived to be impartial. Justice Caguioa knows that his wife’s very close association with Robredo and the LP diminish whatever impartiality he is supposed to observe as a judge in the PET. He should have inhibited himself, period. Delicadeza demands it.

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