As new poll rules set, High Court halts Comelec
deal with Smartmatic on PCOS diagnos, repair
MANILA – As all parties step up their preparations for the May 2016 presidential, congressional and local elections, the Commission on Elections is poised to relax its rules on the party-list system which could pave for the election of more millionaires and ex-generals in the House of Representatives.
This as the Supreme Court, voting 12-0, issued a temporary restraining order stopping the P268-million Comelec contract with Smartmatic for the diagnostics and repair of thousands of PCOS machines.
The Comelec is set to relax its rules on the party-list system in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling, according to Comelec acting Chairman Christian Robert Lim.
Lim said under the new rules, the poll body would no longer do “automatic review” of party-list nominees based on the previous principle that the system is limited to marginalized and underprivileged sectors of society.
At present, several members of the Lower House are millionaires and retired police and military generals like Rep. Samuel Pagdilao who are supposed to representing marginalized sectors of society. Former Rep. Catalina Bagasina, a former mayor and board member of Pampanga and a businesswoman, was the wealthiest party-list representative of the last Congress with assets of over P200 million representing the Association of Laborers and Employees (ALE).
“We don’t have to do that anymore. It has been removed by the Supreme Court (SC) in its ruling on Aong Paglaum case…The SC really loosened it up,” he explained.
The High Court has ruled that Republic Act 7941 or the Party-List System Act does not require parties, organizations and sectors to be marginalized and under-represented to be accredited as party-lists.
The high court maintained that even advocates of the marginalized and under-represented sectors could become nominees.
The court decision was based on the consolidated petitions of 54 groups that Comelec disqualified in the 2013 elections for failure to show that they represented the marginalized sector, for lack of track records and for having nominees that did not belong to the sector that they seek to represent.
With the court ruling, Comelec’s efforts to purge bogus groups from the party-list system was dealt a severe blow.
The Supreme Court issued the TRO against the P268.8 million contract entered into by the Comelec with Smartmatic-Total Information Management (Smartmatic-TIM) for the repair, refurbishing and diagnostics on some 82,000 Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines that will be reused in the 2016 polls.
The SC Spokesman, Atty. Theodore Te, said the TRO is “effective immediately and will remain until further orders from the Court.”
Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno and Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco dissented with the majority ruling, with Te explaining that their opposition to the TRO was borne by their position that the issues raised in the petition against the multi-million peso contract should be heard first in an oral argument.
Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio was on leave.
The TRO stemmed from the petition filed by election watchdogs Automated Election System Watch (AES) last February, together with Leo Querubin, president of the Philippine Computer Society, former Comelec Commissioner Augusto Lagman, Concepcion Bragas-Regalado, founding president of Migrante International, Jaime Caro of the UP Department of Computer Science, Marikol Akol, co-organizer of TransparentElections.org.ph, Center for People Empowerment in Governance executive director Evita Jimenez, Bishop Broderick Pabillo, Pablo Manalastas, a member of the computer science faculty of Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines asking the SC to declare as void the Comelec resolution awarding the contract to Smartmatic-TIM.
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) also filed a similar petition before the SC.
The petitioners argued that the High Tribunal should declare the contract void and issue an injunction saying that the poll body committed grave abuse of discretion when it awarded the contract to Smartmatic-TIM without benefit of an open and competitive bidding.
This, they said, violated Republic 9184 or the Government Procurement Reform Act.
In awarding the contract, then Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. cited the tight time schedule in its preparation for the 2016 polls, as well as the need to avoid the risk of having another party other than Smartmatic-TIM repair and refurbish the PCOS machines due to the “highly technical nature” of the work to be done on the PCOS.
But the petitioners dismissed Brillantes’ arguments, saying the reasons cited by the poll body to award the contract to Smartmatic-TIM are not among the reasons cited under RA 9184, which, the petition pointed out, clearly mandated public bidding for government procurement, except for three instances namely:
When the procurement is of goods of proprietary nature, where it can be sourced only from its proprietary source.
When the procurement of critical components from a specific manufacturer, distributor or supplier is a condition precedent to hold a contractor to guarantee its project performance.
When the goods are sold by an exclusive dealer or manufacturer that does not have sub-dealers selling at lower prices.
In January this year, the Citizens for Clean and Credible Elections (C3E), National Labor Union (NLU), League of Elder and Aging Persons (LEAP), Philippine Association of Free Labor Unions (PAFLU), Anti-Trapo Movement of the Philippines, Alliance of Government and Private Retired Employees (AGPREE), ACCO Homes Neighborhood Association, and KAAKBAY party-list also asked the SC to stop the Comelec from awarding the contract to Smartmatic-TIM for the election management system for the 2016 elections, as well as from allowing the company to join in the bidding for the bidding for the procurement of Optimal Mark Reader (OMR) and Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines, as well as the lease of election management system (EMS) and Precinct-Based DRE technology that are worth hundreds of millions of pesos.
Comelec spokesman James Jimenez said this means that when a group applies for accreditation, the poll body could only screen them against a basic checklist.
The checklist includes if the group’s constitutions does not promote violence or terrorism, existence, membership, headquarters and background.
Lim noted that since Comelec no longer needs extended time to screen the groups, they decided to move back the deadline for the filing of party-list groups’ petition for accreditation from March 30 to May 8 this year.
The Comelec has also resolved not to require the groups to include the list of their nominees when they file their application.
Despite the SC ruling, Comelec is hopeful that voters would be discerning in choosing their party-list groups.
“At the end of the day, it’s still the people who will decide. If they vote this party-list to office, then that is it,” Lim said.