Form committee to vet new Comelec chair, watchdog urges Duterte

Dwight de Leon
Form committee to vet new Comelec chair, watchdog urges Duterte

Duterte photo from Malacau00f1ang / Palacio del Gobernador photo by Rappler

President Rodrigo Duterte is set to appoint a new Comelec chair and two commissioners. Will they be again from Mindanao or Duterte's law school frat?

MANILA, Philippines – A pro-democracy watchdog urged President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday, January 13, to create a search committee to vet the Philippines’ next elections chief, as well as two poll commissioners, ahead of the May 9 polls.

Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Sheriff Abas, and Commissioners Rowena Guanzon and Antonio Kho Jr., are all set to retire on February 2. Once they leave, all members of the Comelec will be Duterte appointees, as Guanzon is the last remaining Aquino appointee in the poll body.

“Given the significance of the upcoming elections and the invaluable role of the Comelec, the public must be given a chance to participate in the vetting of the next Comelec chairperson and commissioners,” pro-democracy coalition Participate said in a unity statement by its 2,500 member organizations on Thursday.

In particular, the group – convened by the Ateneo School of Government – called on Duterte to create a search and selection committee whose members include representatives from various sectors. These members would then submit a short list of candidates for consideration.

The group Participate asked the President to provide the public a clear set of criteria to be used in the selection of the next Comelec officials, and appoint them “based on integrity, proven competence, probity, and independence.”

Duterte’s record shows, however, that he tends to appoint poll executives who either hailed from Mindanao or belonged to his San Beda law school fraternity, Lex Talionis. In particular, in the seven-member Comelec, four of Duterte’s appointees came from Mindanao while two came from Duterte’s frat.

Kho and Rey Bulay are Duterte’s frat brothers. Kho was previously a justice undersecretary who is also applying for the Supreme Court, while Bulay was once chief prosecutor of Manila.

Socorro Inting, Marlon Casquejo, and Aimee Ferolino, meanwhile, all hail from Davao, Duterte’s hometown. Inting had 20 years of experience in the judiciary prior to her Comelec stint, while Casquejo and Ferolino are career officials who successfully climbed their way up in the Comelec ladder.

Abas, prior to his current appointment by Duterte, first entered the Comelec as a commissioner appointed by the late former president Benigno Aquino III.

He was the acting assistant regional director of the Civil Service Commission in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, where he worked from 2007 until his appointment to the Comelec in 2015.

Guanzon, inarguably the most media-savvy among the commissioners, was an audit commissioner and the first mayor of Cadiz after the 1986 EDSA uprising. She has been shortlisted for Deputy Ombudsman for Visayas.

The scenario by February, when all members of the en banc will be Duterte appointees, is similar to 2016, when all Comelec officials were Aquino appointees ahead of the presidential elections.

Form committee to vet new Comelec chair, watchdog urges Duterte

The composition of the Comelec is drawing renewed attention, especially as the poll body decides on the disqualification cases against ousted dictator’s son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. The former senator’s 2022 presidential bid has been one of the most legally contested in Philippine history.

As petitions against Marcos are expected to be elevated to the en banc level even after the divisions rule on them, the new commissioners are also likely to get their hands on the cases.

“Is it possible for a sitting commissioner to retire even while there is a pending case in his docket? The answer is yes. It’s part of how things happen,” Comelec spokesman James Jimenez said on Wednesday, January 12. –

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Dwight de Leon

Dwight de Leon is a multimedia reporter who covers the House of Representatives and the Commission on Elections for Rappler. Previously, he wrote stories on local government units.