MANILA, Philippines – “It is a leadership problem.”
A day before her retirement, Commission on Elections (Comelec) Commissioner Rowena Guanzon took a jab at her Comelec batchmate, outgoing Chairman Sheriff Abas, for failing to intervene in her feud with Commissioner Aimee Ferolino.
Casting doubt on her independence, Guanzon has accused Ferolino of delaying the Comelec 1st Division ruling on the disqualification case against presidential bet Ferdinand Marcos Jr. For Guanzon, it is a deliberate move by Ferolino, the ponente or writer of the ruling, so that Guanzon’s vote to disqualify Marcos will not be counted – an allegation that Ferolino has denied.
Guanzon noted that when Ferolino didn’t answer calls from her and their fellow 1st Division commissioner, Marlon Casquejo, she requested Abas to intervene. She said Abas did call Ferolino, prompting the latter to explain the issue in a memorandum – but Guanzon said Abas needed to do more than this.
“It should be Chairman Abas telling Ferolino, ‘You release that,'” Guanzon told ANC on Tuesday, February 1, referring to the release of their Marcos ruling.
In a forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines later on Tuesday, Guanzon stressed that Abas “should have exerted leadership here.”
“He’s also retiring, but he said he just called her up, and he was satisfied with the memorandum explanation from Ferolino,” Guanzon said.
Guanzon also brought up an incident in the 2019 elections, when the transmission of election results to the media and watchdogs suffered a seven-hour glitch. “In that glitch,” Guanzon said, “I was the one who faced the public, not Abas!”
Both Guanzon and Abas, who joined the Comelec at the same time in May 2015, are retiring on Wednesday, February 2. Even the two have butted heads in the past, with Abas on the receiving end of Guanzon’s Twitter rant in October 2021 after the chairman scolded Comelec staff in an accidental Facebook live broadcast.
Abas, a former Comelec commissioner who was named chair in November 2017 – the youngest to assume this post, at the age of 38 – is a low-profile figure who prefers to work behind the scenes and rarely grants interviews. He succeeded Andres Bautista, who resigned in October 2017 and had once been criticized by all sitting Comelec commissioners, including Abas and Guanzon, for “failed leadership.”
Guanzon, 64, is a feisty former law professor and audit commissioner who, in large part through her Twitter account, has become the face of Comelec aside from its spokesman James Jimenez. Guanzon said she and Abas “have been together for many years,” and along with their colleagues have developed mutual respect.
“He’s younger than me, so sometimes I just excuse his kuwan. He has his own career. But we’re both Ilonggos,” said Guanzon, who is also known by her nickname Bing.
She continued, “Every time I come out on media et cetera et cetera, he’ll say in ManCom, ‘Si Comm. Bing ‘yan e. Iba si Comm. Bing (That’s Comm Bing. Comm Bing is one of a kind).’ My colleagues know me very well. They know my personality and my capacity. We have mutual respect, except for this Ferolino.”
Comelec integrity ‘being damaged’
In the raging conflict between Guanzon and Ferolino, Abas has also eluded questions from the media.
Reporters sought Abas’ comment on the issue on Monday, January 31, during a Comelec event with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. Abas refused to entertain these questions, saying, “Since it is inappropriate, we’ll answer it maybe in another forum.”
In an interview with Teleradyo, former Comelec commissioner Lucenito Tagle underscored the role of the chairman in resolving the internal row.
Tagle was commissioner under the late former elections chief Sixto Brillantes Jr., a veteran election lawyer who was known for his skill in creating consensus – often resulting in unanimous votes in the seven-member commission – even in the most contentious issues.
“The Chairman should intervene, make his position on the matter known, so that parties in conflict will go in peace,” Tagle said in Filipino on Tuesday.
“The integrity of the Comelec is being damaged because of the infighting,” he added.
Former Comelec commissioner Luie Guia also said that amid the internal row that has become a spectacle, the public should not lose sight of the basic fact that a decision has yet to be released.
“There is a lot of noise, but the first solution to the problem is for the decision to be promulgated. It is important to release it before their retirements,” Guia told Rappler on Sunday, January 30.
“If the case involves a presidential candidate, whether or not the Comelec will rule speedily will have an impact,” he added in Filipino.
Aside from Guanzon and Abas, Commissioner Antonio Kho is also retiring on Wednesday.
Since Guanzon is the only remaining appointee of the late former president Benigno Aquino III in the en banc, her retirement leaves the Comelec with four members who are all handpicked by President Rodrigo Duterte.
Pressure on Ferolino
Activist groups also held a protest outside the Comelec office in Manila on Tuesday to urge the poll body to issue a ruling before Guanzon’s retirement.
“How will the public view Comelec? Where is its independence and impartiality if it will disrespect legal processes?” said Cristina Palabay, convenor of Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses and Martial Law, whose leaders filed a disqualification petition against Marcos on the basis of his tax conviction.
All eyes are now on ponente Ferolino, whose relatively low profile found national attention after being subjected to Guanzon’s public tongue-lashing.
In her reply letter to Guanzon’s memorandum on Monday, January 31, she maintained there was no delay in the ruling on the Marcos case, and that her senior colleague was “conditioning the minds of the public.”
Guanzon has cited an internal policy to compel Ferolino to promulgate a ruling 15 days after the case was deemed submitted for resolution, but Ferolino argued that she was handling a “complex” case, specifically three petitions against Marcos consolidated into one.
Her lawyer also said Ferolino will “objectively base her resolution on the applicable laws,” amid Guanzon’s accusations that a politician meddled and influenced the younger commissioner. – with reports from Paterno R. Esmaquel II/Rappler.com