Recall elections: Comelec’s mandate unfunded under Aquino

Michael Bueza
Recall elections: Comelec’s mandate unfunded under Aquino
5 recall petitions are pending with the poll body but have slim chances of progressing into elections because the Comelec and DBM have failed to secure funding for the exercise

MANILA, Philippines – Five recall petitions have been pending with the Commission on Elections (Comelec), but none of them seem to have chances to be decided in actual polls since the poll body said it didn’t have the money for the exercise.

For its failure to do its mandate – for which it has a window of only one year to do within local officials’ 3-year term – the Comelec puts the blame on the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

The poll body has said it was poised to tackle the 5 recall petitions in 2015, but the DBM disapproved the funds for recall-related expenses in the Comelec’s proposed 2015 budget which was submitted to Congress.

The Comelec’s budget presentations in past years, however, also indicated it also failed to propose funding for recall-related activities.

A mechanism as important as elections, the process of recall gives the people the power to remove elected officials on the grounds of losing the people’s confidence and trust.

Based on the Local Government Code, the power of recall for loss of confidence in a local elective official shall be exercised by registered voters of the local government unit (LGU) where the official serves. Any provincial, city, municipal, or barangay official may be subjected to recall.

In 2014, recall petitions were filed against the following officials:

  • Mayor Lucilo Bayron of Puerto Princesa City, Palawan
  • Governor Wilhelmino Sy-Alvarado of Bulacan
  • Mayor Carolina Dellosa of Baliuag, Bulacan
  • Mayor Oscar Moreno of Cagayan de Oro City
  • Mayor Marnellie Robles of Bulan, Sorsogon

Fast Facts: The process of recall

The last recall election took place in 2003. Find out more about the process of recall, as well as past recall petitions.

But with the unresolved issue on recall funds, and with the Comelec busy in preparing for two elections – the 2016 national elections and the 2015 Sangguniang Kabataan (youth council) polls – the chances of these pending recall petitions prospering and proceeding to recall elections appear slim.

The case of Puerto Princesa

On April 1, the Comelec issued Resolution No. 9864, affirming the sufficiency of the number of signatures, in the recall petition against Puerto Princesa City Mayor Lucilo Bayron. It was certified by the Comelec’s Office of the Deputy Executive Director for Operations (ODEDO).

In the same resolution, however, the poll body reported that it lacked funds to continue with the recall process. Thus, all pending proceedings regarding recall were suspended, including the verification of signatures in the Puerto Princesa petition.

As a result, the other 4 recall petitions – filed after the issuance of Comelec Resolution No. 9864 – would temporarily be parked until the Comelec’s funding issue is resolved.

But time might not be on the side of these petitions. The Local Government Code mandates that no recall can take place within a year from the date of the local officials’ assumption of office and within a year before a regular local election.

In the case of the 2014 petitions, the “deadline” will be on May 2015, a full year before the 2016 polls. After that, these petitions will practically be “cancelled” as new recall petitions would be entertained only after June 30, 2017, when elected officials shall have already served a year in office.

Comelec takes around a month to verify signatures in a petition, said lawyer Genevieve Guevarra of the Comelec-ODEDO. Meanwhile, Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr has said they need at least two months to prepare for a recall election.

So for the recall petitions to have a “fighting chance” time-wise, the poll body should be able to resolve funding issues and proceed with the recall process by January or February 2015.

Where are the funds?

Section 75 of the Local Government Code states that all expenses related to recall elections shall be shouldered by the Comelec. It also said that the poll body shall have a contingency fund for recall elections at the Comelec’s disposal in the annual General Appropriations Act (GAA) or the national budget.

But both requisites are at the core of the Comelec’s funding issues.

Funds for recall elections, amounting to P321.6 million ($7.2 million)*, were included in the Comelec’s proposed budget for 2015, but it was disapproved by the DBM.

There were also no line items specifically for recall elections under the Comelec’s budget in past GAAs from 2011 to 2014. (The years 2010 and 2013 are not included, because these are election years.)

Curiously, however, for those same years, the Comelec seemed to have not requested funds for recall elections, at least in its budget presentations to the House of Representatives appropriations committee.

The Comelec’s budget overviews presented to the House reflect the poll body’s proposed expenditure items for a fiscal year, the amount it requests from DBM for each item, and the amount that DBM ultimately approves for inclusion in the National Expenditure Program (NEP).

Only in 2015 did the Comelec explicitly include a line item budget specifically for recall elections under “locally-funded projects.”

‘Use savings’

A lawmaker said that even without allocations for recall in the national budget, the Comelec can still spend for recall elections using its savings and continuing appropriations.

Palawan Representative Douglas Hagedorn pointed out that at the start of 2013, the Comelec had P18.7 billion in total available appropriations: P8.27 billion from the national budget, P10.33 billion in continuing appropriations accumulated over the years, and P100.6 million in budgetary adjustments.

“Comelec cannot renege on its responsibility whimsically and capriciously.”

– Palawan Rep. Douglas Hagedorn

Subtracting total obligations mainly spent on the 2013 midterm polls, the Comelec had P3.6 billion left as savings at the end of 2013, which were then carried over into 2014, Hagedorn pointed out.

Congressman Hagedorn is the brother-in-law of Ma. Elena Hagedorn, whom Mayor Bayron defeated in the 2013 Puerto Princesa mayoralty race. 

“It is clear that as far as Comelec is concerned, it is not totally dependent on new appropriations [from Congress]. Because they can source other funds from continuing appropriations, as well as supplementary budgets and budgetary adjustments,” Congressman Hagedorn said.

Given the billions of money that the Comelec has received and its fiscal autonomy as a constitutional body, Hagedorn wonders why the poll body has not held recall elections. “The agency cannot renege on its responsibility whimsically and capriciously,” he said.

Hagedorn said it would only cost P13.4 million (around $300,000) to administer the recall polls in Puerto Princesa City, basing it on the Comelec’s own computation.

“You did not exert your effort as mandated by the Constitution. It is within your power, Mr Chairman,” Hagedorn told Brillantes. (READ: Comelec budget at stake: Justify failure to hold recall polls)

‘Technical malversation’

The Comelec, for its part, does not subscribe to Hagedorn’s arguments.

“As far as we’re concerned, we cannot just realign the money of the commission, because we have audit rules to adhere to,” said Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez. “And if it’s not part of the budget, if the specific item is not there, there is little to no possibility that you can do it legally.”

“Comelec is willing to proceed with the recall process, but we don’t have the money. Who can fix the problem? DBM and Congress.”

– Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez

Jimenez added that the poll body can augment, “but augmenting means there should be [a line budget] item to fill up. If it’s there, you can increase money to it because it’s insufficient.

But in the case of funds for recall elections, there is no item to augment, said Jimenez. “Our concern is, Comelec could be charged with technical malversation [if it decides to realign money for recall].”

He also said that the Comelec’s savings have been used for other purposes allowed by law, like wages for casual employees and money for a new headquarters building.

As for the Comelec’s fiscal autonomy, Jimenez said that the term’s “textbook definition” does not usually apply in reality. He said that all government agencies, including the Comelec, pass through the DBM.

If the Comelec had fiscal autonomy, he argued, its budget should be released by Congress once the poll body certifies it.

“In practice, when you talk about realistic application of the concept, it does not preclude oversight by the appropriate government agencies. That’s why we still go through DBM.”

Jimenez maintained that the poll body diligently requests for recall funds every budget cycle. “But if the money is not forthcoming, then nothing can be done. The question is, will Congress bestir itself to give us the money, despite DBM cutting it out of our budget?”

“Comelec is, in fact, willing to proceed with the recall process, but we don’t have the money. Who has the chance to fix the problem? Two agencies: DBM, because they propose the budget; and, Congress, because they hold the power of the purse,” he said.

Reforming recall…and the Comelec

One election analyst understood the Comelec’s dilemma. “Comelec cannot move if it does not have the funds,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Consortium on Electoral Reform.

Casiple added that the Comelec is having difficulty securing funds for recall elections because Congress may not easily realize the urgency or need for recall, due to its local nature.

In addition, he sided with the Comelec in its argument that if one pending recall petition is entertained, all pending recall petitions should likewise be acted upon, thus entailing the need for recall funds.

Casiple also noticed that most recall petitions are initiated or backed by the political opponents of those sought to be recalled. “They lost in the last elections. Now, they are looking for ways to oust the winner, so that they themselves could assume office.”

To prevent this, Casiple suggested that the recall process be limited to those with no association whatsoever with any politician or partisan group.

“Or maybe, let’s just wait for the next elections. Besides, we have it every 3 years,” he said.

Ultimately, Casiple said that the Comelec already has its hands full that it may not be able to allot enough time to conduct recall elections.

“It’s preparing for the next presidential elections in May 2016, the SK elections in February 2015, a Bangsamoro plebiscite, a possible charter change referendum, even the next barangay polls in October 2016. Recall elections are ‘unprogrammed’, it just appears suddenly when voters seek to recall their elected official,” he said.

Plus, the poll body has additional duties like hearing electoral protests, which, according to Casiple, also “eats a lot of Comelec’s time.”

“Comelec is therefore forced to choose what to prioritize,” he added.

One way to help the Comelec in this aspect, suggested Casiple, is to give its quasi-judicial functions – like the adjudication of electoral protests – to special courts for electoral cases, so that the poll body could focus on administering elections.

Nevertheless, Casiple stressed the importance of recall. As long as the petitions are valid and the reasons genuine, he said that the recall of any local elected official “is still a right that a registered voter could exercise.” –

*$1 = P44.89

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Michael Bueza

Michael is a data curator under Rappler's Tech Team. He works on data about elections, governance, and the budget. He also follows the Philippine pro wrestling scene and the WWE. Michael is also part of the Laffler Talk podcast trio.