Brillantes: Comelec chair in his father’s seat

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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The memory of his father, who wanted to chair the Comelec, propels Sixto Brillantes Jr into his third year in office

SECOND YEAR. Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes Jr marks the anniversary of his appointment two years ago, Jan 16, 2011. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

MANILA, Philippines – He fought the fiercest, even dirtiest battles over election results. Now marking his second year in the Commission on Elections (Comelec), poll body chair Sixto Brillantes Jr works the way a daddy’s boy would.

In an interview with Rappler, the 72-year-old Brillantes shows us an old, wooden chair in his office. Brought from Baguio City, the seat belonged to his father, the late Comelec Commissioner Sixto Brillantes Sr. He says that though it is a centerpiece, he rarely uses this seat, which is “full of emotions.”

The talkative Brillantes pauses, then breaks into tears, when he recalls his father’s dream. “Isa ang ambisyon niya; hindi niya nakuha. Chairman,” says Brillantes, a 16-year-old high school graduate when his father became commissioner in 1956. (He had one ambition; he failed to get it. Chairman.)

His appointment as Comelec chair two years ago, Jan 16, 2011, meant more to him than achieving an election lawyer’s dream. “Noong nilagay ako dito, sabi ko, siguro ako na… kapalit. Hindi niya nakuha eh,” Brillantes says. (When I was appointed here, I said to myself, probably I am meant… to take his place. Because he didn’t get it.)

Sabi ko, ‘Parang ikaw na rin.'” (I said, “Consider this yours.”)

His father’s memory propels him into his third year in office, which began Thursday, January 17.

Why not? He got from his father more than the name Sixto. A lawyer himself, the elder Brillantes convinced his reluctant son – a commerce graduate and accountant – to study law. The young Brillantes, who described his father as his idol, ended up topping his class and placing 7th in the bar.

For colleagues and observers, his father’s legacy is both his strength and weakness. An election lawyer for over 20 years before chairing the poll body, Brillantes knows its inner workings. But with ties to ex-clients like Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco and President Benigno Aquino III, who appointed him, his judgment is put to the test. A colleague laments he abstains from too many cases.

Knowing the monster

One of the country’s few election lawyers, Brillantes admits he used to give Comelec a headache.

It’s part of his lucrative job, he says. To milk more money from clients, for instance, he prolonged election cases and eventually worsened the Comelec’s backlog.

He also used some dirty tricks.

Alam mo ‘yung strategy kung paano mo dadaya–, hindi dadayain, kung paano mo maiisahan ang kalaban… Sabi ko nga, strategy. As a lawyer, ‘yung plano ng kliyente mo, kailangang turuan mo kung paano, paano makakatanggal ng boto ‘yung kalaban, paano mo guguluhin ‘yung mga lugar na malakas ang kalaban mo,” Brillantes explains.

(You knew the strategy, how to cheat, no, not to cheat, but how to put one over one’s opponent… As I said, strategy. As a lawyer, [and given] your client’s plan, you have to teach him how to slash the opponent’s votes, how to mess up your opponent’s bailiwick.)

This background, he says, helps him in Comelec. He knows the monster so he can slay it, Brillantes says.

He says this is clear in the unprecedented cleansing of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) voters’ list. From 1.7 million voters, the Comelec slashed the ARMM voters’ list to 1.3 million. This was a far cry from past elections when the number of ARMM voters even increased – to the advantage of candidates who used the bloated numbers to cheat.

Brillantes used to lawyer for the Ampatuans, a prominent political clan in ARMM that was implicated in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre.

When he became Comelec chair, Brillantes says he talked to his former clients about the ARMM voters’ list. “Eh magkakaibigan naman tayo, dati ko naman kayong mga kliyente. Alam ko naman ang ginagawa n’yo. Eh ‘di mabuti pa, linisin na lang natin,” he recalls telling them. (We’re friends anyway, and you’re my former clients. I know what you’re doing. Let’s just clean the voter’s list.)

In late 2012, he led the massive purge of party-list groups – a first for the poll body. Under his term, the Comelec also created its first unit to watch campaign finances closely. This made way for tighter rules on campaign ads, which the Comelec announced in a resolution Wednesday, January 16.

SERIES OF FIRSTS. Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes Jr introduces changes in the poll body, including the unprecedented purge and raffle of party-list groups. File photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

Brillantes says he began all this from within. Without publicizing it, he says he did internal housekeeping in his first months in office.

Within the Comelec itself, he discovered up to P3-B in unliquidated cash advances since 1987. The Commission on Audit eventually cleared P1.8-B as funds that went to other agencies working with the Comelec, such as the Department of Education. The Comelec classified the rest – amounting to P1.2-B – as bad debt, due to employees who failed to liquidate their advances.

Over this, the Brillantes commission ended up firing at least two employees, one of whom failed to liquidate up to P48-M. The Comelec chair also signed demand letters for over 100 personnel.

This was one moment when Brillantes actually blew his top, says Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento, the poll body’s most senior commissioner.

Brillantes explains that he aimed to reform Comelec, first, from the inside. “Kung hindi tayo malinis dito, ano ang katwiran natin para kuwestyunin ‘yung mga tao sa labas?” (If we our are not clean, what reason do we have to question the peoples outside?)

Election expert

The head of an election watchdog agrees that his 23-year election practice is Brillantes’ strength.

“Regardless of whatever the objection or opposition was to the appointment of Chairman Brillantes, I think it’s the first time (in many years) that you had a chairman of Comelec who actually knows elections, who’s worked with elections,” says lawyer Luie Tito Guia, acting executive director of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente).

Eight groups, including Lente project director Rona Ann Caritos, signed a statement opposing Brillantes’ confirmation in 2011. (Guia explained Caritos “was allowed to act on her own in registering her position,” and did not represent Lente as an organization.)

“His past association with officials of the Comelec makes him too familiar with the game play, the intrigues, and the personalities in the institution: he may have accumulated favors to return, debts to settle, and accounts to collect,” explain the 8 groups, along with Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, in the statement. (Read the statement below, as it appears on the Namfrel website.)

For the past two years, however, Guia says Brillantes’ familiarity with the system proved to be an advantage. He notes the Comelec’s past three chairs came from politics or the judiciary, not the election community.

“Elections is not really a complicated thing, but you know, there are things that election practitioners would know and appreciate, that those who are not into elections wouldn’t. The culture within Comelec, the lingo among election practitioners,” says Guia, who used to work for the poll body under former Comelec Chair Christian Monsod.

He notes the Brillantes commission is “better” than in the past few years – “but that is not to say we should become complacent.”

Guia says Brillantes sets the tone for the poll body. “The leadership of the chairman usually dictates the kind of administration Comelec will have… It’s a collegial body but that’s their culture.”

Sarmiento, for his part, says Brillantes is “supportive of innovations in Comelec,” citing the chair’s support for his advocacy – promoting voter’s rights for persons with disability and other marginalized communities. He also says Brillantes’ knowledge of election law helps the Comelec in its discussions

Sarmiento adds: “He can harmonize the members of the commission. Kahit iba-iba ‘yung posisyon on many issues, like for instance, party list. Pagbobotohan namin, iba-iba diyan. Pero walang sakitan ng loob kumbaga. Wala ‘yung in the past na kumbaga hindi nagbabatian.”

(Even if we have varying positions on many issues like, for instance, party list. We would vote on that, and have differing opinions. But there are no hurt feelings. Nothing like what happened in the past, when commissioners would snub each other.)

Conflicts of interest?

His political associations, however, affect his work, says a colleague who refused to named.

Brillantes himself admits that as an election lawyer, he filed many election protests pending before the Comelec. He says he has withdrawn from his law firm and abstained from these cases.

But his colleague says it frustrates him that often, Brillantes takes “no part” in cases. “It would be better if, although they are his former clients, if he thinks this is the right move, he should make that stand regardless of whether or not that persons was his former client. That’s my wish, because his input would be very important, his vote would be very important.”

Guia agrees: “Para namang sayang ang boto ng chairman sa mga mahahalagang election protest. Ngayon, kung wala siyang gano’n limitation sana, eh ‘di nakaboto siya at nakapag-participate, at nai-ambag niya ang kanyang posisyon, at competent pa naman dahil maalam siya do’n. Pero hindi niya magamit dahil may conflict of interest.

(It is unfortunate to lose the chairman’s vote in important election protests. If he doesn’t have that limitation, he could have voted and participated, and contributed his position. And he’s competent because he knows that well. But he can’t use his vote due to conflict of interest.)

Brillantes justifies his “no part” positions. “The only reason why I take no part is because I promised that I will not vote in cases where these are my former clients,” he says.

Retirement looming?

Brillantes, who considers retiring before his term ends in 2015, says he will not soil his father’s memory. Alam niya na ‘yon,” he says. (He already knows.)

Wiping his tears, Brillantes shows Rappler a wall in his office. In the middle is the portrait of the Comelec en banc. To its left is a photo of himself in a purple robe. To its right, his father – a man in a simple coat, who longed for his son’s position.

FATHER'S PORTRAIT. It's a reminder for Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes Jr. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

Brillantes has seen and will see this every morning, until the elections on May 13. Whatever happens, his office makes it clear: his father is watching. –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior multimedia reporter covering religion for Rappler. He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. For story ideas or feedback, email