Puerto Princesa and the recall paradox

There could be times when instead of speaking truth to power, an accountability mechanism becomes a tool of the powerful to constrain governance

Puerto Princesa is at a standstill: It is being prepared to once again decide on whether to replace its mayor or not, just a year before another regular elections.

On April 7, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) issued Resolution No.15-0284, setting the conduct of a recall election in Puerto Princesa on May 8. This is in response to a petition for recall filed by Al Roben Goh, a former city information officer.

The Comelec en banc, approving the recommendation of the Office of the Deputy Executive Director for Operations (ODEDO), found Goh’s petition sufficient based on the verification of signatures conducted by its election officer for Puerto Princesa, Mr Roseller Gapulao.

Mayor Lucilo Bayron, the official sought to be recalled or replaced, is automatically one of the candidates in the elections on May 8. His term, if not interrupted, expires next year.

Recalling ‘recall’

A recall is a process by which a local elected officer is sought to be replaced by the electorate in an election conducted like any other regular election. It is initiated through a petition for recall signed by a certain percentage of the total voting population (for Puerto Princesa, it’s 15% of its total number of voters). It traces its roots to two principles found in the Constitution – that “sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them” and that “public office is a public trust.”

A recall, then, is more importantly a democratic mechanism to ensure accountability from local elected officers. Accountability serves a purpose. It ensures that public officials perform well and prevents abuse of authority and corruption.

However, there could be instances when a supposed mechanism for accountability does not serve its end and may in fact be abused. There could be times when instead of speaking truth to power, an accountability mechanism becomes a tool of the powerful to constrain governance.

Abused check?

Bayron is not the first mayor sought to be recalled in Puerto Princesa. In 2002, then-mayor Victorino Dennis Socrates was successfully recalled from position and replaced by ex-mayor Edward Hagedorn, who had previously served as mayor of Puerto Princesa from 1992 to 2001. In 2001, Hagedorn ran for Palawan governor and lost, but was elected mayor again through the 2002 recall. Hagedorn, henceforth, was able to serve 3 three-year terms from 2002-2013, serving as mayor of Puerto Princesa for two decades with just a little over one year of interruption despite the term limit set in the Constitution.

The Local Government Code of 1991 (LGC) provides that a recall may only be allowed a year from the date of the official’s assumption from office, or one year immediately preceding a local election. The one-year ban “provides a reasonable basis for evaluating the performance of an elective local official,” as reasoned in Claudio v Comelec.

The recall process is a double-edged sword, says former chief justice Reynato Puno. Dissenting from a majority opinion in Claudio v Comelec, Puno says that a recall can be abused when recalls are borne by ill motive of the few; when they disrupt the smooth running of government; and when they destabilize the local government unit.

Looking at the recall election in Puerto Princesa in May this year, those points of then Chief Justice Puno are good to reflect on. Who benefits from another election to be conducted just a little over a year before the next election? Doesn’t this unnecessarily disrupt the smooth running of government and destabilize the local government unit? If the premise is accountability, heeding the voice of the people, that voice cannot wait for just a year?

In reexamining the LGC’s provisions on recall, there are many valid and critical questions to consider, especially given the lack of apparent and pressing substantive reason that makes the recall in Puerto Princesa – and perhaps other localities – imperative.

Substantive vs procedural

The only basis for the decision of Comelec is the number of signatures, which Comelec declares to be sufficient based on the percentage of voters specified in the law. Can that procedural requirement, which is a small percentage of the total number of voters, undo an electoral mandate of a plural majority?

A procedural requirement is perhaps acceptable if aside from it, a substantive basis is considered too. If an official has a pending Ombudsman case (for example, on corruption) or a Commission on Human Rights case (human rights violation) or a Comelec case (electoral fraud) that has been established to have a probable cause, which compromises the official’s credibility, a recall would probably be just and necessary. However, this is not the case in Puerto Princesa.

The official involved is in office only for a little less than two years and is already being subjected to recall on the basis of the performance of the entire city, that no two-year work of anybody could ever be fully responsible for.

There should be a more substantive requirement to initiate a recall for officials on their first term, in particular. Putting a more substantive requirement to initiate a recall should serve as a safeguard for abuse, while still maintaining the principle that “power emanates from the people.” This safeguard is especially needed in a case where the opposition has been in power for many years and hence is well-entrenched compared to the sitting official who just came to power. It is not Rocket Science to expect the ill-effects of a recall on the performance in governance of the sitting elected neophyte official, thus possibly affecting too his prospect in the next regular elections.

Right time for recall

Comelec and the Supreme Court interpret the one-year prohibition on recall to run only from the recall election itself – and not from the preparatory activities such as the signing of the recall petition or its filing. Chief Justice Puno, in his dissenting opinion on Claudio v. Comelec, has already warned that this means that from day one of an electoral official’s term, he may already be subject to recall, struggling to govern properly with the burden of a recall petition hanging over his head.

As Chief Justice Puno observes, “the more disquieting and destabilizing part of recall is its initiation more than the recall election itself…it is in the too early initiatory process where the baseless criticisms and falsehoods of a few are foisted on the many.” He adds, “To allow early recall initiative is to encourage divisive, expensive, wasteful politics.”

As it is now, the recall election against Bayron seems to be evolving into a classic example of judicial bodies favoring form over substance, technicality over substance, letter of the law over spirit of the law. It also seems to indicate a case of how a supposed accountability mechanism could be misused—that instead of it stopping an abuse of power, it is being abused to serve mainly what seems to be a partisan political end disruptive of governance and political transition. – Rappler.com

Joy Aceron is program director of Political Democracy and Reforms (PODER) of the Ateneo School of Government. Anna Bueno is a new lawyer, who is currently a program associate of PODER/Government Watch.