By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – The appointment of lawyer Sixto Brillantes Jr. as chairman of the Commission on Elections raised questions and challenges from different sectors, with most of them urging Brillantes to fix first the defects found in the 2010 presidential elections.
Brillantes has been an election lawyer since 1984 and has had many prominent political clients including Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. He was the lead counsel of deposed president Joseph Estrada and also lawyered for the suspected mastermind of the Maguindanao massacre, Andal Ampatuan Sr.
Jose Melo resigned as chairman of the poll body effective Jan. 31.
President Benigno S. Aquino, in a statement, defended his appointment of Brillantes by saying that correct identification of a problem leads to correct solutions. Aquino futher said: “Long career in election law has given him extensive on-the-ground expertise, not just of the law, but also of the systems and processes that govern our electoral exercises.”
Brillantes’s main task, Aquino said, is to ensure an orderly and credible election in 2013.
However, labor-based electoral watchdog Workers’ Electoral Watch (We Watch) said Brillantes cannot just look forward to the next automated polls without acknowledging and fixing the defects of the May 2010 elections.
The Center for People Empowerment in Governance (Cenpeg), a think tank that pushes for electoral reforms, challenges the newly appointed Comelec chairman that he “must do right – and be the opposite of the Melo-chaired Comelec.”
Glitches of May 2010 elections
Bobby Tuazon, a political analyst at Cenpeg, said Brillantes should look into findings made by independent groups that assessed the conduct of the 2010 automated elections. These revealed what Tuazon described as fatal computer programming errors, vulnerabilities, and technical errors.
Citing an analysis done by Cenpeg IT consultant, Dr. Pablo Manalastas, Tuazon said the computer program used in the May 2010 elections was replete with “serious errors that may cause, and actually did cause, execution errors on election day.”
In his own analysis of the U.S.-based SysTest Labs report on the review of the Smartmatic automation system and source code, Manalastas said the election-day errors were “evidenced by the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) program malfunctioning, the PCOS and canvassing and consolidation (CCS) allowing transmission of final testing and sealing results, and a significant number of tabulation errors in the Comelec’s public website.”
“One of the basic reasons why the previous elections suffered from lack of transparency and credibility is that the poll automation project was initiated by private interests rather than public-led,” said Anna Leah Escresa-Colina, project manager of We Watch.
Private contractor Smartmatic-TIM bagged last year’s poll automation contract. According to news reports, Smartmatic International Corp. is a wholly owned subsidiary of Smartmatic International Holding, BV, a company organized under the laws of The Netherlands. Smartmatic has also organized elections in Latin America, the Carribean, the United States and Asia, using its electronic voting solutions.
Colina said Brillantes cannot just hold another fully automated elections even without banishing “the ghosts and weaknesses” of previous elections, particularly that of the 2010 automated elections. “He must come up with a comprehensive report at the soonest time possible, lest he be accused of merely sweeping under the rug all those cases of poll irregularities.”
Cenpeg, on the other hand, had a 600-page report on the May 2010 automated elections. The report was released last December with copies already submitted to Congress and other key stakeholders. Among other findings, the report revealed high incidence of machine breakdowns, transmission failures, and voters’ disenfranchisement owing to hours of long queues of voters transpiring nationwide on May 10.
“The problem with Comelec’s claim of election success is that it was based on ‘quick results’ while hiding the system-wide glitches and errors that tended to question the integrity, reliability, and security of the election results,” Tuazon said.
“This is the best time for Mr. Brillantes to begin his term clean and transparent and to re-engineer the poll body by correcting its past mistakes including mismanaging the May 10 automated elections. The use of election automation should be seriously studied to ensure that the next polls would be trustworthy, secure and transparent,” Tuazon added.
“None of the legal violations, lack of safety measures, as well as non-transparency shown by the Melo Comelec should be allowed to happen again if and when poll automation is used once more.”
Members of the Commission on Appointments (CA) have doubts about the credibility of Brillantes. Having lawyered for many of the most popular personalities in Philippines politics, Brillantes’s impartiality was put into question. In news report, members of the CA — particularly Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano — raised the issue of conflict of interest. Brillantes’s law firm the Brillantes, Nachura, Navarro, Jumamil & Arcilla Law Offices is handling 25 electoral protests pending in Comelec. Brillantes said he had dropped all the cases since he was appointed as chairman of Comelec.
Brillantes also served as the general counsel of the political party Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) from 2001 to 2006. He also served as legal consultant of the United Opposition after NPC. He also served as Aquino’s election lawyer during the May 10, 2010, elections.
In 2004, Brillantes served as election lawyer of the late actor Fernando Poe Jr., who ran for the presidency. He exposed the alleged cheating of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to win the 2004 elections.
Brillantes also won a case against the late Haydee Yorac in 1990. Yorac was then designated as acting Comelec chief when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Brillantes and said Yorac’s assumption of the post was unconstitutional.
Brillantes had given assurances that his former partners will not take advantage of his position if they appear before the Comelec. He also asked his partners to withdraw the cases they are handling. However, he said the decision to withdraw the cases does not rely on him, stressing that he cannot control the law firm. Should the cases remain in their law firm, he said, he would inhibit in the case.
This is the same concern raised by Sen. Franklin Drilon, who had said that Brillantes had to explain to the appointments body “how he intends to conduct himself when these cases are brought (in the Comelec) for decision.” Drilon stressed that the Comelec is in charge of the most important pillar of the country’s system – the electoral system.
The Automated Election System Watch, a broad citizens’ election watchdog, meanwhile called for the inclusion of IT competence as a one of the requirements for appointing Comelec commissioners.
“The new members who will replace two retiring commissioners should at least have IT expertise and known for their independence, non-partisanship, and competence – qualities found wanting in the Melo-led Comelec,” the election watchdog said. Commissioners Nicodemo Ferrer and Gregorio Larrazabal are set to retire on February 2011.