OUR constitution, in Article VII, ordains the procedure for Congress to follow in proclaiming a president-elect: “The returns of every election for President and Vice-President, duly certified by the board of canvassers of each province or city, shall be transmitted to the Congress, directed to the President of the Senate. Upon receipt of the certificates of canvass, the President of the Senate shall, not later than thirty days after the day of the election, open all the certificates in the presence of the Senate and the House of Representatives in joint public session, and the Congress, upon determination of the authenticity and due execution thereof in the manner provided by law, canvass the votes.”
Then, “The person having the highest number of votes shall be proclaimed elected, but in case two or more shall have an equal and highest number of votes, one of them shall forthwith be chosen by the vote of a majority of all the Members of both Houses of the Congress, voting separately.” How Congress actually goes about the canvassing is left up to Congress itself. The wrangling on the rules begins today: with the Constitution further specifying that “The Supreme Court, sitting en banc, shall be the sole judge of all contests relating to the election, returns and qualifications of the President or Vice-President, and may promulgate its rules for the purpose.”
Speaker of the House Prospero Nograles insists that Congress, sitting as the National Board of Canvassers, “will not sacrifice accuracy for speed,” while at the same time suggesting the legislature can complete its work by June 4. There are those who view Congress’ role as largely ceremonial when it comes to proclaiming the president-elect; others prefer to err on the side of scrutiny by means of vigorous debate over the documents submitted to the Senate. At the heart of the clash in approaches to Congress’ duties is a mistrust of our institutions and how they go about their duties.
The public consensus has been—to my mind, at least—that the electorate would trade justice for security to a large extent. The public would, on one hand, insist on the legitimacy crisis being resolved within our institutions and nowhere else, thus having to swallow the galling impunity of the administration if accountability mechanisms failed (as they did). It preferred the ensuing political war of attrition to matters being resolved by means of a blitzkrieg in the streets, since by all accounts the administration was prepared to kill to stay in power. And yet, by forestalling the larger risk of extremist solutions such as juntas and wacky transitional councils, the public emphatically reserved for itself the immense satisfaction of vomiting out the administration and its leading candidates by means of peaceful elections. The writing was on the wall for all to see from the mid-term elections in 2007 onwards.
The Palace refused to see it then; hence its trying to abolish national elections by means of various Charter change schemes and which failed (because public opinion was foursquare behind the principle that the electorate should vote for the next chief executive). It refuses to see it now; hence the schizophrenia exhibited by its having to trumpet automation as among its great legacies, to now being at the forefront at the efforts to turn all the many shortcomings of the system it willfully put in place, into an opportunity to deprive its replacement of the legitimacy it enjoys—precisely because the electorate made a national mandate by means of elections a non-negotiable objective.
In a similar manner its supporters who’d moved to subordinate the Supreme Court to a parliamentary government—for that was one of the long-desired objectives of “constitutional reform,” Palace-style—are now the first to demand upholding judicial supremacy, on the tried-and-tested administration principle that form trumps substance. The truth is, everything is expendable as the President tries to ensure not only her political survival, but the continued relevance of her brand of transactional politics which thrives on ambiguity.
Congress’ dilemma is it has to proclaim a mandate the public conferred despite every effort of the administration to prevent it; it is a dilemma because if it decides to railroad the proceedings, it bequeaths the administration’s own legitimacy crisis to the next: thereby saddling the next Congress with a problem the public precisely set great store in avoiding by enthusiastically trooping to the polls last May 10. But if it bogs things down in wrangling over the results, it also risks the kind of uncertain political situation where the whole house of cards comes crashing down with no certainty of who, if anyone, can pick up the pieces. This is precisely the sort of uncertainty the public insisted on avoiding from 2005 onwards by expressing its displeasure with all extremist proposals, whether to turn the country into a one-party parliamentary state, or put its fate in the hands of a junta.
Had a fully manual count at the very least accompanied the automation process—as Aquino and many others proposed going into the elections—this situation would’ve become impossible. But we have what we have. It will require a great balancing act on the part of Congress to avoid rubber-stamping its proceedings in “noted” fashion on one hand, and on the other, according minorities the democratic opportunity to manifest their objections in a manner that will not prejudice their right to take matters to the Supreme Court if necessary.
It can strike the right balance if it recognizes from the start that the public exactly knows how it voted; that the public recognizes fairness when it sees it; and is generous enough to accord Congress the opportunity to begin redeeming itself by ensuring Ms Arroyo moves into the biggest office in the Batasan not as a PM-in-waiting, but a glorified has-been.