A credible canvass

In the end, four days of spirited debate on how the canvassing of the votes for the president and vice president should proceed netted almost nothing for the minority in Congress.  Despite the rationality of their proposals, its members had no choice but to submit to the law of agreement enshrined in parliamentary practice. Outnumbered, they were never outclassed or out talked.  But the key changes they proposed were, as expected, voted down.

The pro-administration legislators gave them all the time to register and explain their objections, but conceded no vital ground.  They agreed to raise the membership of the joint canvassing committee to accommodate more opposition members, but refused to yield to objections to the formation of the committee itself as the canvassing agent of Congress.  They agreed to set aside provisionally all questioned certificates of canvass (CoCs), but refused to entertain the idea that the act of verifying the authenticity and due execution of the documents could go beyond spotting suspicious erasures, alterations, and missing names.

More important, they turned down all attempts to extend the congressional power of canvass to include checking the accuracy of CoCs against source documents from the precinct and municipal levels.  They were emphatic in their belief that this is a function of the Supreme Court acting as Presidential Electoral Tribunal.  On this view, all allegations of fraud are to be treated under the rubric of a post-proclamation protest.

The majority seems secure in the belief that the law is on its side, that nothing can stop the canvassing of the certificates of canvass and the eventual proclamation of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as the winner in the 2004 presidential election.  They forget that in a situation as volatile as the one we face today, the law no longer suffices to affirm the legitimacy of an act.  What is legal may not be sensible to a public that forms its political convictions by watching television.

Joseph Estrada saw this for himself in January 2001 when his loyal allies in the Senate voted to block the opening of a second envelope containing damaging evidence against him. The act was accomplished legally, but it triggered a chain of political events that the senator-jurors did not foresee, and that overtook the proceedings of the impeachment court itself.

Back in 1986, Ferdinand Marcos also thought he could buy political legitimacy by means of a manipulated electoral process.  A controlled Batasang Pambansa proclaimed him the winner of a passionately contested snap election.  But soon faint images of systematic fraud began to appear on the screens of the managed mass media.  The sight of a solitary Homobono Adaza ironically registering his objection to nearly every certificate of canvass that shouted the dictator’s triumph scandalized an incredulous public.  Marcos won the procedural game in the Batasan but lost the contest for the public mind.

We have just been through a closely fought presidential election. Thoughtful analysts believe that whoever won the recent presidential election could not have won by more than a half million votes. The exit polls got it all wrong.  Namfrel’s quick count bogged down.  The minority has alerted the public to the very real possibility that the CoCs from those cities and provinces in which Ms. Arroyo is shown to have won overwhelmingly could be fraudulent. Fortunately, everyone seems to agree that results at the precinct level are trustworthy. One would think that in a situation like this, the first order of the day would be to ensure a credible canvass of the votes, going back to source documents whenever necessary.

Yet the canvassing rules approved last Friday evening would only allow access to the election returns accompanying the certificates of canvass if there are patent signs of erasure, alteration, or incomplete reporting.  Where the fraud is impeccably executed and duly signed, therefore, Congress would bar access to the supporting election returns pending the filing of a proper electoral protest before the Supreme Court constituted as a Presidential Electoral Tribunal.

This arrangement will hardly prevent the extended scrutiny of CoCs reporting figures that test the limits of credulity.  The lawyers among the legislators may be expected to use every technicality in the book to counter this.  But unless they decide to ban mass media coverage of the canvass, they will have no choice but to take into account the larger demands of the war of perception that is fought outside the halls of Congress.  It was that war that Marcos and Erap lost when they pinned all their claims to legitimacy on legal maneuver.

On the other hand, those who think they can summon people power for the slightest grievance are in for a big disappointment.  People power springs from the public’s moral outrage against the cynicism, complacency, and arrogance of power.  But it is not wholly oppositional; it is also built on hope.  Ultimately, the only effective weapon against power is the power to speak a constructive truth.  Its name is credibility.  And credibility is what is unfortunately in short supply in our public life today.


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