, APRIL 29, 2013
(PHILSTAR) By Sheila Crisostomo - Entering the final stretch of preparations for the May 13 mid-term elections, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) found itself being reversed yet again by the Supreme Court (SC), which last Tuesday put on hold the Comelec’s ruling on airtime limits for candidates’ ads. Earlier, the SC redefined qualifications for party-list groups after the Comelec had undertaken a much-needed purging of the roster of qualified party-list groups.

Following the SC temporary restraining order on airtime limits, an emotional and obviously frustrated Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. announced he was “seriously thinking” of taking a leave of absence since the SC seemed to be “virtually running the elections.”

This is yet another hump in the bumpy road to the May 13 elections, which the Comelec had been valiantly preparing for. It has not been easy, but three weeks before election day the Comelec declared that preparations were about complete and expressed confidence that the country’s second automated elections will go smoothly.

It was not an easy task for the head of the body charged with carrying out a credible automated election. Admitting that he is not an IT expert – he used to think that WiFi referred to a closed circuit television monitor – Brillantes needed a serious crash course on automation.

“From the beginning I’ve been studying,” he says. “My working knowledge on automation was just the law... and it’s not very much. From the outside you will not really see everything so when I came in, I had to work hard to learn.”

Brillantes was appointed by President Aquino to the Comelec on Jan. 16, 2011, leaving a lucrative law practice where he had established a solid reputation as an elections lawyer.

He almost declined the offer, thinking that it would be difficult to grasp the election process. “But I don’t easily give up. If I set my mind on something, I do my best to achieve it.”

Brillantes now proudly says that he is more knowledgeable about the automated election system. “I’ve learned the entire process, what happened in 2010, what are the issues involved. I know the problems and what to do to resolve them.”

Brillantes normally starts his 12- to 14-hour days at 7 a.m. at his office in Intramuros.

“I’m not a workaholic,” he explains, “but it’s just that I have to study hard because I’m not an IT expert.” When he was a lawyer, his clients adjusted to his time, but now everything is different.

Even on Saturdays he would often come to office to go over documents and prepare for next week’s activities. “That’s been my style even when I was still practicing. So now I would come here even on Saturdays to sign documents and to set my schedule for next week.”

But there was a point in late 2011 when Brillantes almost gave up. In the first place, he says, his original plan was to retire from his law practice after the 2010 elections, but then the offer for the Comelec post came up.

He jumped into preparations for the August 2011 elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, but that was postponed and synchronized with the upcoming mid-term polls.

Brillantes says he was left “hanging.” At that time, he was also going through a difficult confirmation process at the Commission on Appointments (CA), where he was grilled on the poll body’s decision to re-use the PCOS machines, as well as the continued presence of the so-called “Garci boys” at the Comelec and possible conflict of interest since he was an election lawyer.

In December 2011, an exasperated Brillantes summoned his three daughters – Ma. Sandra, Maria Selina and and Ma. Suzanne – for a reunion in Connecticut where Sandra lives with her family. Maria Selina is based in London while Suzanne lives with him in the Philippines. He consulted them on whether he should remain at the Comelec. Apparently, Brillantes was told to stay and fight on.

He perhaps drew inspiration from his father and namesake, who completed a term as Comelec commissioner in 1956. The chair he now uses in his Comelec office was the same chair used by his father, which was recovered in the Comelec’s cottage in Baguio City.

Preparing for the coming polls has been a bumpy ride for the Comelec. There were times it was already at full speed, but then had to step on the brakes when obstacles popped up.

Brillantes’ initial headache was the bidding for the contracts of the automated election system.

“In 2010, Smartmatic supplied almost everything,” he recalls, referring to the Netherlands-based company that provided the PCOS (precinct count optical scan) machines, ballot paper, ballot boxes and forwarding services. This time around, the Comelec decided to “unbundle” the contracts and hold separate biddings.

That became a problem for me,” he says. “Those who lost in the bidding were complaining. It was really chaotic.”

By the middle of 2012, the issue on the source code – the human readable instruction that dictates how PCOS should operate – became a “big problem” for the Comelec.

Smartmatic has had a worldwide licensing agreement with Dominion Voting System to use the latter’s source code to operate the PCOS machines. Dominion, however, terminated the agreement in May last year and refused to let Comelec’s third party reviewer, SLI Global Solution, release the certified source code. Brillantes was forced to get involved in tripartite negotiations with the two firms to settle their dispute. As of this writing, there is no resolution despite a “deadliest deadline” set for the issue to be resolved.

But Brillantes does not consider as a headache the controversy over Comelec’s decision to purge the party-list system of groups that do not genuinely represent the marginalized and under-represented sectors of society.

“It was more of a distraction,” he quips. “Party-list was not really my worry but it attracted publicity. It was not really a big issue but it took us much time.”

His efforts, hailed by many for weeding out many who were abusing the system, took a bizarre turn when the Supreme Court upheld their purge but instructed them to review the disqualifications based on new guidelines – that nominees of party-list groups should be open even to regional and national political organizations.

[Comelec chairman Brillantes with commisioners Grace Padaca, Rene Sarmiento, Lucenito Tagle, Armando Velasco, and Elias Yusoph (left). Brillantes and Yusoph show their solidarity with Deputy Director General Ager Ontog Jr., Brig. Gen. Aurelio Baladad, and Police Director Lina Sarmiento (above). edd gumban]

Ironically though, the Comelec had set its parameters for qualifying party-lists based on the June 2001 SC decision on the Ang Bagong Bayan vs Comelec case.

All I want is to initiate some reforms in preparations for the 2016 elections,” he says. His projection is that after the May 13 mid-term polls when the Comelec could “remedy or rectify the errors in the 2010 elections, the conduct of the third automated polls three years from now would be done more smoothly.”

What I can say is that we can cleanse the elections. The automation should cure itself after the second experience. If we are successful, I don’t think there will be a problem in 2016. I think this will go on in the future,” he notes.

The poll chief is also pushing for the strict implementation of rules on campaign posters, media airtime and expenditures, the most violated aspects of elections. The poll body has also included the Internet and social media in the scope of regulated venues for campaign propaganda.

“We know that the Internet is difficult to control, but at least they know we are trying,” says Brillantes, who has also set up a Twitter account @ChairBrillantes, where he communicates directly with people.

Brillantes is most relaxed when he is in the company of people who do not talk about elections.

“I’m happy if I am with people who do not discuss election,” he admits, “and this is the reason why I still attend the meetings of my marriage encounter group even if my wife has long been gone.” His wife Francisca died in a car accident in October 1992 that almost claimed Brillantes’ life also.

Once in a while, he also meets his childhood friends that include former Health Secretary Alberto Romualdez with whom he grew up on Fermin Street in Singalong, Manila.

“They are my classmates in grade school and high school. From time to time we would meet. We grew up in one place and all of us are in our 70’s already,” he recalls.

Brillantes, 73, is not certain if he will finish his term with the Comelec until 2015 or if he will retire after the May polls.

He wants to spend time with his three grandchildren from daughter Maria Sandra – William, 7; Logan, 3; and 5-month-old Lea. His rendezvous with his family in Connecticut in December 2011 was the first complete reunion that they had since his wife died. He never re-married, keeping in mind his busy schedule and his three growing children.

Now he is looking forward to a chance to tour the world.

“I want to travel but not on official (trip). I’ve been to Southeast Asia but I’ve never gone to Europe because I have no time. Maybe I can do it after 2015, if I still have the strength,” he adds.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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