POSTSCRIPT / November 11, 2014 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Opinion Columnist

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Paniqui poll protest a new cause célèbre

RAMIFICATIONS: Mainstream media will find a cause célèbre in an intriguing mayoral election protest in Paniqui, Tarlac, home ground of the powerful Aquino and Cojuangco clans.

If the law were allowed to take its course in assuring honest elections, the case could lead to the impeachment of some Commission on Elections officials and the placing on the carpet of a Regional Trial Court judge, aside from the filing of electoral fraud charges.

The case could also help confirm the vulnerability of the Precinct Count Optical Scan system after the Comelec, in violation of the automated election law, ignored or removed safeguards imbedded in the system.

Media coverage of the case is crucial, because exposure to the unforgiving glare of public scrutiny has proved to be an effective cure to the gangrenous wounds of the body politic.

* * *

UNUSUAL RECOUNT: The central figure is Miguel Cojuangco Rivilla (Independent), who was elected Paniqui mayor in 2013 after the PCOS count gave him a 3,000-plus lead over Rommel David (Nationalist People’s Coalition).

David filed a protest, which was promptly thrown out by the Paniqui Regional Trial Court for lack of merit. Months later he filed a second protest, but it was again rejected.

This year David filed a third protest and, to the surprise of many, Judge Agapito K. Laoagan Jr. was imported from the Cordillera Autonomous Region to Region 3 (Paniqui) to hear the case. He ordered a manual revision of the ballots.

The recount was conducted by David’s people while Rivilla, relegated to being a mere observer, watched helplessly. More details in Postscript of last Oct. 23 at manilamail.com/archive/2014oct/14oct23/.

Rivilla, 46, is a Cojuangco on his mother Lourdes’ side. But that has not exempted him from the expansive influence of the NPC founded in 1992 by then presidential candidate Danding Cojuangco, his uncle.

* * *

BALLOTS RESHADED?: Whereas Rivilla originally won in the PCOS count by more than 3,000 votes, after the manual revision the judge declared David winner by a margin of 3,684 where some 52,000 votes were cast.

The 4,238 votes credited to Rivilla in the PCOS count were chopped down to only 554 after allegedly double-shaded votes for him were ignored as stray votes.

Were the contested ballots tampered with or reshaded only before the manual revision? If yes, somebody committed massive fraud. But if not, that means the PCOS computers had counted Rivilla’s double-shaded votes even if they were programed to ignore them as stray votes.

By counting that many double shaded votes, the PCOS machines committed a massive 86-percent error! How could that be when the computers were certified as 99.995-percent reliable?

* * *

CLEARING UP MESS: While the controversy raged, the Tarlac provincial board controlled by David’s party (NPC) recommended the suspension of Rivilla over his approving payment of wages of employees.

Upon the suspension’s approval by Gov. Victor Yap, an NPC stalwart, David installed himself in the town hall as mayor. He was assisted by a police assault team led by Supt. Carlito Grijaldo, Paniqui PNP station chief.

By order of higher authority, Grijaldo has been replaced with Supt. Salvador Destura. But David still lingers in the town hall despite Vice Mayor Gin Linsao’s having succeeded as acting mayor.
To restore normalcy, including the local government personnel’s not being paid their salaries, acting mayor Linsao said she would pursue administrative, civil and criminal charges against all persons involved in the raid on the town hall. 

* * *

COMELEC ACTION BIDED: What is keeping the Comelec from handing down a speedy resolution of the impasse roiling the town of 88,000?

Election lawyer Romy Macalintal said if the Comelec division handling the case does not act favorably on the petition against the arbitrary issuance of the writ of execution by judge Laoagan, the poll commissioners can be impeached for betrayal of public trust.

Rivilla has petitioned the Comelec to cite Laoagan for direct contempt for acceding to hear David’s second motion for reconsideration despite the fact that the same court had previously dismissed his protest twice.

The RTC’s dismissal of the election protest became final and executory when David did not file a notice of appeal within five days after its receipt, Macalintal pointed out.

“The annulment of the more than 3,000 double-shaded ballots of Rivilla is tantamount to massive (86 percent!) disenfranchisement of innocent voters without due process,” he said.

* * *

CALAX UPDATE: The latest development in the frozen Cavite-Laguna Expressway (CALAX) project is that the Ayala-Aboitiz tandem that won the bid has given President Noynoy Aquino a free hand on the matter.

Good sign. The group reportedly assured the President that even if he decides to grant the appeal of losing bidder San Miguel Corp., they will not sue. The winning bidder just urged the President not to change the bidding rules and waste time rebidding the project.

The ball is back to the Palace’s court. It has to choose between hanging on to the promise of getting more money out of one Public-Private Partnership (PPP) deal or preserving its integrity and keeping the country’s image as a good investments destination.

* * *

HARD DECISION: If the Palace wants to get more money from one PPP deal, it should go ahead and award the CALAX project to the losing bidder, San Miguel.

But if the Palace opts to keep the trust of present and potential PPP investors in the bidding and awards process, it may have to award the project to the declared winner, Ayala-Aboitiz.

It looks like the Palace has no half-way solution. Reports have it that both the San Miguel and the Ayala-Aboitiz groups are pleading for the Palace not to rebid the project.

The graciousness of the winning bidder in assuring the Palace that it will not sue if it does not get the CALAX project, however, did not really make things easier for the Palace. Opting to award the project to a “non-winner” may put the country’s investment grade at risk.

In fact, the country already slipped in the “ease of doing business” ranking as seen in the latest index announced by the World Bank.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 11, 2014)

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