Duterte appoints ex-Marcos lawyer to Comelec

 Duterte appoints ex-Marcos lawyer to Comelec

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte has appointed three new election officials, including a lawyer who represented the son of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in his vice-presidential protest in 2016 that he eventually lost.

Appointed commissioner was George Erwin M. Garcia, who lawyered for former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr. in his election protest against Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” G. Robredo, acting presidential spokesman Jose Ruperto Martin M. Andanar told a televised news briefing on Tuesday.

His appointment comes while the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has yet to resolve lawsuits seeking to disqualify Mr. Marcos, who has topped opinion polls, from the presidential race.

Mr. Garcia did not immediately reply to a mobile phone message seeking comment.

Also named commissioner was Aimee Torrefranca-Neri, who was an undersecretary of the Social Welfare department. The president also named Saidamen B. Pangarungan, who was the secretary of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, chairman of the Comelec.

“The directive of the president is to ensure honest, peaceful, credible and free elections,” Mr. Andanar said. Filipinos will choose the replacement of Mr. Duterte, who is limited by law to a single six-year term, on May 9.

Mr. Garcia also lawyered for Senator Grace Poe-Llamanzares in a lawsuit that sought to disqualify her from the 2016 presidential race.

“That went through a vetting process,” Mr. Andanar said. “We should respect the prerogative of the president. It was not a haphazard selection. It was a very long process,” he said in Filipino.

“If a possible conflict of interest arises, we are confident that the new commissioners will deal with that appropriately,” Comelec spokesman James B. Jimenez told an online news briefing.

Under the Constitution, Comelec commissioners have a seven-year term and cannot be reappointed. Their appointment must be approved by the Comelec, which is made up of senators and congressmen.

Pending election cases would remain with the previously assigned divisions, Mr. Jimenez said. The en banc will also decide whether the new election officials may vote on these cases, he added.

Election watchdog Kontra Daya questioned the track record of the new Comelec appointees.

“While Garcia has experience as an election lawyer, Neri proves to be no different from certain Duterte-appointed commissioners with little to no clean election advocacy or lawyering track record, having transferred from one agency to another,” it said in a statement.

It also found Mr. Pangarungan’s background wanting, noting that just like other commissioners before him, he came from San Beda University — Mr. Duterte’s alma mater.

Kontra Daya said the new commissioners should try to live up to public expectations at a time when Comelec’s credibility is in doubt.

“At this point, we ask the three people: What is your track record in election advocacy or lawyering?” the group said. “What is your relationship with the Duterte administration? What is your assurance that you will maintain independence from the powers-that-be, including former clients who are now running in the 2022 elections?”

The Comelec First Division last month dismissed three consolidated lawsuits seeking to disqualify Mr. Marcos from the presidential race, as it ruled that his failure to file his tax returns in the 1980s did not involve wicked, deviant behavior. The case is on appeal before the Comelec en banc.

Comelec has six members and one chairman. Its two divisions have three members each. Decisions issued by the two divisions are eventually appealed to the seven-member en banc. Three Comelec members retired last month.

Retired First Division Presiding Commissioner Maria Rowena V. Guanzon’s vote for Mr. Marcos’s disqualification was never counted because the ruling came out after she retired. She earlier accused the writer of the decision of delaying the case.

She also said a senator from Davao, Mr. Duterte’s hometown, was trying to meddle in the case.

A trial court in the 1990s convicted Mr. Marcos of tax evasion after he repeatedly failed to file his tax returns in the 1980s. Human rights survivors of the late dictator’s regime have cited that as the basis for his disqualification.

Ms. Guanzon released a separate opinion on Jan. 31 in which she voted to disqualify Mr. Marcos, whom she called an ex-convict. She said his repeated failure to file his tax returns showed a deliberate intent to violate the law.

Political analysts have said Comelec risks losing its credibility after the delayed ruling that favored the former senator.

Election Commissioner, who wrote the decision, said Mr. Marcos’s failure to file his tax returns was not “inherently immoral” since there was no law that punishes it.

Commissioner Marlon S. Casquejo, who signed the ruling, wrote a separate 12-page opinion in which he said Mr. Marcos’s crime did not involve “moral turpitude.” Saying that his omission resulted in injustice was “overkill,” he said. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and John Victor D. Ordoñez