Column: The moral righteousness of Commissioner Guanzon

Published on January 12, 2016.

LET US, for the sake of argument, grant that Election Commissioner Rowena Guanzon is right about the sequence of events that led to her filing a comment, on behalf of the Commission on Elections, in the Supreme Court on Thursday. Does that justify her controversial conduct after Comelec Chair Andres Bautista demanded an explanation for her action?

Bautista issued a memorandum on Friday ordering Guanzon and the director of the agency’s legal department to cite “under whose authority the comment was filed.” He said he found Guanzon’s action “not only irregular but personally disrespectful”; he added that, if he found their answer unsatisfactory, he would be “constrained to inform the Supreme Court that the filing of the comment was unauthorized.” He gave them 24 hours.

To be scrupulously fair, Bautista late on Friday already told reporters that Guanzon had filed the comment without his clearance or that of the commission, and had affixed his signature without his having read the comment.

But, and again for the sake of argument, even if Bautista should not have been as forthcoming with the media (and who would want to argue that?), does the Comelec chair’s candor justify Guanzon’s scorched-earth response?

She excoriated Bautista for treating her like an underling: “I must emphasize that as a commissioner, I am not a subordinate or employee of Chair Bautista and he has no administrative supervision or control over me.”

She castigated Bautista for impugning her reputation as a lawyer and a public servant. She denounced the “serious accusations” against her, claiming that they damaged her “reputation as a commissioner and as a lawyer.”

And she lambasted Bautista for undermining the credibility of the Comelec as an institution. “The memorandum of Chair Bautista unfortunately damaged the image of the institution and I am afraid might prejudice our case,” she said. “Our first priority should be the institution and the country that we must serve faithfully.”

I do not know Guanzon; all I know is she used to write a column for the Inquirer, and enjoys a reputation for fierce independence. But her response to Bautista (who went to the same high school as I did) is bizarre; it shows that, despite her protestations, she prizes her personal reputation above that of the institution she is supposed to prioritize and the nation she is supposed to serve.

The commission is a collegial body, like an appellate court. Disagreements between members are only to be expected, but for the decisions of the commission to receive wide public support, the disagreements must be contained within the body, and expressed through clear and official channels: explanatory resolutions, dissenting votes, memoranda.

Guanzon’s initial response to Bautista’s demand, therefore, was out of line. She could simply have replied to Bautista. If, as she has maintained, she filed the comment in the Supreme Court with the support of the commission en banc, then she could have said so in her reply, lacing it with the occasional ribbon of pointed sarcasm. Instead, she declared war on Bautista.

Full of her sense of righteousness, she accused Bautista of treating her like an underling, as though she was not accountable to the collegial body she was a part of, and which is led precisely by the chair. She accused Bautista of impugning her reputation, as though she were incapable of mistakes or, indeed, a lack of patriotism. She accused Bautista of undermining the institution of the Comelec, as though her intemperate reply, and her succeeding scandalous remarks, were not institution-damaging in themselves.

I do not particularly care whether Guanzon is protecting the interests of the Liberal Party, or whether, as she has brazenly declared, Bautista is favoring Grace Poe. Regardless of the merits of the Comelec resolutions now under review by the Supreme Court, Guanzon’s decision to raise the disagreements within the Comelec to the level of a personal crusade is a disservice to the election agency and—because of its likely impact—on the credibility of the 2016 elections itself.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Bautista’s recollection of the events was wrong, and that Guanzon’s filing of the comment in the Supreme Court actually served the election agency’s best interests, her scandalous self-righteousness has negated all that.

Instead of calming down, Guanzon has only morphed into the very portrait of a rogue official. She gratuitously questioned her chair’s motives. “Bautista has never made any comment after I answered back (may tinatago ba siya?).” But in fact Bautista had called for yesterday’s en banc meeting, precisely to discuss the disagreements inside the commission.

She dishonestly misread the comments of Poe’s allies as expressing Bautista’s views. “How unusual coincidentally that Gatchalian, Poe and now Chiz … are immediately talking for Bautista (bakit sila kampi?).” In fact, they were not speaking for the Comelec chair but against Guanzon’s intemperateness.

And she stupidly challenged Escudero to a showdown at the Supreme Court, forgetting the fact—something Escudero made sure to point out, in his response—that as senator he was in fact disqualified by the Constitution from arguing a case before the court.

Time for Commissioner Guanzon to calm down. She is not this country’s, or indeed the Comelec’s, only patriot.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

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