Comelec in a federal Philippines

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The Republic of the Philippines has always been unitary.

Recent developments now make it abundantly clear that the years of public debate on the wisdom of remaining within this unitary mold are on the verge of coming to a head. While the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has properly remained officially neutral in this matter, the apparent imminence of a possible shift to a federal form of government has been the subject of much discussion and speculation, particularly as to the fate of the institution should such a change come to pass. In this context, it is important now to ask: Is a centralized election management body (EMB) ideal for a federal Philippines?

A centralized EMB has a lot going for it. Because elections are complex events involving numerous moving parts that all have to be coordinated and managed at the same level of professionalism, centralized decision-making and management reduces the possibility of gaps and breakdowns in planning and conducting elections. This results in both greater efficiency and professionalism in election management, as well as clearer lines of accountability.

In a federal system of government, however, it is not unlikely that centrally managed elections might be viewed with distrust by the states who may well deem federal involvement as an encroachment on states’ rights. In the United States this concern is so acutely felt that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), while commonly referred to as EMBs, in reality have little to do with actually running elections. The FEC concerns itself only with campaign finance, while the EAC deals primarily with helping States certify voting equipment.

Most countries with a federal form of government have EMBs at the national and the state level. However, none even approach the level of fragmentation existing in the US. Despite having state-level EMBs, the national-level EMBs of these countries exercise a significant amount of policy supervision over the states.

Having multiple state-level EMBs, on the other hand, isn’t without its own challenges. These are most readily apparent in countries, like the Philippines, where a formerly unitary government is broken up into various states (as opposed to countries composed of formerly independent polities choosing to federate). Foremost of these concerns is the lack of local experience.

In the Philippines the Comelec’s field offices exercise only a very limited range of devolved powers, with field officials tasked with merely implementing the policies, rules, regulations, decisions, guidelines and orders of the Commission en banc, within their respective areas of responsibility; even within these parameters, all major decisions are referred back to the Commission en banc, to ensure system-wide uniformity. Thus field offices and their officials, while tremendously experienced in conducting elections, only act as extensions and representatives of the centralized Comelec, rather than as EMBs in their own right. Should these field offices be transformed into actual state-EMBs, it might take a long while to develop local capabilities in voter registration and maintaining the roll of voters; registering political parties; identifying and managing the location of polling stations; enforcing electoral laws and regulations; educating voters; and monitoring and reporting on all aspects of campaign finance and election spending—tasks currently undertaken by the central Comelec under the Commission en banc.

And, of course, considering the existence of what we euphemistically refer to as “politically controlled areas”, there exists the very real likelihood of local power structures hijacking the process, resulting in elections that adhere to democratic principles and norms only in form and not in substance.

Taking all of these into consideration, my sense is that the ideal form for the Comelec to take in a federal Philippines falls somewhere in the middle of the range of possibilities defined by the massively centralized setup of the present Comelec on one end, and the extreme decentralization seen in the US. And with plans for federalism seemingly proceeding rather briskly, the time to start finding that sweet spot has to be right now.



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