Who inserted ‘very dangerous’ budget bill provision on 2022 polls?
MANILA, Philippines — It was Sen. Imee Marcos, chair of the Senate electoral reforms committee, who inserted the clandestine provision to waive election procurement safeguards in the P4.5-trillion 2021 national budget, multiple sources told the Inquirer.
Sen. Sonny Angara, chair of the Senate finance committee, said that the insertion had been stricken out of the final version of the General Appropriations Act (GAA) of 2021 upon the instruction of Senate President Vicente Sotto III.
Three people separately told the Inquirer that Marcos added the “very dangerous” clause to the proposed 2021 GAA that, if not removed, would disregard “all the requirements and safeguards” under Republic Act No. 8436, or the automated election law.
Such provision would have given the Commission on Elections (Comelec) “carte blanche authority” to waive procurement guidelines in acquiring equipment and software to be used for the 2022 elections, according to Emil Marañon III, the election lawyer who exposed the last-minute insertion last month without identifying its proponent.
The Inquirer learned that the draft GAA 2021 provided that despite “any law to the contrary and to preserve the integrity of the election system, the Comelec shall provide new equipment, materials and software to be used in the conduct of the forthcoming national election.”
However, this was added to that provision: “The requirements under Section 12 of RA 8436, as amended may be waived to secure the timely procurement of said equipment and materials.”
The Inquirer tried repeatedly to get a comment from Marcos since it was informed about her alleged insertion on Thursday but she gave no direct response.
Her staff on Saturday said she had “already addressed” the matter in an earlier television interview.
Speaking to CNN Philippines on Nov. 30, a day after Marañon tweeted about the provision, Marcos condemned the procurement waiver.
The senator said such a provision would set a “very, very dangerous precedent.”
“I’m very scared of that. I don’t want that. I’ve been very, very vocal about the fact, as the Senate President has said, that other companies should bid and we shouldn’t be completely dependent on Smartmatic as we have been in the past elections,” she said.
“But to waive all procurement laws, I think that’s a very dangerous thing,” Marcos said.
Smartmatic is the foreign company that has been providing the ballot counting machines used in local and national elections since 2008.
Sotto had instructed Angara to delete the controversial insertion from the Senate version of the bill, after its existence was revealed by Marañon on Twitter.
On Dec. 9, Angara told reporters it had been removed from the final GAA, which was ratified by the Senate and the House of Representatives that day. The budget measure is now awaiting President Duterte’s signature.
One of the Inquirer sources privy to congressional consultations with poll watchdogs said Marcos introduced the proposal as part of her bill for a “hybrid election system” in the 2022 polls, referring to a mix of manual and electronic tabulation and transmission of votes.
The source, who did not want to be identified to avoid reprisals, said the daughter of dictator Ferdinand Marcos was preparing to present the bill to her colleagues on Monday.
In a message sent by her media relations office on Friday, Marcos said that “we finally have a long delayed committee report” on the hybrid system bill, but she did not touch on the waiver of procurement safeguards.
Marcos’ brother, former Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., has a pending electoral protest against Vice President Leni Robredo, who defeated him by more than 260,000 votes in the 2016 elections. The protest involves a manual recount of ballots from hundreds of precincts.
Sotto on Friday said he still did not know who made the insertion. In a Viber message to the Inquirer, he said: “It seems it was not Imee but I have not discovered who yet. Ask Sonny A (Angara).”
Angara has not replied to queries from the Inquirer.
Fears of irregularities
Two other sources, one from the Senate and the other from the House of Representatives, separately told the Inquirer that it was Marcos who made the insertion, which had triggered fears of irregularities in the 2022 elections.
The Senate source, who was knowledgeable about how the 2021 budget discussions went but was not authorized to speak about them, corroborated what the Inquirer learned, adding that some lawmakers resented that Marcos did not admit responsibility for the insertion and even condemned it in the TV interview.
The third source, a House insider who was also deeply involved in the bicameral conference on the spending bill, was surprised that Marcos made public statements that appeared she was washing her hands of the inserted provision.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, each of the two separately told the Inquirer they were provoked to disclose what they knew about Marcos’ role after she publicly condemned what she did in the first place.
The Senate finance committee did not release the Senate version of the budget nor its earlier drafts, giving both the lawmakers and the public no record of who made or introduced specific amendments. The panel only presented a summary of the amendments.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who cast the lone dissenting vote on the budget during the bicameral conference, complained of a lack of transparency in the process.
He said he was not given a copy of the Senate version of the budget, hampering a closer scrutiny of the changes proposed by his colleagues.
The controversy on the election procurement waiver was triggered by a series of Twitter posts by Marañon.
“Someone at the Senate is now attempting to insert a provision in the GAA giving Comelec a carte blanche authority to waive/disregard all the requirements and safeguards in Section 12 of the automated election law (as amended by Republic Act No. 9369),” the lawyer said on Nov. 29 without identifying the person responsible or the source of his information.
“THIS IS VERY DANGEROUS,” he said.
Untested new system
“With this, Comelec can now adopt an untested new system or it can waive all safeguards, mandatory tests, certifications, review by political parties and election watchdogs, among others,” Marañon said, warning that “[should] this happen, the upcoming election can no longer be trusted.”
Responding to Marañon, Sotto said: “Cannot allow. I’m looking into it already!” The Senate leader later said provisions of a general law like the GAA “cannot amend” the provisions of a special law like the automated election act.
The section in the law referred to by Marañon authorizes the Comelec to procure election supplies, equipment, materials, software, facilities and other services, “subject to accounting and auditing rules and regulations.”
It requires that the system procured “must have demonstrated capability and been successfully used in a prior electoral exercise here or abroad.”
—With a report from Melvin Gascon
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