Late February this year, The LaSallian was up and about preparing for the annual University Student Government (USG) General Elections (GE) Special, due to be released weeks prior to the actual voting. At the time, candidates were yet to be named, candidacies were yet to be filed, and we were busy looking for angles that didn’t require any of that information.
During the storyboard a week prior, one of the staffers pitched the idea of relating the then upcoming elections to the disastrously low turnout of the plebiscite. In November of the previous year, it was reported that only 8.49 percent of the student body voted on what could have been a much needed update to the 2009 USG Constitution.
The causes behind its failure vary—lack of publicity, indifference from the student body, the issues that surrounded it—but it was enough to cause alarm and warrant itself another article, especially if the GE would meet the same fate.
On that same day, the publication was also close to wrapping up an informal survey of the student body for the said GE Special. Perhaps only one question in that survey would stand out in the weeks that followed—“Do you plan on voting in the coming General Elections?” It was an innocent enough question to ask unsuspecting students, but it was the results that caught our attention: of the 99 students asked, only 35 of them had even considered it at the time.
Perhaps it was still too early to be thinking about elections when some of the candidates themselves were uncertain of running. Perhaps it was random chance that the students who happened to have wandered the school that day and who happened to have run into us were not really thinking about student elections. Perhaps, since it was an informal survey, there were discrepancies in the sampling method or the sample size was not sufficient to be representative of the students’ general opinion.
Just another GE?
Early on during the GE, Alyansang Tapat sa Lasallista (Tapat) filed a Petition for Nullification to the USG’s Judiciary branch. They sought to nullify the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA)—a document signed by the different parties running during the GE which, in essence, outlines how they will go about the elections together—after they had allegedly discovered a breach in agreement.
According to Tapat, Santugon sa Tawag ng Panahon (Santugon) supposedly passed certificates of candidacy (COC) late for their candidates in the College of Science. As agreed upon in the MOA, late submissions would no longer be considered. That wasn’t what the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) did. Instead, they accepted the late COCs, but gave Santugon minor offenses for each batch unit and the College Assembly President filed late.
COMELEC also penalized both parties by giving a lump-sum of four minor offenses for all of their other deficiencies. This was, as Tapat stated, COMELEC’s decision as “a better alternative than assessing offenses to the parties concerned.”
The party saw the commission’s verdict on both issues as a violation of the MOA since it was done without the other parties’ consultation and that the decision itself was baseless, hence the complaint.
Things fell apart
The next day, March 11, was a rather unusual one for elections season—no one was campaigning. The day before, the Judiciary denied Tapat’s petition, arguing that it would only ruin the GE proceedings.
As the Judiciary reasoned, “Nullity would result in more harm than good. The USG is built upon the need for representation. If [Tapat’s petition] is granted, the MOA will be invalidated resulting in a failure of elections. [Further,] logistically speaking, a reset is not a viable option [since it renders an] absence of USG elected officials.”
They would then give the same justifications against the imposition of a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), which, at the time, would have been the wiser decision. This is, of course, in reference to what had happened during the USG plebiscite, when, right in the middle of the voting procedure, the Judiciary granted a TRO after two concerned students filed a petition arguing that the plebiscite was unconstitutional.
The Judiciary would later deny the petition and let the plebiscite proceed, but the damage had already been done. Fearing that a similar result would arise, the Judiciary decided to deny Tapat’s request.
Despite that, the issue itself earned a second glance from COMELEC. A lull period was declared that day for the parties to discuss the matter. No room-to-room campaigns, no chants, no clumps of orange, red, yellow, or blue in different parts of the campus; it was unusually quiet for a day, to say the least.
It was around a quarter past nine that evening when rumors broke out of even bigger issues within the USG. Instead of penalties as COMELEC originally suggested, candidates with incomplete applications were deemed ineligible to run.
As a result, Santugon’s entire slate, a majority of Tapat’s, and one independent candidate were suddenly out of the race. In an instant, seats in the USG were sure to be vacant after GE, while those with eligible candidates were running unopposed (except for the Executive Board, where the Vice President for Internal Affairs and the Treasurer had at least two candidates vying for the seat). Everyone actively covering the elections went into a frenzy, reaching left and right for someone to confirm the veracity of the claims circulating online.
A few hours later, before the strike of dawn, COMELEC released an official statement, confirming everyone’s fears. If there was one thing of interest in that statement, it was the specifics of their faults — Santugon’s entire slate, according to COMELEC, failed to submit a soft copy of “Their Takes”; Tapat’s ineligible candidates had incomplete COCs; and the independent candidate simply submitted late.
The following day, March 12, Santugon filed two petitions to the Judiciary: one asking for a preliminary injunction, and another asking for certiorari and prohibition. According to their petitions, COMELEC’s decision to retroactively remove Santugon’s candidates from the elections was a violation of the students’ right to suffrage.
The students, as well as the parties involved in the MOA, according to Santugon, stand to lose more from the decision because of the damages they will incur. Candidates had already campaigned, money and resources had already been spent for campaign materials, students had already formed in their minds what they stand for and who they support—all of these wasted, as Santugon put it, “over mere technicalities.”
The Judiciary rejected both of them in separately released decisions on March 13, the same day as the scheduled Miting de Avance (MDA). According to them, the preliminary injunction petition had no merit since it was well within COMELEC’s power to remove ineligible candidates.
For the certiorari and prohibition petition, the Judiciary agreed that reinstating the previous compromise—accepting late submissions and giving offenses as penalty—was unlawful, and, as agreed upon between the parties in the first place, the MOA must be upheld.
Tapat, on the other hand, was less than thrilled by Santugon’s efforts. The party would release a statement a day later responding to the issue, arguing that the other party gave flawed arguments in asking for reconsideration since they were fully aware of the violations being made.
As Tapat stressed in their statement, “The abuse of processes we now witness from the aforementioned political party demonstrates blatant disrespect for the rule of law. It typifies tyranny. It sends [a] message that those behind the moves to defeat the COMELEC’s ruling are not bound by rules and legal commitments.”
The bad turnout
If people had any doubts before that the GE would be a bust, then the voting proceeding is the strongest indication if anyone is even going to vote. People voted, but not a lot showed up. COMELEC, seeing that turnout was low, decided to extend the voting period by another two days. That didn’t help, either.
By the time it was over, COMELEC sent us the numbers: 35.9 percent, or 5,689 of the 15,849 enrolled undergraduate students in DLSU voted. What about the extension? Only 519 more students voted in those two days. The low turnout also indicated one more startling truth: none of the Executive Board (EB) candidates won, since a minimum of 50 percent plus one of the entire voting population in votes is needed to win the position.
Aside from the final tally, COMELEC also provided a voter breakdown per college. Interestingly, though students ID 112 and below composed almost half of the entire student population (7,684 out of 15,438), only a quarter of them (1,917) actually voted. ID 113 students, on the other hand, had a moderately better participation rate (1,696 out of 4,090 or 41 percent). But the most peculiar trend is in the freshman block where approximately half exercised their right to vote (1,849 out of 3,664).
It was only on April 7 when COMELEC released the official results. If 2010 saw a Santugon-filled USG at the end of the GE, the year 2015, on the other hand, saw a near empty one. Only six out of 75 seats were won.
The (rejected) final solution
Three days after voting ended, March 27, the LA called for an emergency meeting to solve the impending GE crisis. No one yet knew what the official results were, but given the dismal turnout across the board, it was already enough to assume that a lot of seats were vacant, especially in the EB.
The session was a gruesome affair—it lasted more than four hours. The legislators were split between being adamant and hesitant to push through with the special elections. The problem was time: there wasn’t any left to spare.
Even if they had a little over a month (the plan was to have the whole special elections process from March 28 to May 7), it would still be difficult logistically and morally to carry out another signing of a MOA, filing of candidacies, campaigning, MDA for both campuses, and voting. If the term was scheduled to end by the last week of April, and finals week would take place in the third, how would you get students to even care about it at that point?
Apart from that, there was still the issue of whether or not the LA could intervene with the rescheduling. As one LA Representative pointed out in Article VII, Section 5.2 of the Election Code, “A new election schedule shall be agreed upon by all parties involved in the Memorandum of Agreement.” In his defense, Chief Legislator Patrick Kahn argued that they had the power to do so since they served as the highest policy-making body in the USG.
On April 16, COMELEC released an announcement stating that the special elections “will not push through this term due to the unconstitutionality of Resolution No. 2014-111.”
The exchange between the Judiciary, the LA, and some of the signatories of the original MOA was rather lengthy, but in its essence the petitioners argued that the special elections was unconstitutional because the LA was overstepping on COMELEC’s jurisdiction on the elections. Members of the LA, on the other hand, saw it as their duty to have done what they had done and schedule a special elections, and, as a legislative body, was not violating any protocol.
The Judiciary, in their decision, favored the petitioners, agreeing that indeed the resolution was unconstitutional. As the petitioners have argued, the Constitution never mentions that the LA can decide on vacancies from a failure of elections (Article XXIV Sec 1. of the said constitution only provides that LA can decide when vacancies arise from resignations, incapacity, and impeachments), and as the Election Code states, only the signatories of the MOA should have the power to make a decision on the matter.
The voter is always right
What can we take away from all this? For one thing, none of this should have happened or escalated as quickly as it did. I admit that, to some extent, the removal of multiple candidates from the race so late into the proceedings was too much, but if COMELEC had enforced the MOA to the fullest extent from the very beginning, then they would never have reached a situation where they had to resort to a last-minute decision that did more harm than good.
Likewise, had the parties involved processed their candidacies properly with the true intent of serving the student body, then they would have avoided the multiple errors in their candidacies and would have submitted more promptly. Their deficiencies, regardless of how minimal it was, was reflective of how strong their convictions really were.
The student body itself, perhaps, was the least at fault in this situation. Having witnessed what had happened within the elections, it’s hard to blame them for losing faith in the system and opting not vote.
If GE 2015’s numbers were any indication, then it may be highly likely that the freshmen—those who know very little of what transpired last March—would leave the strongest impression in terms of voter turnout this month.
With the special elections set to take place soon, it’s high time the student body rectified the mistakes of the past by being informed and by exercising their right to vote. Whether we like it or not, only the voters can decide the fate of the elections and, ultimately, the USG.