The University Student Government (USG) Special Elections, which was slated to take place late into this term, has been cancelled as declared by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) in an announcement released last April 16. According to the statement, the said elections were found to be unconstitutional through investigations done by the Judiciary.
The Special Elections, a solution formulated by the Legislative Assembly, was originally conceived as a contingency measure to fill the vacant positions within the student government after the low turnout of this year’s General Elections (GE).
The resolution that mandated the said elections was approved last March 27 after careful discussion and deliberation within the assembly. However, on March 30, Alyansang Tapat sa Lasallista (Tapat), represented by its President Robbie Arcadio and Vice President for External Affairs Anjho Cruz, and independent candidates Jon Ridge Ong, Pram Menghrajani, and Pat Sario passed to the Judiciary a petition seeking the nullification of the resolution as well as the issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the election proceedings.
In the said document, petitioners argued that the resolution was “unlawful, oppressive, and haphazardly executed.” According to the petitioners, the resolution was considered unlawful since it conflicts with existing provisions in the Election Code. Specifically, the petitioners cite Article VII, Section 5.2, which states that should the majority vote of 50 percent plus one be unmet, a new election schedule should be decided upon between the parties involved in the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). The petitioners pointed out that the schedule finalized by the LA was not accepted by the parties involved, namely the signatories of the petition.
Further, the resolution was also rendered unconstitutional since it was an act of the LA “overstepping on the Constitutional powers of COMELEC.” As stated in Article XIX, Section 13 of the USG Constitution, only COMELEC has the power to make decision on electoral procedures, and makes no mention of the LA’s jurisdiction on the matter.
The petitioners cited that the LA approved the resolution under the impression that what had occurred was an invalid election and not a failure of election according to its definition in the Philippine Omnibus Election Code. Because of this, the LA saw the situation as one that is outside of Article VII, Section 5.1 of the Election Code, which specifies that a re-election would take place to fill vacancies resulting from disqualifications or a failure of elections.
However, the petitioners reasoned that that may not be the case since a failure of election may also be possible if the candidates fail to reach the minimum vote or lose to abstention. They also argued that it was never within the power of the legislative body to make decisions regarding these matters according to Philippine law.
The petitioners argued that the constitutional crisis, which the LA claims will occur should no immediate elections take place, is nonexistent. According to the assembly, should there be vacancies in next year’s legislative body, it would be impossible to appoint the next set of COMELEC Commissioners, and thus make it impossible to hold reelections. The petitioners discredited the argument, citing that as stated in the constitution, the commissioners should be appointed at most a month after the GE, ensuring that a reelection can occur in the following year.
On April 6, the Judiciary released their decision on the petition, granting the requested TRO, citing that further investigations will be done in the meantime to determine the nullity of the resolution in question.
On the other hand
BLAZE2016 LA Representative Patrick Alcantara, serving as counsel for Chief Legislator Patrick Kahn, filed a motion for reconsideration and urgent motion to lift preliminary injunction to the Judiciary soon after the decision was released. According to the document, the TRO imposed was invalid because it was made in the absence of due process; that is, the respondent of the petition was uninformed of the matter until the Judiciary gave their verdict. In fact, as Alcantara explained, they were still unable to receive a copy of the petition from the complainants at the time they filed the motion.
Alcantara stressed that this was a violation of their rights as stated in Article IV, Section 14 of the USG Constitution. Further, he argued that the imposition of a TRO will cause greater harm to the ongoing election proceeding.
The Judiciary then released a new decision lifting the TRO and acknowledging that there was a violation of due process. The statement also expressed that because of how urgent it is that the issue is resolved, both petitioners and respondents were asked to file a new comment within two school days of the issuance of the order defending their stands. Afterwards, the Judiciary would release a decision on the resolution’s constitutionality.
On April 10, the defendants filed a memorandum in compliance to the Judiciary’s decision and in response to the complainants’ first petition. In the document, the LA affirmed the constitutionality of Resolution 2014-111 and dismissed the complainants’ petition for judicial review.
According to the document, Resolution 2014-111 is lawful and valid as it “supplements the silence of Article VII, Section 5 (2).” The said section only explicitly stated that parties must agree on the date of Special Elections. The LA found the need to devise a specific schedule for the Special Elections. Because the provision is silent on remedies in the case of non-agreement of parties and until when parties are allowed to decide to agree with the schedule, the LA deemed it necessary to pass a resolution indicating a date and schedule for the Special Elections. The LA further believed that the non-agreement of a party will not indicate non-performance of Special Elections, ruling that if a party disagrees then the party will not be eligible to run.
The LA also maintained that it did not violate the doctrine of separation of powers because it acted within its power under Article XXIV, Section 1 of USG Constitution that states “the LA shall decide on actions required for vacancies in the USG following a special session.” The LA regarded the scenario as an issue of both electoral exercise and vacancy in the USG, thus affirming the LA’s authority to take over.
Meanwhile, the petitioners stated that the legislators should not have passed the resolution because of Article XXIII, Section 7 of the Constitution, which states the COMELEC shall call a Special Election within the first four weeks of the first trimester of the academic year for vacancies arising from disqualification of candidates. The LA argued that the candidates in the GE were declared ineligible to run for office and not disqualified.
The USG Election Code defines valid election but not failure of election. Thus, the USG Election Code provides a distinction between invalidity of election and failure of election. The overall voter turnout for this year’s GE was 35.90 percent, rendering it invalid. Since there is no definition of failure of elections in both the USG Constitution and Election Code, the LA used the definition from the Philippine Omnibus Election Code. In revising the said code, the LA provided for two scenarios in Article VII, Section 5, one calling for a reelection in the case of disqualification of candidates and failure of elections, and another in the case that the majority (50 percent plus one) is not met.
The LA defined constitutional crisis as a scenario where majority of seats in the USG are vacant before the next AY. Petitioners cited Sec. 2 Art. 27 that states “the term of all incumbent officers shall be extended until such time that matters pertaining to their term of office require representation of the studentry,” but the LA claimed that this provision was created for a smooth transition from the Student Council to the USG and never intended to be a remedy for vacancies.
The LA further reasoned that if Special Elections would not be held during the term, a total of 69 positions in the USG will remain vacant, “depriving the students the right to representation.” Under Sec. 8 Art. 13, USG officers assume office on the last day of the preceding AY and end on the last day of the same AY. Thus, all incumbent USG officers will still be in office until the last day of special term but there will be no USG officers for the next AY until the Special Elections has been held.
The LA argued that this is problematic since there will be no officers to monitor pivotal events in the coming months, citing the implementation of the revised handbook, transitory programs in line with the ASEAN calendar shift, and initiatives for the 2016 national elections as examples.
The LA denied that holding the Special Elections this term is an act of tyranny against the student body, arguing that on the contrary, it is “a clear exercise of the supremacy of the USG Constitution.” The Constitution states the possibility of conducting Special Elections within the term. The LA argued that as the highest law of the USG, the USG Constitution must be respected. The LA also pointed out that the issue raised by the complainants is also a political question and not a question of law.
To finally settle the dispute, the Judiciary released their decision on the constitutionality of the resolution, agreeing that indeed, Resolution 2014-111 was unconstitutional. Regarding the question of whether or not this year’s GE was a failure of elections or was invalid, the Judiciary argued that it was the former which occurred, meaning that the provisions in the Election Code will follow through and that only the parties in the MOA can decide on the reelection schedule. Therefore, the LA had no say in the agreement.
Regarding the respondent’s argument that the LA had the power to act according to Article XXIV, Sec. 1 of the constitution, the magistrates refuted the claim, citing that the LA’s power over filling vacancies in the USG only extends to those that result from resignations, incapacities, and impeachments. It does not state anywhere in the said provision that the LA can decide on a failure of election. The judiciary also added that any “silences” in the election code should have been brought up to them for interpretation instead of having the LA making their own interpretation of the law.
Kahn said that the LA has no comment as of press time, but added that their sentiments are already encapsulated in the memorandum submitted. “If we do not conduct a Special Election solely because of the dissatisfaction of a party to the schedule of the election, then we are creating a dangerous precedent wherein the fate of the Special Elections will be under the whims and caprice of the parties involved,” he reiterated from the said document.
Arcadio, meanwhile, respected the decision of the Judiciary, and hoped that the USG will “exercise more care in carrying [out] its responsibilities.” He states, “It is our hope that this example can be used as a learning experience for the whole student body, in order that situations such as this, where an unconstitutional election was being executed, in which time, effort, and resources were used, be avoided in the future.”