With just less than two months left before the May 9 polls, President Rodrigo Duterte has appointed a new chairman and two commissioners of the Commission on Elections (Comelec).
Duterte has tapped Saidamen Pangarungan to head Comelec, replacing Sheriff Abas who retired last February. The president also named George Garcia and Aimee Neri as the poll body's commissioners, replacing Rowena Guanzon and Antonio Kho Jr.
The trio rounds out the seven-member Comelec en banc with Rey Bulay, Marlon Casquejo, Aimee Ferolino, and Socorro Inting. All of them are Duterte appointees, with Inting, Casquejo, and Ferolino all hailing from Duterte’s hometown Davao City. Bulay, meanwhile, is Duterte’s fraternity brother.
“The directive of the President is to ensure an honest, peaceful, credible, and free elections,” acting palace spokesman Martin Andanar said on March 8 when he announced the appointments.
Here's what you need to know about the new Comelec officials handpicked by Duterte.
Pangarungan is the second Comelec chairman from Mindanao, and the second Muslim after Abas.
He was a schoolmate of Duterte in San Beda College, where he finished his liberal arts degree in 1971 and law in 1976.
He entered politics in 1979, when he served as assemblyman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao up to 1982. He was an opposition candidate against the ruling Kilusang Bagong Lipunan of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
In 1984, he served as vice president of PDP-Laban.
After the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986, Pangarungan served as governor of Lanao del Sur from 1988 to 1992.
He was later appointed undersecretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government by President Corazon Aquino.
Fast forward to 2018, Duterte appointed him as secretary of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) with a two-year term.
In 2020, NCMF Commissioner Abubakar Mangelen filed a complaint against Pangarungan and other officials for alleged “unlawful refusal and/or delay to perform their ministerial duties” in releasing his "extraordinary and miscellaneous benefits" for the second quarter of that year.
Mangelen was among the petitioners of the three consolidated disqualification cases against Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., which have been dismissed by the Comelec First Division due to "lack of merit."
Garcia is a veteran election lawyer, who has handled high-profile clients like presidential candidates, including Marcos Jr.
He represented Marcos Jr. in his 2016 electoral protest against Vice President Leni Robredo. In the same year, he also lawyered for former Sen. Grace Poe for her disqualification case in the presidential race due to her citizenship.
Prior to his appointment, Garcia was the legal counsel of presidential aspirant Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso.
Garcia's previous clients also included two other presidential bets, namely Sen. Manny Pacquiao and Sen. Lacson.
In a press conference last March 9, Lacson mentioned in jest that Garcia is an "abogado ng lahat," though noted that he deserves the appointment as he's "qualified."
Amid concerns about conflict of interest, Garcia wrote a formal letter to the Comelec clerk dated March 10, saying he'll inhibit from all cases involving his former clients.
“This is voluntary. I was not compelled by anybody," Garcia said. "Nobody urged me. It is purely voluntary."
In particular, one last disqualification case against Marcos Jr. filed by Martial Law victims remains pending before the Comelec Second Division.
Neri, meanwhile, started her political career at the Court of Appeals in Mindanao.
She also served as special counsel for violence against women and children for the mayor's office in Davao City, the hometown of Duterte where he had also been a local chief executive succeeded by his children.
Neri has had several government stints under the Duterte administration. She was assistant secretary of the Department of Justice in 2016, deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration in 2017, and undersecretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development in 2018.
In her 2012 wedding video posted on YouTube, Duterte can be seen as one of her guests at the 3:24 mark.
Neri's appointment was immediately met with controversy following bribing allegations.
Lawyer Ferdinand Topacio said his client, drug convict Herbert Colanggo, supposedly gave Neri P10 million to "fix his robbery case before the Supreme Court."
But Topacio said Neri only supposedly returned P7 million after Colanggo was convicted in 2018.
Neri dismissed the claims as "unsubstantiated" and "false," but expressed willingness to face them in the "proper forum."
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon urged Neri to resign amid the allegations, saying it can affect Comelec's integrity.
Duterte defended his appointments amid questions behind the selection process.
In a one-on-one interview with Pastor Apollo Quiboloy for SMNI, Duterte cited Pangarungan's Maranaoan heritage, saying he's "good."
"He's a lawyer saka marami na itong dinaanan sa gobyerno," he said.
Appointing Garcia was also a "neutral choice," the president said, noting that Garcia even represented his former rival, Prospero Nograles.
“Ever since iyan ang sa kabila. Kami ni Boy Nograles, over the years, siya iyong nasa kabila,” Duterte said. “Pero siya iyong inappoint ko."
Ad interim appointments
The president's appointments will need confirmation from the Commission on Appointments (CA), composed of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, including Drilon. The CA has the power to reject them.
Regular appointments go through four stages as stated under the first paragraph of the Article VII, Section 16 of the 1987 Constitution: nomination, consent, appointment, and acceptance by the nominee.
After being confirmed by the CA can the appointment only be properly finalized prior to the appointee taking his or her oath of office.
But while the Congress is not in session, the CA said the president may issue ad interim or temporary appointments. In this case, Duterte was able to appoint Pangarungan, Garcia, and Neri as the 18th Congress is on recess due to the campaign period.
The 18th Congress resumes session on May 23, and it's only then that the CA may hold hearings on the ad interim appointments.
But it's scheduled to adjourn sine die or without day on June 4. The members of the 19th Congress will only assume their posts on June 30.
In an interview with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism on March 12, Drilon said unless the president calls for a special session, the CA can only convene on May 23 to June 1 when Congress resumes session.
“Note that when the CA resumes session on May 23, there is already a new president-elect," PCIJ quoted Drilon as saying, "who can influence the vote and action of the CA on these ad interim appointments."
Former Comelec Commissioner Luie Tito Guia also told PCIJ that Duterte can reappoint the trio ad interim if the CA fails to confirm them before June 4. The next Congress, then, will decide on their fate.