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Do you need to be a lawyer to be in an election management body?

by Damaso G. Magbual (Member, NAMFREL National Council)
May 3, 2011

from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.2, No.8

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In an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on April 29, 2011 entitled “New poll exec for manual voting,” election lawyer Romulo Macalintal was quoted as saying “….that a Comelec commissioner should be a lawyer with at least 10 years practice of law” obviously questioning the appointment of Mr. Augusto Lagman to the Commission on Elections. Macalintal is oblivious of the fact that an election has an administrative component. Voters’ lists have to be updated, sensitive materials such as ballots have to be produced and distributed to the various field offices, etc. A number of tasks in running an election have nothing to do with an understanding and appreciation of the election law. Rather, these require administrative and management skills that are best handled by professionals with managerial experience. Mr. Lagman is not only an IT expert but likewise a professional manager.

Apart from the issue of credibility, the COMELEC has also been beset by administrative lapses in past elections. Names that should be in the voters’ lists are not there; names that should not be in the list such as dead persons, minors, multiple registrants are found in the list. Accountable materials such as ballots intended for La Union are shipped to Davao. Voting procedures are not uniformly followed at the precincts, an indication of ill-trained poll workers. These are just a few administrative failings that have not been corrected by the lawyer-commissioners.

Let us have a look at well conducted elections in Asia and find out who run the elections in these countries. India is the biggest democracy in the world with more than 750M voters. The Indian Election Commission has gained the respect and admiration of the democratic world for conducting credible elections. In fact, the Indian commissioners have been invited by emerging democracies as consultants during their elections and the Philippines sent a COMELEC Commissioner and a Director to observe the last parliamentary election of India.
Unfortunately, our COMELEC officials enjoy the junket but do not learn from the experience.

I mentioned India because none of the last three (the incumbent included) Chief Election Commissioners is a lawyer. N. Gopalaswami is a chemistry graduate with a diploma in Urban Development Planning. S. Y. Quraishi has a Ph.D. in Communications and Social Marketing and came from the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs before he was appointed to the Election Commission. Navin Chawla has a degree in History and Social Administration from the London School of Economics. Incidentally, a former Chief Election Commissioner of India, James Michael Lyngdoh was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award. Many of our Asian neighbors do not require their election commissioners to be lawyers - Thailand, Indonesia (now rated the only free country in the ASEAN by Freedom House), Bangladesh, Nepal and others.

The success of an election depends in large measure on the acceptance of the election’s legitimacy by the various election stakeholders. This can only happen when the election body is perceived as independent, impartial and transparent because they act in an independent, impartial and transparent manner. This is not brought about by the educational background they bring to the job.

We have had enough lawyers in the mold of Garcillano, Bedol, Sumalipao that have not contributed to improving the quality of our elections. Enough is enough! No more of their ilk!
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Mr. Magbual is also the Chairperson of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL).
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