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Is there more to the no-el trial balloon? | CMFR

Is there more to the no-el trial balloon?

Media failed to look into it

Screengrab from ABS-CBN News YouTube account.

THE MEDIA did not quite know what to make of the suggestion.

Comelec officials were at the House of Representatives on September 24 to brief lawmakers about its budget of PHP14.6 billion for 2021. But instead of asking them how they are working to make sure a new generation of voters has every opportunity to register even during the pandemic; Rep. Mikey Arroyo (2nd Dist., Pampanga), son of former president and speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, used the pandemic to float the idea of  a no-election scenario. He actually asked the Comelec to think of the possible postponement of the ballot in 2022.

Critics were quick to point out that Arroyo raised the idea to extend the terms of officials. The lawmaker, however, insisted that he wanted Comelec to “at least think about it.” But why think about it, when the task at hand is passing the 2021 budget for election preparations in 2021?

The media took the bait, scrambling for views from some lawmakers, but also from citizen groups involved in elections, including the PPCRV and NAMFREL. Accounts also recorded the bipartisan flak from Congress and other sources from the Comelec, the DILG and even Malacanang.

Arroyo had said that the proposal should come from Comelec, that “…if it comes from us, then people might think we have motives to extend our term.” As the date for the election is specified by the Constitution, the media failed to call out the cluelessness of Arroyo about who can make such decisions as postponing elections..

The mounting criticism prompted Arroyo to clarify his statement. On September 25, he explained in an interview with radio station dzBB that he did not tell Comelec to postpone the elections, but only to consider it in a worst-case scenario.

For the most part, media’s coverage of the issue was limited to statements by Arroyo and other lawmakers’ reactions to his “question”– failing to point out the fact that any postponement or deferment is possible only if Congress passes a law doing so.

Furthermore, no reports actually flagged Arroyo’s scenario as a trial balloon. Sources quoted in the accounts found only those who were against it. But the media did not reach out to more members of Congress to get the sense of Arroyo’s colleagues and the dominant alliance in the House.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites from September 24 to October 1, 2020.

Comelec chair’s flipflop

During the budget deliberations for his agency, Comelec Chair Sheriff Abas was resolute in his answer. “Hindi po talaga. Because alam naman natin that this is a constitutional mandate at fixed yung nilagay,” was his reply to Arroyo.

But in a televised briefing  the following Monday, September 28, he acknowledged that it would be “difficult” to rule out a postponement because the Constitution allows it.

More willing to consider Arroyo’s suggestion, Abas said there would be some issues on when the term of incumbents would end, but if a law is passed to amend what the constitution says, this itself is provided in the Constitution which clearly provides for the condition “unless otherwise provided by law.”

Resounding criticism

So far, media’s sources have included only a few House representatives, including members of the Makabayan bloc and Rep. Lawrence Fortun (1st Dist., Agusan del Norte), committee chair on electoral reforms, all expressing opposition to the idea.

Only the Inquirer editorial called Arroyo’s question a trial balloon. The rest of the media should watch closely, as even if Arroyo stops talking about it, there may be other developments which can cause his proposal to gain momentum. Journalists should be alert to any such threat looming in the horizon. After all, the record of the Duterte administration shows how easily it can go back on its word.