MANILA, Philippines – Weeks before the high-stakes 2022 elections, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) needs all hands on deck to ensure the smooth conduct of the May 9 vote.
The seven-member en banc, which is the Comelec’s decision-making body, is once again complete, following President Rodrigo Duterte’s simultaneous appointments in March to fill the vacancies left by three officials who retired in February.
Who are the seven Comelec officials, all Duterte appointees, who are at the forefront of safeguarding Filipinos’ precious votes?
Appointed only two months before the 2022 elections, new Comelec chairman Saidamen Pangarungan needs to adjust fast and hit the ground running.
Pangarungan is only the second Muslim and Mindanaoan to lead the poll body, after his predecessor, Sheriff Abas.
He is a lawyer who is no stranger to government work, having been appointed interior undersecretary under the Corazon Aquino administration, and National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) secretary under the Duterte administration prior to his Comelec stint.
He was a local opposition figure during the Martial Law years. His NCMF profile says he was an opposition candidate against the ruling Kilusang Bagong Lipunan in 1982. In 1986, he went to Manila along with other Muslim leaders in Lanao del Sur to protest election irregularities in his hometown.
Pangarungan entered the Comelec promising to be a “defender of democracy” who will protect the people’s freedom of suffrage.
So far, his public pronouncements also put front and center his push for greater transparency, amid criticisms that the Comelec before he came in fell short in accommodating election observation groups and other stakeholders.
Next to Pangarungan, Casquejo will arguably play the most important role in the 2022 elections, due to his assignment as steering committee head.
This post is not unfamiliar to him, having led the same committee in the 2019 midterm polls. Casquejo, a Comelec career official from Davao who rose from the ranks, can also boast of his computer engineering and law degrees to show he is qualified for the role.
Fellow Comelec officials would sometimes defer to him when lawmakers or members of the media ask about the nitty-gritty of the automated election system (AES), such as concerns stemming from fears that the poll body’s infrastructures might be vulnerable to hacking.
Casquejo is also the commissioner-in-charge of the Office for Overseas Voting (OFOV) and the printing committee, both of which had recently grappled with controversies.
The Comelec was accused of denying access to stakeholders during the first few months of ballot printing, a decision that Casquejo attributed to strict pandemic restrictions at the time. He has since apologized to lawmakers.
Overseas voting, meanwhile, has been marred by reports of irregularities according to some voters, but embassies have pointed to human error as causes.
Rey Bulay is in charge of the Comelec campaign committee, which determines how strict campaigning will be in regions, provinces, cities, and municipalities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
They also used to grant or deny permits to entities seeking to hold campaign sorties, until the Comelec dropped the requirement.
Bulay, who is Duterte’s frat brother, had been appointed Presidential Commission on Good Government commissioner and Manila’s chief prosecutor prior to his Comelec stint. He also had a decade of experience in the Muntinlupa city council.
Commissioner Aimee Ferolino is juggling many responsibilities all at once for the 2022 elections. She heads the committees on packing and shipping, vulnerable sector, and random manual audit.
The random manual audit, which happens post-elections, is particularly important because it reviews whether vote-counting machines tallied the votes correctly.
Ferolino is also in charge of the interagency task force against vote-buying, which was formed in the wake of accusations that the Comelec has not been proactive enough in going after offenders.
Ferolino, like Casquejo, is a career official from Davao who climbed the Comelec ladder after decades of service.
She attracted national attention in January after her bitter rivalry with then-commissioner Rowena Guanzon was made public.
Guanzon had accused Ferolino, the ponente or writer of the ruling on the consolidated disqualification case against Ferdinand Marcos Jr., of deliberately delaying the decision until after her retirement, but Ferolino insisted the delay was due to COVID-19 cases in her office, as well as the complexity of the petitions.
The ruling did come out after Guanzon’s retirement, with Ferolino and Casquejo voting to junk the consolidated petition.
He is not the official spokesperson, but the media-savvy Commissioner George Garcia, in his short time in the Comelec, has already become the go-to guy of beat reporters for updates in the en banc.
For the 2022 elections, Garcia is the head of the task force that aims to crack down on individuals and entities propagating election-related disinformation, specifically against the Comelec.
Garcia is a veteran election lawyer whose clients included Senator Grace Poe and presidential aspirants Isko Moreno, Panfilo Lacson, Manny Pacquiao, and Marcos Jr.
He has chosen to inhibit himself from cases involving his past clients.
Among the commissioners, Socorro Inting has been with the Comelec the longest, entering the poll body in 2018.
Hailing from Davao, Inting is a judiciary veteran who had been an associate justice of the Court of Appeals for nine years before she joined the election body.
Her seniority made her acting chairperson in February, when Abas retired and Duterte had yet to appoint an elections chief.
During her brief stint as chairperson, Inting unilaterally suspended the fact-checking agreement that the Comelec signed with Rappler, following pressure from Solicitor General Jose Calida.
For the 2022 elections, Inting was designated chairperson of the committee on the ban of firearms and security concerns, but resigned from it on April 12. She stepped down to protest her colleagues’ decision to allow Pangarungan to issue gun ban exemptions and declare areas under the Comelec’s control on his own “in urgent and meritorious cases.”
Aimee Torrefranca-Neri joined the Comelec in March, the same time as Pangarungan and Garcia.
She heads the Comelec’s new normal committee, which is tasked to “COVID-proof” the elections.
Before her Comelec appointment, she had been an assistant justice secretary, deputy immigration commissioner, and social welfare undersecretary, all under the Duterte administration.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon previously called for her resignation, amid allegations she received bribe money from drug convict Herbert Colanggo when she was still with the Department of Justice.
Aside from the seven commissioners, other Comelec career officials are playing a key role in some of the committees for the 2022 elections.
The full list can be found below: