DOCTRINE:

The matter of party registration raises critical election concerns that should be handled with discretion commensurate with the importance of elections to our democratic system. The COMELEC should be at its most strict in implementing and complying with the standards and procedures the Constitution and our laws impose. The COMELEC must follow its own Rules on Procedures.

FACTS:

COMELEC promulgated a Resolution setting August 17, 2009 as the last day for the filing of petitions for registration of political parties. On January 21, 2010, the COMELEC promulgated a Resolution providing, among others, for the rules for the filing of petitions for accreditation for the determination of the dominant majority party, the dominant minority party, ten major national parties, and two major local parties for the May 10, 2010 elections. The same Resolution also set the deadline for filing of petitions for accreditation on February 12, 2010 and required that accreditation applicants be registered political parties, organizations or coalitions. On February 12, 2010, the LP filed with the COMELEC its petition for accreditation as dominant minority party. On the same date, the Nacionalista Party (NP) and the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) filed a petition for registration as a coalition (NP-NPC) and asked that “it be recognized and accredited as the dominant minority party for purposes of the May 10, 2010 elections”. LP filed its Opposition 5 to the NP-NPC’s petition on the ground that it is not a duly registered coalition of political parties and that the COMELEC en banc has no jurisdiction to entertain the petition for registration as a coalition because the petition should have been first brought before the proper Division. On April 12, 2010, the en banc granted the NP-NPC’s petition for registration as a coalition through the Resolution assailed in the present case. In the same Resolution, the en banc deferred the resolution of the NP-NPC’s application for accreditation as dominant minority party.

COMMISSIONER RENE SARMIENTO DISSENT: (part of the main case, not a separate opinion)

First, He ruled that the COMELEC sitting en banc had no jurisdiction over NP-NPC’s petition for registration as a coalition and accreditation as dominant minority party. Rule 32 of the COMELEC Rules governs the registration of coalitions. Rule 32 is found under Letter F of the Rules entitled “Special Proceedings.” According to Section 3 of the COMELEC Rules, the Commission sitting in two (2) Divisions, shall have jurisdiction to hear and decide cases falling under special proceedings, with the exception of the accreditation of citizens’ arms of the COMELEC. The dissent concluded that the present petition is within the jurisdiction of the COMELEC sitting in Division and not of the COMELEC sitting en banc.

Second, He took the position that the relaxation of the Rules is inappropriate in the present case. Election laws may be divided into three parts for purposes of applying the rules of statutory construction. The first part refers to the provisions for the conduct of elections that election officials are required to follow; these provisions are merely directory. The second part covers those provisions that candidates for office are required to comply with and are necessarily mandatory. The last part embraces those procedural rules designed to ascertain, in case of dispute, the actual winner in the elections; this requires liberal construction. The NP-NPC’s petition falls under the second part, so the applicable requirements of law are mandatory. That the relaxation of the rules is not applicable to the present case, because it does not involve the determination of the will of the electorate; thus, the rules governing the registration of coalitions should be construed strictly and not liberally.

Third, that no valid coalition was formed between the NP and the NPC. He pointed out that the Constitutions and By-Laws of both parties require that the parties’ respective National Conventions give their approval before their parties can enter into any coalition agreement with another political party.

Fourth, that the NP-NPC cannot seek accreditation as the dominant minority party without the requisite recognition by the COMELEC. Resolution No. 8752 requires that only political parties duly registered with the COMELEC may seek accreditation as a dominant party. At the time the NP-NPC filed its petition for accreditation on February 12, 2010, it was still seeking registration as a coalition of political parties. By filing the petition, both the NP and the NPC admitted that the COMELEC had not extended any recognition to their coalition; without the requisite recognition and registration, the NP-NPC could not seek accreditation as the dominant minority party for the May 10, 2010 elections.

PETITIONER’S CLAIM:

That the COMELEC en banc has no jurisdiction over the registration of NP-NPC Coalition as it falls within the jurisdiction of the appropriate Division. That the said coalition can no longer seek registration because the petition for registration as the deadline for filing for registration has long expired as per COMELEC Resolution and hence since it is not a duly registered party or coalition it follows that it cannot seek recognition as well.

RESPONDENT’S CLAIM:

COMELEC argued that the registration of coalitions involves the exercise of its administrative powers and not its quasi-judicial powers; hence, the en banc can directly act on it. It further held that there is no constitutional requirement that a petition for registration of a coalition should be decided first by a division. That the Constitution merely vests the COMELEC’s administrative powers in the “Commission on Elections,” while providing that the COMELEC “may sit en banc or in two divisions.” Thus, the en banc can act directly on matters falling within its administrative powers. That the en banc has the discretion to suspend the application of the rules in the interest of justice and speedy disposition of cases; in any case, the authority to approve or deny the Law Department’s recommendation on the registration of the coalition rests with the en banc. That no rule exists setting a deadline for the registration of coalitions. It opined that the registration of a coalition is simply a recognition by the COMELEC of a political reality. It held that if the NP-NPC is genuine, then the approval of its registration by the COMELEC is a mere recognition of an “operative fact.”

NP-NPC contends that their petition for registration as a coalition is not time-barred. They argue that the August 17, 2009 deadline applied only to “political parties”; and to “parties, organizations and coalitions under the party-list system.” The respondents emphasize that there is no deadline for petitions for the registration of coalition of parties, since COMELEC Resolution No. 8646 has not specifically set a deadline. Thus, they conclude that the August 17, 2009 deadline applies only to the registration of new and unregistered political parties, and not to the registration of coalitions between previously registered political parties such as the NP and the NPC.

ISSUES:

1.    Whether or not the NP-NPC Coalition is a separate entity from NP and NPC parties and hence requires its own registration?

2.    Whether or not such registration is already barred by the expiration of the deadline set in COMELEC Resolution No. 8646?

3.    Whether or not the COMELEC en banc has the authority to pass on the registration/recognition of the said coalition?

HELD:

1.    YES. The registration of a coalition and the accreditation of a dominant minority party are two separate matters that are substantively distinct from each other. Registration is the act that bestows juridical personality for purposes of our election laws; accreditation, on the other hand, relates to the privileged participation that our election laws grant to qualified registered parties. The question of whether a coalition of registered parties still needs to be registered is a non-issue for being beyond the power of this Court to resolve. This Court can only rule that the Constitution has set the norms and procedures for registration, and these have to be followed. Political coalitions need to register in accordance with the established norms and procedures, if they are to be recognized as such and be given the benefits accorded by law to registered coalitions. Registered political parties carry a different legal personality from that of the coalition they may wish to establish with other similarly registered parties. If they want to coalesce with one another without the formal registration of their coalition, they can do so on their own in the exercise of their and their members’ democratic freedom of choice, but they cannot receive official recognition for their coalition. Or they can choose to secure the registration of their coalition in order to be accorded the privileges accruing to registered coalitions, including the right to be accredited as a dominant majority or minority party. There are no ifs and buts about these constitutional terms.

2.    YES. Resolution No. 8646 simply states that August 17, 2009 is the “Last day for filing petitions for registration of political parties,” without mentioning “organizations and coalitions” in the way that the three entities are separately mentioned under Section 2 (5), Article IX-C of the Constitution and Rule 32, Section 1 of the COMELEC Rules. Resolution No. 8646, however, is simply a listing of electoral activities and deadlines for the May 10, 2010 elections; it is not in any way a resolution aimed at establishing distinctions among “political parties, organizations, and coalitions.” In the absence of any note, explanation or reason why the deadline only mentions political parties, the term “political parties” should be understood in its generic sense that covers political organizations and political coalitions as well.

3.   NO. The cut-off date for the registration of parties, and yet approved the registration of NP-NPC long after this cut-off date had passed without any valid justification or reason for suspending the rule. For the en banc to so act was not a mere error of law. The grant of registration was an act outside mandatory legal parameters and was therefore done when the COMELEC no longer had the authority to act on it. The en banc’s failure to follow its own rules on deadlines may, at first blush, be a negligible error that does not affect its jurisdiction. An examination of Resolution No. 8646, however, shows that the deadline for registration cannot but be a firm and mandatory deadline that the COMELEC has set. The late registration of political organizations and coalitions, if allowed, may even wreak havoc on the procedural orderliness of elections by allowing these registrations to introduce late and confusing signals to the electorate, not to mention their possible adverse effects on election systems and procedures. This, the en banc very well knows, and their lack of unanimity on the disputed point of timeliness shows how unusual the majority’s reading has been.

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