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EN BANC

[G.R. No. 134826. July 6, 1999]

RENE CORDERO, Petitioner, v. COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS, MUNICIPAL BOARD OF CANVASSERS OF ESTANCIA, ILOILO and TRUMAN LIM, Respondents.

R E S O L U T I O N

PANGANIBAN, J.:

In pre-proclamation controversies, objections to the inclusion or exclusion of election returns in the canvass must be reduced to writing in the form prescribed by the Commission on Elections (Comelec). This requirement prescribed by Republic Act No. 7166 is mandatory; any appeal of a ruling of the board of canvassers shall be summarily dismissed by the Comelec, unless the accomplished forms and the supporting evidence are appended thereto.

The Case

Before us is a Petition for Certiorari under Rules 64 and 65 of the Rules of Court assailing the Resolution1 of the Commission on Elections (Second Division)2 dated July 28, 1998, the dispositive portion of which reads:

WHEREFORE, premises considered, this Commission (SECOND DIVISION), RESOLVES to AFFIRM the rulings of the respondent Municipal Board of Canvassers including in its canvass the election returns from the contested precincts. Respondent board is hereby DIRECTED to RECONVENE and FINISH the canvassing of the remaining or uncontested returns and thereafter, PROCLAIM the winning mayoralty candidate of Estancia, Iloilo.

In its Resolution3 dated August 13, 1998, the Comelec en banc4 denied petitioner's motion for reconsideration and affirmed the assailed Resolution.

Hence, this Petition.5

The Facts

In the May 1998 elections, Rene Cordero and Truman Lim were candidates for mayor in the Municipality of Estancia, Iloilo. During the canvassing of votes by the municipal board of canvassers (MBOC), Petitioner Cordero contested, through his counsel, the inclusion of the election returns from several precincts.6 He objected on the ground that the returns were tampered with, altered, manufactured and/or lacked material data. Despite these objections, the MBOC included in the canvass the questioned election returns.

On May 25, 1998, petitioner appealed the MBOC action to the Comelec. On July 11, 1998, he appealed another MBOC order for the inclusion of a different set of contested election returns7 in the canvass. In both appeals, he sought the exclusion of such returns.

Ruling of the Comelec

After finding that petitioner failed to comply with the procedure mandated in Section 36, paragraphs c and h, of Comelec Resolution No. 2962 promulgated January 5, 1998, the Comelec (Second Division) issued the assailed Resolution, affirming the MBOC rulings to include in the canvass the election returns from the contested precincts. Pursuant to said Resolution 2962, parties objecting to the inclusion of election returns in the canvass must submit their written objections in the form prescribed by the Comelec, with the evidence in support thereof; any appeal brought before the Comelec without the accomplished forms and the evidence attached thereto shall be summarily dismissed. According to the Comelec, the petitioner failed to attach to his appeals his written objections and the evidence in support thereof. The dismissal of his appeals was therefore warranted. The poll body further directed the MBOC of Estancia, Iloilo, to reconvene and finish the canvass and thereafter to proclaim the winning candidate.

Petitioner filed a motion for reconsideration which, as earlier stated, the Comelec en banc denied in its August 13, 1998 Resolution. Meanwhile, the MBOC of Estancia reconvened, pursuant to the directive in the July 28, 1998 Resolution.

In his Petition filed before this Court, petitioner also prays for the issuance of a temporary restraining order and/or a writ of preliminary injunction, to enjoin public respondent from including in its canvass the contested election returns from the enumerated precincts and from proclaiming the winning mayoralty candidate. Petitioner further seeks (1) the nullification of the Comelec Resolution dated July 28, 1998; (2) the exclusion of the election returns coming from the protested precincts, particularly Precinct Nos. 50-A, 50-A-1, 62-A and 62-A-1, 64-A, 59-A and 60-A, 46-A, 56-A, 34-A, 51-A, 61-A, and 67-A; and (3) the proclamation by the MBOC of the winning candidate based on the election returns that have not been excluded.

On August 25, 1998, this Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order commanding public respondent "to CEASE and DESIST from proclaiming private respondent or the winning mayoralty candidate for the Municipality of Estancia, Iloilo." But since private respondent and the other winning municipal candidates had already been proclaimed as early as August 21, 1998, petitioner filed a motion before this Court to suspend the effects of the proclamation of Private Respondent Lim as the duly elected mayor and to prevent him from exercising the powers and the prerogatives of the Office of the Mayor. Conformably, this Court, on September 1, 1998, issued another Order directing "Respondent Truman Lim to CEASE AND DESIST from assuming the office of the mayor of Estancia, Iloilo or should he be presently occupying said office, to VACATE the same immediately."

Issues

Imputing errors to the Comelec Resolution, petitioner alleges:

a) That the Respondent Comelec erred in ordering that the protested election returns be included in the canvass"

"b) That the Respondent Comelec erred in ruling that the appeal to the Comelec from the ruling of the MBOC should be summarily dismissed because it is without the accomplished forms and the evidence appended thereto"

"c) That the Respondent Comelec erred in finding that the petitioner failed to justify the exclusion of the contested returns"

"d) That the Respondent Comelec erred in ignoring the affidavits submitted by the petitioner in support of his appeals before the Respondent Comelec"

"e) That the Respondent Comelec erred in ordering the respondent MBOC Estancia to include in the canvass the election returns from the contested precincts

In brief, the pivotal issue boils down to whether the Comelec gravely abused its discretion (not "erred")8 in dismissing the petitioner's appeals on the ground that he failed to attach his written objections and other supporting evidence.

This Courts Ruling

The petition is devoid of merit.

Pivotal Issue: Procedure in the Appeal of Rulings of the Board of Canvassers

Petitioner asserts that the two separate appeals should not have been dismissed on the basis of lack of supporting evidence, because at the time the first appeal was filed, the MBOC had not yet issued any ruling that could be attached to the appeal. He adds that the appeals were made precisely because the MBOC irregularly included in the canvass the election returns that he had sought to be excluded.

In pre-proclamation controversies, the rules on presenting evidence and appealing the rulings of the board of canvassers are mandatory.9 The plain and simple procedure prescribed is outlined in detail in Section 20 of Republic Act No. 7166, which reads:

"SEC. 20. Procedure in Disposition of Contested Election Returns. -- (a) Any candidate, political party or coalition of political parties contesting the inclusion or exclusion in the canvass of any election returns on any of the grounds authorized under Article XX or Sections 234, 235 and 236 of Article XIX of the Omnibus Election Code shall submit their oral objection to the chairman of the board of canvassers at the time the questioned return is presented for inclusion in the canvass. Such objection shall be recorded in the minutes of the canvass.

(b) Upon receipt of any such objection, the board of canvassers shall automatically defer the canvass of the contested returns and shall proceed to canvass the returns which are not contested by any party.

(c) Simultaneous with the oral objection, the objecting party shall also enter his objection in the form for written objections to be prescribed by the Commission. Within twenty-four (24) hours from and after the presentation of such an objection, the objecting party shall submit the evidence in support of the objection, which shall be attached to the form for written objections. Within the same period of twenty-four (24) hours after presentation of the objection, any party may file a written and verified opposition to the objection in the form also to be prescribed by the Commission, attaching thereto supporting evidence, if any. The board shall not entertain any objection or opposition unless reduced to writing in the prescribed forms.

The evidence attached to the objection or opposition, submitted by the parties, shall be immediately and formally admitted into the records of the board by the chairman affixing his signature at the back of each and every page thereof.

(d) Upon receipt of the evidence, the board shall take up the contested returns, consider the written objections thereto and opposition, if any, and summarily and immediately rule thereon. The board shall enter its ruling on the prescribed form and authenticate the same by the signatures of its members.

(e) Any party adversely affected by the ruling of the board shall immediately inform the board if he intends to appeal said ruling. The board shall enter said information in the minutes of the canvass, set aside the returns and proceed to consider the other returns.

(f) After all the uncontested returns have been canvassed and the contested returns ruled upon by it, the board shall suspend the canvass. Within forty-eight (48) hours therefrom, any party adversely affected by the ruling may file with the board a written and verified notice of appeal; and within an unextendible period of five (5) days thereafter, an appeal may be taken to the Commission.

(g) Immediately upon receipt of the notice of appeal, the board shall make an appropriate report to the Commission, elevating therewith the complete records and evidence submitted in the canvass, and furnishing the parties with copies of the report.

(h) On the basis of the records and evidence elevated to it by the board, the Commission shall decide summarily the appeal within seven (7) days from the receipt of said records and evidence. Any appeal brought before the Commission on the ruling of the board, without the accomplished forms and the evidence appended thereto, shall be summarily dismissed.

The decision of the Commission shall be executory after the lapse of seven (7) days from receipt thereof by the losing party.

(i) The board of canvassers shall not proclaim any candidate as winner unless authorized by the Commission after the latter has ruled on the objections brought to it on appeal by the losing party. Any proclamation made in violation hereof shall be void ab initio, unless the contested returns will not adversely affect the results of the election."

Clearly, not only must the objecting party reduce his objections to writing in the form prescribed by the Comelec; he must also present within 24 hours evidence in support thereof. Under Subsection h, noncompliance with the mandatory procedure shall result in the summary dismissal of the appeal, as in this case. In the petitioner lies the burden of proving that he has a prima facie case and of presenting, at the same time, evidence that the exclusion he seeks will change the results of the election.10 A party's mere allegation that an election return is spurious, altered or manufactured does not automatically operate to exclude it from the canvassing.11cräläwvirtualibräry

The summary nature of a pre-proclamation controversy allows it to be resolved on the basis of the arguments as well as the evidence submitted by the parties12 within the period allowed by law. Thus, the importance of appending the evidence that will substantiate one's objections. Absent any clear and convincing evidence, the election returns and the canvassing proceedings must be upheld. Mere affidavits cannot be relied on.13 Two years ago, this Court had occasion to rule that election controversies based on flimsy averments could not be allowed to prosper; "otherwise, the whole election process will deteriorate into an endless stream of crabs pulling at each other, racing to disembark from the water."14cräläwvirtualibräry

Indeed, reducing the objections to writing and submitting them with the supporting evidence is crucial to the delivery of speedy and equitable relief in pre-proclamation controversies. Unless this requirement is meticulously observed, the Comelec will not be able to determine the prima facie merit of the appeal, and the controversy will be unduly prolonged.

Moreover, absent any showing of grave abuse of discretion, findings of facts of the Comelec, or any other administrative agency exercising particular expertise in its field of endeavor, are binding on this Court.15 Accordingly, we sustain the following findings of the Comelec:

Based on the evidence adduced to support the appeal, appellant Cordero miserably failed to justify the exclusion of the returns in the questioned precincts and we are not inclined to rule for its exclusion by the simple expedient of submitting affidavits to attest to the veracity of appellants allegations. In the absence of clearly convincing evidence, the election returns and the canvassing proceedings must be upheld and besides, reliance should not be placed on mere affidavits (Casimiro vs. Commission on Elections, 171 SCRA 468), which affidavits do not sufficiently establish the truth in the allegations of appellant that the returns were tampered with, contain[ed] material defects, manufactured and not authentic. More so, appellant did not even attach evidence to his written objections to warrant the exclusion of the returns. Said the Supreme Court in Anni vs. Izquierdo, 57 SCRA 692, [A] conclusion that an election return is obviously manufactured or false and consequently should be disregarded in the canvass must be approached with extreme caution, and only upon the most convincing proof.

WHEREFORE, the petition is DISMISSED for its failure to show grave abuse of discretion on the part of the Commission on Elections. The assailed Resolutions are hereby AFFIRMED. The Temporary Restraining Orders issued by the Court dated August 25, 1998 and September 1, 1998 are hereby LIFTED. This Decision is immediately executory. Costs against petitioner.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr., C.J., Melo, Puno, Vitug, Mendoza, Quisumbing, Purisima, Buena, Gonzaga-Reyes, and Ynares-Santiago, JJ., concur.

Romero, J., abroad on official business.

Bellosillo, J., no part. Relation to a party.

Kapunan, and Pardo, JJ., took no part.

Endnotes:


1 Rollo, pp. 22-29.

22 Penned by Comm. Japal M. Guiani and concurred in by Pres. Comm. Julio F. Desamito.

3 Ibid., pp. 31-32.

4 Penned by Chairman (now SC Justice) Bernardo P. Pardo and concurred in by Comms. Manolo B. Gorospe, Julio F. Desamito, Teresita Dy-Liacco Flores and Japal M. Guiani.

5 This case was deemed submitted for resolution on April 22, 1999, when the Court received the Memorandum for Private Respondent Truman Lim. The memos of the other parties were received earlier.

6 Precinct Nos. 50-A, 50-A-1, 59-A, 60-A, 62-A, 62-A-1, 72-A, 72-A-1, 42-A, 42-A-1, 64-A, 46-A, 16-A, 17-A-1, 23-A, 24-A, 52-A, 75-A, 75-A-1, 21-A, 22-A, 8-A-1, 61-A, 56-A, 67-A, 76-A & 41-A. See assailed Resolution, pp. 1-2.

7 Precinct Nos. 60-A, 62-A, 50-A, 59-A, 57-A, 52-A, 24-A, 64-A, 47-A, 70-A, 70-A-1, 41-A-1, 8-A-1, 56-A, 72-A, 52-A-1, 66-A-1, 324-A, 67-A, 21-A, 75-A, 75-A-1, 23-A, 16-A, 17-A, 47-A, 42-A, 42-A-1, 76-A, 61-A & 58-A. See assailed Resolution, pp. 2-3.

8 In petitions for certiorari, the ground provided by Rule 65 is "grave abuse of discretion," not reversible "error."

9 Dimaporo v. Comelec, 186 SCRA 769, June 26, 1990.

10 See Matalam v. Comelec, 271 SCRA 733, April 18, 1997.

11 Baterina v. Comelec, 205 SCRA 1, 9-10, January 6, 1992.

12 Agbayani v. Comelec, 186 SCRA 484, June 13, 1990; Abella v. Larrazabal, 180 SCRA 509, December 21, 1989.

13 Casimiro v. Comelec, 171 SCRA 468, March 29, 1989.

14 Pea v. House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal, 270 SCRA 340, 349, March 21, 1997; per Torres Jr., J.

15 See Grego v. Comelec, 274 SCRA 481, June 19, 1997; Philippine Savings Bank v. NLRC, 261 SCRA 409, September 4, 1996; Navarro v. Comelec, 228 SCRA 596, December 17, 1993.




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