CEBU CITY -- Celestino “Tining” Martinez III is the lawful representative of the fourth district of Cebu Province, a decision of the Supreme Court (SC) en banc declared Tuesday.

The High Court, in the ruling penned by Justice Ma. Lusia Villarama, said Martinez defeated Benhur Salimbangon by close to 5,000 votes during the May 2007 elections, regardless of what the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET) found.

“This decision is immediately executory,” read the ruling.

It not only slammed the HRET for “grave abuse of discretion” but also chided the Commission on Elections (Comelec) for its “inefficiency and lethargy.”

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Salimbangon said he will file a motion for reconsideration Wednesday.

Majority

According to the High Court, 5,401 votes cast for “Martinez” and “C. Martinez” should be counted in favor of Tining, instead of being declared stray, following the disqualification of motorcycle-for-hire driver Edilito C. Martinez as a nuisance candidate.

These votes give Martinez the majority, with 72,056 votes, against Salimbangon’s 67,108. According to the Comelec, Martinez lost to Salimbangon by 104 votes. The HRET later ruled that Salimbangon’s winning margin was 453 votes.

The latest SC ruling can affect future election controversies. It states that “ballots indicating only the similar surname of two candidates for the same position may, in appropriate cases, be counted in favor of the bona fide candidate and not considered stray even if the other candidate was declared a nuisance candidate by final judgment after the elections.”

Martinez, in an interview Tuesday night, said he intends to take his oath and make the most of the four months or so, which he has to hold office.

“It is not for me or because I want this position. What can we do in four months anyway? But this is victory for the people. It is a vindication of all the allegations raised against us and against them,” he told Sun.Star Cebu.

  

The decision “has vindicated me from all the accusations. It’s not a matter of occupying the position anymore. It’s looking for justice for our district,” he said.

Changes

He intends to fly to Manila to fight for his assumption of office as soon as possible.

“Actually, my priority is what I can do for the next remaining months. I hope this will not happen again. All the troubles and problems came from our opponents,” he said.

Martinez is again running for Congress against Salimbangon in May this year. He is allied with the Liberal Party, while Salimbangon is identified with One Cebu and Lakas-Kampi-CMD.

Martinez said he has yet to take stock of the district he is returning to, admitting “there have been some changes in the alignments in the leaders of some of the towns.”

Asked what he intends to do with the leaders who have defected, he answered: “God help them.”

Then, more seriously, “we have to sit down first and hear the views (of the other leaders). I see it as a blessing. You know who your friends are.”

Tuesday’s ruling resolved the petition for certiorari that Martinez, through lawyers Roque Bello and Jude Perez, filed against the HRET.

Martinez questioned the HRET’s May 28, 2009 resolution dismissing his election protest, as well as the July 30, 2009 resolution denying the motion for reconsideration.

Crucial

The election protest targeted votes cast in 1,129 precincts in the fourth district -- precincts that contributed to his loss to Salimbangon: 67,173 against 67,277.

Tining said that the votes cast for “Martinez” or “C. Martinez” all got declared strays because the name of Edilito C. Martinez was still written in the official ballots.

He had filed the necessary motions to declare the other Martinez a nuisance candidate, noting his lack of resources, machinery or capacity to launch a district-wide campaign, but the Comelec came out with its decision almost a month after the election.

Edilito C. Martinez indeed got declared a nuisance candidate, but the Comelec already proclaimed Salimbangon by then.

According to the HRET, the votes should indeed be declared strays because, given that Edilito C. Martinez’s name still appeared on the ballots, “there was no way of determining the real intention of the voter.”

Nuisance

These were crucial votes because they represented 5,401 of the 7,544 ballots, which were denied as votes for Tining in 961 precincts.

“We sympathize with the protestant that he is the victim of the inaction of the Comelec,” the HRET ruling read.

In finding in favor of Martinez, the SC revisited the failure of the Comelec to resolve the motion against Edilito C. Martinez on time.

As far as the HRET is concerned, the SC declared that: “Laws and statutes governing election contests especially (in the) appreciation of ballots must be liberally construed to the end that the will of the electorate in the choice of public officials may not be defeated by technical infirmities.” 

Thus, it said, the HRET should have “properly counted in favor of petitioner and not nullified as stray votes after considering all relevant circumstances” when it resolved the subsequent election protest,” adding that “such votes could not have been intended for Edilito C. Martinez who was declared a nuisance candidate by final judgment.”

“Otherwise, potential nuisance candidates will continue to put the electoral process into mockery by filing certificates of candidacy at the last minute and delaying resolution of any petition to declare them as nuisance candidates until elections are held and the votes counted and canvassed,” the High Court said. (Karlon N. Rama/With Rizel S. Adlawan & Elias O. Baquero/Sun.Star Cebu)