A few days shy of her retirement from government service, Comelec Commissioner Rowena Guanzon found herself a trending topic on social media. This after she disclosed her vote to disqualify presidential aspirant Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos from running in the May polls. The sometime law professor asserted that Marcos Jr. was convicted of tax evasion cases, a crime involving moral turpitude, which is one of the grounds for disqualification under the Omnibus Election Code.
In interviews with various media outlets, Commissioner Guanzon also made known to the public alleged delaying tactics of fellow Comelec Commissioner Aimee Ferolino-Ampoloquio, who is the ponente of the case, or the person tasked to write the ruling. Guanzon, whose retirement will be effective February 2, claims Ferolino-Ampoloquio is delaying the release of the decision so that her vote will be considered null.
Because of the ensuing controversy, Guanzon’s Twitter account has been quite busy, with the Commissioner hitting back personalities who are criticizing her statements. No one can stop the lady it seems from divulging her truths. And people who have been following the news or her social media account the past few years are most likely no longer surprised by her fearlessness.
“I was raised by hardworking parents, and I want them to be proud of me. That’s why inaayos ko ang trabaho ko,” Guanzon once Tweeted. “Even if mag-isa lang ako sa mga desisyon— tawag sa akin ‘lone dissenter’—tumatayo pa rin ako, dahil iyon ang tingin kong tama sa batas.”
Girl from Cadiz City
Rowena, or Bing Guanzon, is the fourth among eight children—one is a retired judge, one’s a linguist, four are doctors, there’s a board member of the 2nd district of Negros Occidental, and there’s also an artist. Her parents are respected figures in Negros Occidental. The father, Sixto Guanzon, was a judge and World War II hero while the mother, Elvira Guanzon, was a board member.
“My parents were courageous, patriotic people. They taught us to stand up and fight for what is right even if it cost you your conveniences and your life,” Guanzon told the Inquirer in a recent interview.
Guanzon’s mother was a pro bono lawyer apart from serving as public official for 36 years. She is described by Guanzon as hardworking, sociable, and friendly “but fierce to her enemies”—qualities the outgoing Comelec commissioner emulated.
“My mother stood up for people who could not defend themselves. She was very compassionate to the poor. She spent time with them, listened to them, and defended them,” Guanzon said in the same interview. “The life experience of my mother shaped my character and my principles.”
The years that shaped her
The education she got from the University of the Philippines—from which she finished two degrees, one in Economics, the other in Law—left an indelible impact in Guanzon’s young life.
When she addressed the U.P. School of Economics graduating class in 2017, Guanzon admitted that she was hardly an ideal student back then. “I was an ‘irregular’ or ‘rogue’ student when I was here because I spent more time in rallies and the tennis courts than in the classrooms,” Guanzon said in her speech.
While she enjoyed campus life, she did not feel safe. “Some of our friends were arrested, and we faced an uncertain future,” she shared. “I studied to pass my subjects even while I felt that ours was a broken world. But I had hoped, just like many others, that one day, Martial Law and the dictatorship would end.”
She did learn a lot in class but the more serious awakening happened on the streets. “People who are not from UP say we protest too much. But the tradition of protesting against wrongs is inseparable from our tradition of honor and excellence,” said Guanzon. “It is inseparable because UP brought us up to serve the people, with honor and excellence. So when some say we protest too much, I tell them they protest too little.”
Standing up for Cory
After passing the Bar in 1985, Guanzon poised herself for a high-flying career at the esteemed ACCRA Law Office, even then one of the largest law firms in the country. But fate had other plans.
In 1986, the Guanzons were approached by the Corazon Aquino for President Movement to lead the campaign for the presidential bid of Ninoy’s widow in their hometown. The family knew it would be a tough battle. According to Guanzon, leading the campaign for Cory’s rival, Ferdinand Marcos, was a feared congressman. It was not an easy decision for the family to push thru with the challenge. “But I followed my heart, and my intuition, whatever you call it, that this is it, this is now or never. This is the fight that we have been waiting for.”
The newly minted lawyer resigned from her job and took up the cudgels in the name of democracy. “We knew what we were up against. We knew we could not possibly make Cory win in Cadiz,” she said. “We lacked campaign funds, we only had a few loyal people who could not carry firearms, and less than ten sugar planters from Cadiz who were on the side of Cory.”
But if there’s one thing Guanzon learned in UP, it’s to never back down from a battle. “My parents, who are the best, most courageous, bravest and smartest parents in the world to me, said that we were on the right side of history,” said Guanzon. Her mother resigned from Marcos’ party, the KBL or Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, and campaigned for Cory publicly.
It was during this period, she said, when she became aware the Commission on Elections and the teachers comprising the Board of Election Inspectors were used to cheat Cory. “So I think it is really providential,” she said in her speech, “that I am Commissioner of the Commission on Elections today.”
After Martial Law
After Marcos was proclaimed winner in the polls, the Guanzon family flew to Manila and witnessed a remarkable moment in Philippine history. “People started rallying in EDSA so my friends and I we went to EDSA. When Marcos fled the country, we could not believe it was really over. Martial Law was over.”
When Cory assumed the presidency, all incumbent officials were replaced by officers-in-charge. The then 28 year-old Guanzon was appointed Officer in Charge/City Mayor of Cadiz in 1986 by President Aquino upon the recommendation of Bacolod Bishop Antonio Fortich.
As city chief, she was faced with the gargantuan task of solving the city’s problems. “Salaries were unpaid. Cadiz was a third class city with a deficit. Infant mortality rate was high at 37 for every 1000, children were not immunized, maternal mortality rate was high, poor people needed potable water, livelihood, school buildings, and many other services,” Guanzon recalled. She had to run City Hall and deliver basic services with very little money. But before she finished her term in 1992, she was able to transform Cadiz from a third class to a first class city.
Guanzon took her oath as commissioner of the Commission on Audit in 2013, before then-Supreme Court chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. In that all-women led commission, Guanzon vowed to prioritize the utilization of gender and development budget in the bureaucracy. In 2015, she was appointed Comelec commissioner, a seven-year term now on its final days.
Over the past four decades, Guanzon has become a litigation lawyer, a law professor, an advocate of women’s empowerment in politics. She authored a number of books, mostly about gender equality and human rights. No doubt these experiences shaped her into the strong, unsinkable woman dominating our news feeds at the moment.
In her speech to the UP students four years ago, Guanzon left a dictum she seems to take to heart up to the present. She said she hopes it would be the battlecry of every Filipino. “Do not let history pass you by,” the message went. “Do your part. Speak out. Stand for what is right and just.”
[Photos from Commissioner Rowena Guanzon's Instagram page]