Chaos, Vote-buying, Violence

News & Features Philippines Jun 1, 2010 at 1:51 pm


By Dyan Bandayrel Ruiz

The Philippine Reporter

Voting crowds in North Fairview Elementary School, Quezon City, Manila.

Voting crowds in North Fairview Elementary School, Quezon City, Manila.

The largest group of foreign delegates ever put together to observe the elections in the Philippines, the People’s International Observers Mission (PIOM), witnessed and documented the chaos, intimidation, vote-buying, and violence experienced by Filipino voters during the May 10, 2010 National Elections.

The 86 delegates, including 22 Canadians, noted chronic election problems were compounded by breakdowns of the new Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines provided by Venezuelan company Smartmatic and lack of clear procedures by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) in this first automated elections. The “true heroes” of election were the teachers acting as Board of Elections Inspectors (BEIs) who administered the elections with volunteers, and the voters themselves who endured long lines, crowds, hours of wait, confusion, extreme heat, and some cases, a climate of violence and intimidation to exercise their democratic rights.

In the sharing session between the seven groups of delegates representing the different regions travelled to, which included Abra, Pampanga and Tarlac, Tondo and Payatas in Metro Manila, Daraga and Sorsogon in Bicol, Quezon and Cavite, Iloilo, Davao del Sur and Caraga, and Marawi City in Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), there were many common observations.

The scene in the voting centers on Election Day was one of “chaos and confusion” concluded observers.
Many people arrived at the 7am start, eager to vote. But the long lines, crowds, unfamiliarity with the new processes, and scorching heat soon took its toll on the voters. Unlike past elections, precincts were clustered to include up to 1,000 voters instead of 200. Often the precincts were right next to one another. Frustrated voters crowded in narrow school hallways waiting for their number to be called while others nudged through. Lines extended to stairwells and winded through basketball courts.

In Tondo, Manila, there were 43 precincts in Rosauro Almario Elementary School, representing approx. 35,000 registered voters. Canadian journalist, Stefan Christoff, noted in the urban poor areas voter disenfranchisement “remained a constant reality.” Christoff observed elections in Tondo in 2007 and Payatas in 2010. Voters would leave because of the hours wait, machine malfunctions causing delays, or because their names did not appear on the voter lists, especially those processed in December 2009 because Comelec did not provide updated lists.

The teachers acting as BEIs gave instructions and ballots, verified voters, and inked fingers while volunteers from Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) also provided assistance. Teachers and volunteers were relegated to managing the massive, sometimes unruly crowds, often overwhelmed. Thus, party-affiliated poll-watchers were often seen operating PCOS machines and directing voters. It was clear little or no effort was made by Comelec to educate voters on the new processes.

Despite these obstacles, voter turnout among registered voters was reportedly from 75 to 85 percent. Secretary General of Bayan USA, Rhonda Ramiro stated, she was “So proud to be part of this mission and to witness the ordinary person doing extraordinary things to exercise rights, to rescue democracy in this country.”

“Comelec focused too heavily on the technological aspects of the new elections, with scant attention paid to the realities of the actual voting procedures” was one of the conclusions of the group covering the National Capitol Region and was reiterated by the entire PIOM’s findings. “We’re missing the point if we concentrate on the machines. It’s the people who matter,” said Canadian Justine Kiwanuka at a press conference.

PCOS machine breakdowns due to problems like frequent paper jams and malfunctioning Compact Flash (CF) cards were dealt with by one unidentified Smartmatic representative per polling center, representing thousands of voters and dozens of machines. Observers saw that technicians were poorly trained in troubleshooting and a lack of contingency plans provided by Comelec forced teachers to improvise during malfunctions. For example, placing ballots in boxes instead, angering some voters on the some P7 billion spent on the machines they could not use.

Representatives from AES Watch gave an overview to observers of the vulnerabilities of the automated election process and machinery, which was still being tested at the time of their speech, two days before the elections. Five days before the elections, all 76,000 CF cards had to be reconfigured and replaced because they were initially not programmed to read the actual ballots. When they did, it gave faulty tallies.

Most precincts, therefore, did not complete testing of the PCOS machines until May 9 leaving some teachers interviewed “overly exhausted.” The testing in the precincts that day included the input of 10 ballots. The machines were to process up to 1,000 voters and ballots each. Comelec commandeered the boat to be used for the observers’ group in Surigao to deliver PCOS machines a day before elections.

Many retries for transmission and a lack of modems were also an issue observed the delegates. On the other hand, some election results were being reported on the news on the evening of May 10, which was unheard of in previous elections. A Congressional Probe investigating allegations of massive automated electoral fraud began on May 19, 2010.

A PIOM press release concluded, “the widespread intimidation, vote-buying, corruption and violence showed that automation could solve only part of the problem… The political and economic inequality creates vulnerability to intimidation and vote-buying.”

There were reports of local candidates offering money, bags of rice, and meals in exchange for votes. Campaign materials were openly distributed with money attached. There were reports of lineups outside candidates’ homes. In one instance, a sworn affidavit given to observers indicated the voter was paid not to vote.

Another consistent finding was the systematic vilification campaign against progressive party-list groups. Prof. Valerie Raoul from UBC who observed in Abra showed a printed sign stating, “Don’t vote for Satur Ocampo, Liza Maza. They are NPA candidates.” Military visited houses with their posters, according to US human rights lawyer, Radhika Sanaith, who observed in Davao.

Military and police carrying high-powered rifles were stationed well within the 50 meters of the voting centers allowed by law, while some were observed inside. Comelec justified their presence in case violence erupted. Political dynasties and their armed militias still lord it over local politics stated some observers. Observers witnessed and documented violence in Cavite, Ilo Ilo, Abra and ARMM, where two Canadians were caught in a gun battle.

Poll watchers hovering over voters, crowded precincts and official ‘secrecy folders’, which were legal sized filing folders that could not cover all of the 25-inch long ballots, made voter privacy impossible.
Others clearly saw whom one voted for. Matthew Robert Lang, an American clergyman stated at a press conference, “no privacy combined with vote buying created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.”

Dr. Judy Taguiwalo, General Convener of Pagbabago!, the organization which coordinated the PIOM, stated the an important difference between this observer’s mission and others, such as Comelec’s, is it is independent. The observers, who are academicians, clergy, or are from groups such as labour unions, can see how “this election and its processes feed into what is happening overall in our country.” The role of the elections observers was not only to monitor and document the democratic processes and human rights violations, but they should also contextualize their observations with realities of the Philippine situation.

Teacher acting as a board of elections inspector (BEI) gives instructions to crowds waiting to vote.   PHOTOS: JOSEPH SMOOKE

Teacher acting as a board of elections inspector (BEI) gives instructions to crowds waiting to vote. PHOTOS: JOSEPH SMOOKE

Many observers stayed with community members in their homes and all spoke with them about their concerns prior and during the elections. Observers also interviewed voters, teachers, principals, poll watchers, Smartmatic technicians, military and police assigned at the polling place, and some local politicians.

Speaker, Fr. Jose Dizon, told observers, “Your voice in your respective countries will matter a lot for us.”
Rathika Sitsabaiesan, candidate for Member of Parliament in Scarborough, will present PIOM findings with Cabinet members to House of Commons and “make as much noise as we can make.” Ramiro, will contact local representatives in the Congress and Senate regarding election findings and US military funding for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, who “uses it commit human rights atrocities.” Bayan USA will also use findings as a tool to try to “agitate people to get involved in stopping the violence and corruption.”

MP Don Davies from Vancouver who observed in Bontoc noted the “profound yearning of the Filipino people for democracy and justice, and on the other hand the betrayal of that yearning in many ways.” When questioned by Reporter on how his visit affects his views on Overseas Foreign Workers issues he said, “I’ve believed that Canada’s immigration should be citizen track exclusively… That feeling has been reinforced in my time here.”

The delegates were from Canada, Australia, US, UK, Japan, Hong Kong, New Zealand, France, Germany, Denmark and Argentina. The event ran from May 7 to the 15 and included orientation, area visits, group sharing and presentations, press conferences, solidarity events with artistic performances, and a rally at Plaza Miranda in Manila.