2019 Philippine midterms: ‘worst automated elections’

Community May 24, 2019 at 4:45 pm

By Ysh Cabana
The Philippine Reporter

The Philippines general elections conducted on May 13, halfway through Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year term as president, had some 61million voters head to the polls in a contest of more than 18,000 local and provincial positions.

The elections for the 12 (out of the 24) seats in the Senate were key in the midterms. Analysts saw it as a litmus test on the president’s bid to control the upper House of the Philippine Congress, where Duterte does not currently have a majority.

The opposition in the Senate has often served as a check on Duterte’s more controversial measures, including the fascistic war on drugs, which has now claimed the lives of tens of thousands of poor Filipinos murdered by police or vigilante death squads, an infrastructure splurge backed by foreign loans, tax reforms, and a diplomatic pivot to China.

Despite the claims of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) that this year’s conduct of elections is “generally peaceful,” poll watchdog Kontra Daya (English: Against Fraud) called it the “worst automated election” ever in a Philippine history.

The long history of manual elections was always accompanied by electoral fraud. This led to public outcry that triggered policy efforts to transition towards electronic vote counting.

An automated system was implemented in the 2010 national polls that altered the general conduct of elections in the Philippines. Compared to past elections where the winners were known after weeks or months, local winners were determined in a few hours while half of the national winners were known after a day. Election-related violence and public anxiety were significantly reduced as the time for counting and canvassing of votes was cut short.

Although not perfect, the machines were reused in 2013 and 2016 with enhanced security features. However, the situation overseas is different. Voting and canvassing are manually done. Ballots are either sent by post or Filipinos overseas can go to a Philippine embassy to cast their vote.

International observers point out that the automated system did not prevent the same problems from the past. Previous midterm elections in the Philippines are generally followed by a swing in favor of the opposition party.

In 2019, many in the opposition refuse to accept the outcomes of the elections because of documented irregularities from “bogus” party-list groups, late rollout of overseas ballots, malfunctioning vote-counting machines, anomalies in transmission rates and electoral fraud.

Progressive groups also respond in nationwide and globally-cordinated protests to defend democracy, fight for accountability, and to reject President Rodrigo Duterte.

Thousands held rallies against the rampant red-baiting among the progressive aspirants and party-list groups. On election day, police officers in uniform were seen distributing copies of Pulis Serbis (Police Service), a tabloid publication of the PNP, demonizing Bayan Muna, Gabriela, Kabataan, and Anak Pawis as communist-front organizations.

“With regard to the party-list race, it’s really important that the marginalized and underrepresented should really have a voice, but these are being compromised right now,” Professor Danilo Arao said noting  the leader in party-list race has ties to the Duterte administration. Arao, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines, is also the convenor of Kontra Daya.

The likely favored groups to secure congressional seats is the Anti-Crime and Terrorism through Communist Involvement and Support (ACT-CIS), which landed on the top spot of the party-list elections. ACT-CIS is an organization founded by former police chiefs dedicated to creating vigilante organizations with government funding, and among its leading legislation is the “community informant reward act.” Asociated with the broadcaster Tulfo family of which brothers Ben and Erwin were embroiled in a controversial multi-million advertisement deal with their sister, former tourism secretary Wanda Teo.

Duterte Youth or Duty to Energize the Republic through the Enlightenment of the Youth, is also poised to take a seat in Congress based in the last polls. Flagrantly modeled on the Hitler Youth, the organization lists anti-insurgency as an advocacy. Its few members wear black uniforms with red armbands and advocate violent anti-communism and mandatory military training for high school and post-secondary students. Duterte-appointee Ronald Cardema, National Youth Commision head, is questioned for the right-wing group. He is the party’s chairperson which, according to election laws, is prohibited for public officials. However, the Supreme Court decided in a 2013 landmark ruling that a group does not have to represent a marginalized sector for it to participate in the party-list elections.

International observers are concerned that Durterte will return the country to an era worse than that of Marcos, whose use of military rule tightened his grip on power, ruling the country from 1965 to 1986 until a popular uprising forced him into exile. The zero opposition win for opposition is a revert to pre-war Philippines. Last time not even a single seat was taken by opposition in the legislative elections was in 1938 during the time of then-strongman Manuel L. Quezon.

Similarly, Duterte has shown a willingness to ride roughshod over democratic norms and favor his allies regardless of their credentials. He has undermined freedom of speech, repeatedly attacked media figures critical of his policies and hurled invectives and personal insults at perceived enemies.

The proclamation of senators allows the ruling party under Dutete to pass through controversial legislation with little to no opposition. He has vowed, for example, to reinstate the death penalty and reduce the age for criminal liability from 15 to 12. Most crucially, if he receives the backing of enough members of Congress, Duterte can introduce amendments to the Constitution.

Two top candidates who garnered votes were Cynthia Villar and Grace Poe. Villar, who is an incumbent senator and wife of a former presidential candidate, is backed by her family’s real estate money and is the wife of tycoon Manny Villar, the richest man in the country. Poe is a former presidential candidate, whose husband was an intelligence contractor for the CIA a decade ago.

The vote-getters to rise to Senate positions are Duterte-allies Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa and Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Tesoro Go. Dela Rosa was installed as the head of the Philippine National Police when Duterte took office and was chiefly responsible for implementing his war on drugs. Bong Go was the special advisor to the President, Duterte’s billionaire “utility man” and is the top spender more than any other senatorial candidate.

While some opposition candidates have conceded, Neri Colmenares remains firm in his fight. In a Facebook post, he said: “This year’s elections were hardly fair or honest. Besides, this is no longer about me but about giving our people a fair chance to exercise their constitutional right to suffrage.”

Colmenares served three terms in Congress under Bayan Muna party-list. During his tenure, he filed resolutions to investigate election fraud in automated elections.

The elections come at a time when the Philippine economy is at a slump in four years, largely due to months of deadlock on Duterte’s budget. Both chambers of Congress accuse each another of manipulating items in the bill to ply their trade to serve their own interests or that of their benefactors.