Monday, May 21, 2007

Fraud allegations alarm Abalos

Team formed to probe poll cheating in Maguindanao

By Edson C. Tandoc Jr., Jocelyn Uy
Last updated 01:27am (Mla time) 05/22/2007

MANILA, Philippines -- Commission on Elections Chair Benjamin Abalos Sr. Monday expressed alarm over reports that school teachers in Maguindanao province were forced at gunpoint to fill up ballots with the names of administration senatorial candidates, and ordered the creation of a task force to investigate the alleged cheating.

“It is very alarming. The electoral system is being attacked here. This is not good,” Abalos said.

He was reacting to a Philippine Daily Inquirer story the other day about how teachers in a Maguindanao school allegedly filled up ballots with the names of Team Unity candidates while being watched by armed men, and how school children were made to affix their thumbmarks on them.

Abalos challenged the accusers to present evidence, saying the Comelec would protect them.

Lente, the legal arm of the watchdog Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), said it had obtained confessions from a female public school teacher in Maguindanao who said that she and other teachers prepared the ballots in the middle of the night, hours before polling precincts were supposed to open.

Lente officials said the teacher did not want to be identified for fear of her safety.

The report coincided with accusations by the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections that Comelec officials in Maguindanao had refused to provide Namfrel volunteers with copies of provincial election returns, in defiance of orders from the Comelec head office.

“The credibility of the commission has been put at stake. That’s why we are conducting an investigation,” Abalos said.

Looking for the truth

Commissioner Rene Sarmiento, who is in charge of Maguindanao, said he would lead an investigation right after the special elections scheduled for Saturday in Lanao del Sur, where goons reportedly prevented elections from being held on schedule on May 14.

After the special polls in Lanao del Sur, “we will conduct an investigation in Maguindanao,” Sarmiento said.

He said he would invite regional and provincial election supervisors “to shed light on these allegations.”

“We just want to show that the commission is resolved to conclude the investigation, to ferret out the truth,” Sarmiento said.

Abalos called on Lente and PPCRV to reveal the sources of the allegations on the Maguindanao fraud so the poll body could determine if such an incident really took place.

“This is very serious because, as I said, it goes to the very essence of voting, of elections,” he said.

Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur are among the provinces in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) mentioned in the “Hello Garci” tapes where votes were allegedly rigged to favor President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during the 2004 presidential election.

The tapes supposedly dealt with phone conversations between Ms Arroyo and former Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano on the manipulation of votes. Ms Arroyo and Garcillano denied they cheated.

Asked whether the National Board of Canvassers would defer the canvassing of votes from Maguindanao, Abalos said the board could not totally disregard the result of the elections in the province on a mere allegation by someone who hides “under a cloak of immunity.”

“Let’s be realistic about this,” he said.

Failure of elections

Since the Maguindanao probe will start only after the Lanao del Sur special elections, when the canvassing might already be nearing completion, the allegations of fraud would not hamper the proclamations of senatorial winners, Abalos said.

“Mere allegations, unless supported by evidence, cannot be a ground to suspend proclamation,” Abalos also said.

Sen. Franklin Drilon urged the Comelec to declare a failure of elections in Maguindanao and exclude the province from the official vote tallies in view of what he claimed was a blatant attempt by the administration to rig Maguindanao’s 300,000-plus votes.

Drilon decried what he said were arbitrary moves by the Comelec to declare a failure of elections in areas that did not favor administration candidates, while upholding the results in places where the votes had been manipulated to favor the administration.

“If you look at the election returns and the certificate of canvass, the statement of votes from the Maguindanao area and given what is reported about the teacher admitting that they filled up election returns, this should be sufficient for the Comelec to nullify the election in Maguindanao,” Drilon said in a press conference.

He said the Comelec, specifically Commissioner Sarmiento, should “stop acting like the Philippine National Police who will always tell the public, ‘you file a complaint against our erring policemen.’”

“He should stop saying that complaints should be filed before they investigate because the Comelec can motu propio investigate these complaints. The Comelec should exclude the questionable returns from the province of Maguindanao from its official canvass,” Drilon said.

Namfrel claim disputed

Drilon said the Comelec should also look at declaring a failure of elections in Lanao, Tawi-Tawi, Sultan Kudarat and Sulu.

Drilon said: “The Liberal Party is outraged over the reported massive and blatant Election Day and canvassing irregularities, especially in the areas alleged to be bailiwicks of this administration.”

Disputing Namfrel’s claims, Maguindanao’s controversial provincial election supervisor, Lintang Bedol, said Namfrel got its copies of election returns from the province.

Bedol, who was among the Comelec officials whose names were mentioned in the “Hello Garci” tapes, said that based on reports he got from poll officers from Maguindanao’s various towns, Namfrel volunteers took their sixth copies of the election returns at the precinct level.

Bedol said those who retrieved the ERs for Namfrel were given their copies after they presented identification cards. He said that election inspectors relied on the IDs presented to them.

(Namfrel) has not provided us with the list of its volunteers despite persistent request, even prior to the elections,” Bedol said, adding the Comelec officers had no way to verify the identities of those who claimed the election returns.

If there was no such list, it was not clear from Bedol’s remarks what was the basis used by election inspectors in releasing the election return copies to the ID bearers.

Elections took place

Separately, the chair of the volunteer group Citizens’ Action for Responsible Elections (CARE), Romy Guiamel, said that residents of Maguindanao were able to vote on Election Day.

“Many people trooped to their precincts to cast their votes. There were elections in Maguindanao and we knew it took place because we have volunteers in the province,” Guiamel said.

Guiamel’s statement clashed with those from an official of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and concerned individuals who told the Inquirer that balloting did not take place in many parts of the province.

Guiamel said his group -- which works with the PPCRV -- was able to monitor the conduct of elections in Maguindanao and these were generally peaceful.

Guiamel admitted that Namfrel volunteers failed to secure their copies of the election returns but he blamed this on lack of coordination between volunteers and the Comelec.

Guiamel said the failure of Namfrel volunteers to secure their ER copies did not only happen in Maguindanao but all over the region as well.

With reports from Gil C. Cabacungan Jr. and Nash B. Maulana, Inquirer Mindanao