Friday, May 18, 2007

Namfrel men barred from Maguindanao canvassing

Posted May 19, 2007 01:36:00(Mla Time)


Cathy C. Yamsuan Norman Bordadora

MANILA, Philippines—Volunteers of the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) have confirmed that elections did take place in Maguindanao, but they are clueless as to whether the results have been tabulated or any of the votes cast on May 14 have been counted at all.

This was disclosed yesterday by Namfrel chair Edward Go, who said all volunteers doing monitoring work for the group had finally been accounted for, following earlier fears that they might not be safe.

Go said chapter coordinators in Maguindanao reported that no one among the volunteers had received copies of the election returns (ERs) supposed to be given to Namfrel representatives monitoring the precincts where these were accomplished.

“They have no ERs. No one has seen an ER because they were not allowed to enter the Maguindanao capitol in Shariff Aguak,” Go told the Inquirer last night.

Unlike other areas where the tallies of votes cast are done inside the precinct after polling places close, “in Maguindanao there is what you call centralized tabulating,” Go said.

“They bring all the ballot boxes to a centralized place, in this case the capitolyo in Shariff Aguak, where they tabulate everything,” he said, adding:

“However, the volunteers are not allowed to enter the area where the tabulation is taking place. So I asked who was the person barring our volunteers. But the chapter coordinators said they will still ask them.”

100 volunteers

Earlier yesterday in a press conference, Go said Namfrel had yet to hear from its volunteers in Maguindanao.

“We hope they are not in danger, but we cannot conclude [so],” he said, adding that while the Namfrel headquarters in Greenhills, San Juan, remained in touch with chapter officers in Maguindanao, “they are, in turn, unable to contact the volunteers assigned to monitor the canvassing [there].”

After the news conference, Namfrel secretary general Eric Alvia estimated that about 100 volunteers in Maguindanao were unaccounted for.

He said Maguindanao had around 336,000 voters, although Go put the figure at 360,000 during the news conference.

Alvia explained his estimate this way: If there are 336,000 voters in Maguindanao and 200 voters in each precinct, there should be around 1,680 precincts in the province. If a volunteer is to get the [ERs] from an average of 10 precincts, “there would be around 160, 150 [volunteers], but as you can see, we have a shortage of volunteers, so [conservatively], there might be about 100.”

Also earlier, Namfrel said it also had no communication with provincial officers and lawyers of the Commission on Elections in Maguindanao.

So far, Namfrel has received only 8.85 percent of tabulations from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which includes Maguindanao. Batch 13, the Namfrel update released at 1:47 p.m. yesterday, indicated there were no tabulations received at all from Maguindanao.

According to Go, the votes in Maguindanao are sufficiently significant to influence who will occupy the 11th and 12th slots in the senatorial race.

‘Show proof’

Maguindanao has lately hogged the headlines with initial returns showing a Team Unity 12-0 sweep, in contrast to early results elsewhere showing a dominant Genuine Opposition. Local officials, residents, as well as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, were quick to claim that no election was actually held in many parts of the province.

To this, as well as claims of ballot-switching and vote-padding during canvassing in other parts of Mindanao, Comelec Chair Benjamin Abalos Sr. said: Show proof.

“Allegations like these should be supported by evidence,” he said yesterday before presiding over the national canvassing, which has been in process at the Philippine International Convention Center since Wednesday.

“How can you say that voting in Maguindanao did not take place when you are in Manila? That statement is hearsay,” Abalos also said.

Maguindanao provincial elections supervisor Lintang Bedol denied the claim no elections were held in the province on May 14.

Explaining the TU sweep, Bedol said the law now recognized the factor of leadership influence upon the electorate of local government units.

“There is now the ‘Bailiwick Doctrine’ in which the law recognizes the influence of political leadership to generate [block] voting,” he said.

Abalos said he would not be surprised to see the results in Maguindanao giving the administration senatorial candidates a clean sweep.

“People should understand the culture of these tribal groups,” he said. “These tribal groups really act as one. Why do we not question religious groups with block voting?”

Abalos said those alleging fraud “should come out with specifics, with concrete evidence.”

No means to prosecute

Also at the Namfrel news conference, Go presented lawyers belonging to the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), who warned that if the volunteers had not yet surfaced as of yesterday, it may be possible that they also failed to secure the sixth copy of the ERs from their assigned precincts.

Namfrel, following its accreditation as citizens’ arm in poll monitoring, has been allowed by the Comelec to obtain the sixth copy of all ERs. Figures from the ERs are relayed to Namfrel headquarters for tabulation in its unofficial canvass.

Lente is a nationwide group of legal experts, paralegals and law students who help the Namfrel and the PPCRV in monitoring the canvassing of votes.

Lente co-convenor Carlos Medina complained that the group’s members had failed to secure the sixth copy of the ERs in many areas nationwide.

In the case of Maguindanao, since no single ER has been received, it will be difficult for Lente to prosecute parties responsible for any instance of election fraud because of lack of documentary evidence to present to court, he said.

Thus, Lente lawyers have had to monitor the canvass with no clue as to whether cheating was taking place, he added.

“The Lente canvass watchers were just looking at what was being written on documents used in the canvassing. There was no basis to know whether there was cheating since we ourselves do not know the real figures, not having ERs to base figures on,” Medina said, adding:

“If you do not have the ER from the precinct, how do you check the authenticity of the canvass at the municipal level? And ultimately, the certificates of canvass at the provincial and national levels?”

National tally first

PPCRV national legal counsel Howard Calleja, on the other hand, expressed alarm over the reported practice of many canvassers of prioritizing the tabulation of the local elections and putting aside the outcome of the senatorial and party-list elections for later scrutiny.

“The law says the [tabulation] should be done together, and if ever they are done separately, the national tabulation should be done first,” Calleja said.

Namfrel’s Alvia warned that this practice would discourage many volunteers from completing their monitoring duty.

“In most cases, if the [volunteers are] more concerned with the local tally, they lose interest in the national tally if this is done later. That’s why the national tally should be done ahead,” he said.

Medina went further, warning that if volunteers lost interest in completing their monitoring duties, they would leave the canvassing—“and that’s when the magic happens.”

Medina also said Lente volunteers in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao, were barred from entering the room where the provincial canvassing was supposedly taking place.

“The board of canvassers denied us entry even if we presented our PPCRV identification, which serves as our authorization letter,” he said.

Legarda to sue

Elsewhere, GO candidate Loren Legarda yesterday threatened action against persons found involved in election fraud across the country.

Legarda said she would pursue charges against those engaged in dagdag-bawas (vote-padding and -shaving) and other forms of cheating.

“It’s not about being No. 1 or No. 12. It’s about the votes getting credited to the candidates who were meant to receive them,” said Legarda who, along with fellow GO candidate Francis Escudero, have been leading in Comelec and Namfrel counts.

Legarda made the statement in the wake of the alleged fraud in Maguindanao. She said she had also received reports of her votes getting shaved in Mountain Province.

“I’ve been a victim of cheating before, and I will not let the true will of the people be subverted yet again,” she said.

Escudero backed calls for an investigation of irregularities in the May 14 elections, and dismissed claims that the apparent victory of GO candidates was proof that the political exercise was clean and honest.

“The argument advanced is facile and faulty, one that assigns an effect to the wrong cause. We are winning in spite of the fraud,” Escudero said.

“The Comelec should proceed with its announced plans to look into possible cheating in Maguindanao,” he said.

The GO had earlier called on the poll body to investigate the allegations made by Namfrel provincial chair Hadj Abdullah Dalidig that the number of registered voters in Maguindanao had increased from 275,572 to 396,772.

Not so fast

Administration congressmen, however, believe that the Comelec has no authority to probe the Maguindanao elections in the absence of a poll protest.

House Deputy Majority Leader Antonio Cerilles of Zamboanga del Sur and Antique Rep. Exequiel Javier, both lawyers, said the Comelec should wait for a formal protest from an aggrieved party before conducting an inquiry.

“There’s nothing strange or irregular with Team Unity’s 12-0 win in Maguindanao with the absence of a political machinery of the Genuine Opposition in the province,” Cerilles said.

“TU bets campaigned hard and their efforts were matched by the support given by the administration coalition’s political machinery. Hence, we urge the Comelec to be objective in dealing with issues raised against TU, especially if these are not backed by any formal complaint,” he said.

Javier said the vote-rigging claims of GO were mere allegations and “should not be dignified by the Comelec [with] an outright probe.”

“Let the accusers file their poll protest so this can be resolved at the proper forum,” he said.

Lanao del Sur

In Lanao del Sur, local election monitors believe that vote-rigging operations are ongoing.

According to Namfrel’s Dalidig, this is indicated by the refusal of local Comelec officials to hand over to them the sixth copy of ERs from the precincts.

“There is the possibility that dagdag-bawas has now gone down to the level of the ER,” Dalidig said.

A quick count is supposed to be a countervailing measure against a rigged official count. With the ERs not on hand, Namfrel is effectively defanged as a citizens’ arm to monitor irregularity in the counting of votes.

Dalidig believes this is a deliberate strategy on the part of Comelec officials “to hide the mysteries that they are going to do.”

It was Dalidig who, armed with figures derived from the ERs, blew the whistle on the alleged massive fraud committed by Comelec officials in Lanao del Sur to favor President Macapagal-Arroyo in the 2004 presidential election.

As of yesterday morning, 12 towns have completed the precinct-level canvass. But Namfrel is in possession of only five complete sets of ERs from five towns—Bumbaran, Malabang, Ditsaan Ramain, Bubong and Madamba.

Most of the Marawi ERs are also with Namfrel.

The release of ERs to Namfrel was done on a bulk basis, meaning, after the canvass of all the precincts in a town has been completed.

Although this arrangement does not sit well with Dalidig, he said he still allowed local Comelec officials the benefit of the doubt, as long as the ERs were delivered within the day the last precinct-level canvass was completed.

Failure of elections

Macabangkit Lanto, a congressional candidate of Ms Arroyo’s party, Kabalikat ng Mamamayang Pilipino (Kampi), yesterday asked the Comelec to declare a failure of elections in Picong, Lanao del Sur.

Lanto complained that in Picong, he scored zero, the members of the boards of election inspectors were fakes, and election returns were filled up in advance.

“The elections in the entire municipality of Picong is invalid, illegal and sham. In effect, there was no election to speak of,” said Lanto, a lawyer, and a former justice undersecretary and ambassador to Egypt. With reports from Jerome Aning and Edson C. Tandoc Jr. in Manila; Ryan D. Rosauro and Nash B. Maulana, Inquirer Mindanao