Monday, May 21, 2007

PCIJ: Maguindanao's 12-0 sweep for TU: 'Hello Garci' Take 2?

MALACAÑANG strategists are trumpeting the news of a 12-0 sweep by Team Unity senatorial candidates of the Maguindanao elections as the vaunted power of the administration’s political machinery at work through bloc voting.

With TU bets trailing in early tallies by both the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) and the Commission on Elections (Comelec), Malacañang has claimed that “command votes" from its bailiwicks would eventually put them in the senatorial winning circle.

As of the morning of May 16, with 73 percent of the votes in the province’s 27 towns counted, Mindanews reported that the administration ticket was lording it over the opposition in the Maguindanao tally, with Ilocos Sur Governor Luis “Chavit" Singson emerging as the surprise top vote-getter with 136,044 votes out of a total of 336,774 registered voters. Singson was followed by Bukidnon Representative Juan Miguel Zubiri (133,321 votes), and former Senator Tito Sotto (132,103 votes).

But a bewildered Commissioner Rene Sarmiento, the poll commissioner-in-charge assigned to ARMM during the May 14 elections, remarked that this is the first time he has heard of such a result, and said that the Commission on Elections will have to look into the matter.

They should, especially with how the elections turned out last Monday in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Foreign observers were witness to how the polls in the region’s six provinces were marred by widespread violence, blatant vote-buying and election irregularities.

Moreover, the Maguindanao tally brings to mind the suspicious results of the 2004 elections that came from the region, whose votes helped ensure Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s victory by a 1.1 million-vote lead over Fernando Poe Jr.

In 2004, Muslim Mindanao votes were indeed crucial to Arroyo’s winning margin as the region accounted for close to 300,000 of the lead. In fact, 17 percent of Arroyo’s total votes obtained in Mindanao came from ARMM. In seven towns ruled by the pro-Arroyo Ampatuan clan, Arroyo won over Poe by an incredible vote ratio of 82,411 to 142 (or 99.83 percent to 0.17 percent). In two towns, Arroyo garnered all the votes, with Poe getting zero.

More significantly, Maguindanao, along with Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Lanao del Sur, figured prominently in the “Hello, Garci" recordings — phone conversations between Arroyo and former Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcillano caught on tape allegedly detailing efforts to manipulate the outcome of the 2004 polls in Arroyo’s favor.

One of the calls made by Arroyo on June 6, 2004 sought Garcillano’s assurance about the consistency of election forms in Maguindanao. Garcillano’s reply: “Hindi naman ho masyadong problema sa Maguindanao (Maguindanao isn’t much of a problem)."

Based on official results, Arroyo won handily in Maguindanao, obtaining 199,431 (69 percent) of the votes compared to Poe’s 63,313 (22 percent). This was, however, disputed by Guimid Matalam, a losing gubernatorial bet, citing alleged cheating in 25 of 27 towns. Matalam charged that election returns were prepared even before the voting started on May 10, 2004, and that ballot boxes were never brought to the precincts.

One town in Maguindanao, Talitay, was mentioned in a call also made on June 6, 2004 by Comelec lawyer Wynne Asdala to Garcillano discussing efforts to garner more votes for K-4 senatorial candidate Robert Barbers. “Itong Talitay tsaka Columbio (a town in Sultan Kudarat), gusto nilang mag-submit ng bagong COC at saka SOV para mahabol yung si Barbers (They want to submit new COCs and SOVs in Talitay and Columbio so Barbers can catch up)," Asdala told Garcillano.

When asked for his side by the PCIJ in 2005, Asdala admitted talking with the former poll commissioner about the votes in Talitay, Maguindanao but denied the conversation was about attempts to pad Barbers’s votes.

What should also be a cause of concern is that Maguindanao’s provincial election supervisor is lawyer Lintang Bedol. In 2004, Bedol was reassigned to Sultan Kudarat shortly before the May elections. Sitting also as chairman of the Cotabato City board of canvassers, he presided over “highly problematic" counts in the two areas.

Bedol’s name was heard several times in the “Hello, Garci" tapes. Apparently, he was entrusted with “interesting" tasks during the 2004 elections, aside from reporting the results to Garcillano, as can be gleaned from these excerpts from our June 16, 2005 post, “Vidol who?“:

In the conversation that supposedly took place between Garcillano and the President at 9:47 a.m. on May 29, 2004, Arroyo wanted to know the extent of her defeat in Cotabato City.

The elections commissioner replied, “Hindi ho siguro sosobra ng (It probably wouldn’t exceed) forty, Ma’am. Nag-usap na kami ni Atty. Bedol….Kami ni Atty. Bedol, nag-usap ho ngayon (Atty. Bedol and I talked just now). But I’ll give you the exact figure ma’am in a little while, para ma-ano ninyo." The final outcome: Arroyo: 8,510; Poe, 29,417.

Meanwhile, a certain Danny, apparently worried about the Cotabato count, asked Garcillano in a phone conversation on May 25, 2004: “Sir, ano kaya, nagawan kaya ng paraan ni Bedol (Did Bedol manage to do something about this)?"

Former senator Robert Barbers, who purportedly called up Garcillano on May 29 to inquire about the Comelec en banc’s resolution transferring the canvassing venue from Cotabato City to Manila, was told, “…Bine-verify ko, pero si Atty. Bedol, yung ating tao dun, hindi makontak (I’m verifying it, but I can’t contact Atty. Bedol, our man there).

Bedol, who sources from the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) describe as very close to Garcillano (the commissioner spent most of his 43 years in Mindanao), obviously wielded some power. The sources identified the voice of a woman complaining about Bedol to Garcillano as that of Comelec Region 12 Clarita Callar. She is heard saying, “Ba’t inaaway ako ni Bedol (Why is Bedol picking a fight)…"

In the tapes, Bedol was also caught talking to Garcillano at least twice. (see “Conversations with and about Bedol“)

Maguindanao’s “very high" voter turnout, with no town registering lower than 90 percent, according to Bedol, likewise lends to the improbability of the election results. It will be recalled that in the 2004 elections, the total votes cast for the party-list candidates in the province was 283,012 out of a total of 334,331 registered voters, corresponding to an unusually high 84.65 turnout. - Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism