MANILA, Philippines -- It happened in the dead of night, hours before the polling precincts opened.
With armed guards supposedly watching over them, they were forced to fill blank ballots with the names of Team Unity senatorial candidates, starting with Luis “Chavit” Singson and Prospero Pichay.
Students and other children loitering in the school premises were purportedly even asked to mark the ballots with their thumbprints and sign their names on the voters’ list.
This was how the “election” took place at least in some areas of Maguindanao -- at least based on the account of a female public school teacher in the province.
The anonymous teacher talked to Lente, the legal arm of the watchdog Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), Lente convenor Carlos Medina said at a press conference Sunday.
Hand in hand with the teacher’s allegation, the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) accused Commission on Elections (Comelec) officers in Maguindanao of withholding copies of provincial election returns from Namfrel volunteers.
Namfrel secretary general Eric Alvia said the delay in the turnover of the ERs rendered suspect the authenticity of whatever documents would be given Namfrel in the future.
Namfrel chair Edward Go said Maguindanao’s 336,000 votes were enough to influence the outcome of the 11th and 12th places in the senatorial race.
Go said that instead of votes being tallied in precincts, all ballot boxes were hauled to the provincial capitol where the votes were counted. But no Namfrel volunteer was allowed to witness this.
Namfrel’s Maguindanao chair Fr. Eduardo Tanudtanud, OMI, said: “Our volunteers were told that municipal election officers issued a verbal order to withhold the release of all copies of the ERs, including Namfrel’s sixth copy.”
“In view of what we perceive as the systematic withholding of the ERs to Namfrel that casts doubt on the integrity of the sixth copy of the election returns, we will…not include the Maguindanao results in our quick count,” Tanudtanud said.
Following the teacher’s allegations, Lente urged the Comelec to send a Manila-based team to Maguindanao to investigate her charges.
Medina said the teacher had suggested that the Comelec open all the ballot boxes in Maguindanao to see the fraud for itself.
The teacher’s allegation followed reports that candidates of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo were posting 12-0 scores in the senatorial race in Maguindanao, which is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Maguindanao was one of the ARMM provinces mentioned in the “Hello Garci” tapes where cheating allegedly occurred in 2004 to help Ms Arroyo win the presidential election.
The 12-0 vote TU has been getting in Maguindanao flies in the face of voting results in many other areas of the country where the Genuine Opposition candidates were registering winning tallies of 8-2-2 or 7-3-2.
While Lente remains in touch with the teacher, Medina refused to identify her.
“I cannot reveal her identity. Her safety relies on the fact that she is not known and so are her whereabouts,” Medina told reporters.
“She fears that if she is known, her entire family will be put in danger, even her relatives will be affected.”
“But what was evident in our conversation was her sense of frustration over the whole thing,” the lawyer said.
It also happened in 2004
Medina said the teacher complained this was not the first time she and her colleagues were forced to fill ballots at gunpoint.
The teacher also alleged she and the others were ordered to fill up blank ballots in the 2004 elections.
According to Medina, the teacher said she only followed orders from a superior.
“She is scared to name the governor (Natatakot niyang sabihin ang pangalan ng gobernador),” Medina said.
But the teacher was more open in discussing the specific instructions given to them.
“They had a list, first on it was Singson, second was Pichay, and so on,” Medina said in Filipino. “The instructions to them were to write these names down on the ballots.”
He also quoted the teacher as saying: “Ganito na lang ba tuwing eleksyon? Kailan ito matatapos? (Is this how it will always be during elections? When will it ever end?)”
The teacher initially sought the help of radio station dzRH, which in turn referred her to Lente -- the Legal Network for Truthful Elections.
Medina said the teacher refused to execute an affidavit, give interviews or sign any document that would establish her identity.
“Time is of the essence here,” Medina said, referring to the need for the Comelec to act urgently. “If those boxes are not opened, the contents might be changed even as we speak.”
Pichay’s lawyer, Mildred Duero-Romero, dismissed the teacher’s story.
“The teacher’s accusations are unfair. Only once these are verified will we answer her. What she said was not under oath and any Tom, Dick and Harry can issue a statement like that,” Duero-Romero said in a telephone interview.
“Butch Pichay is expected to rank high in Mindanao as he comes from said region and it is his bailiwick,” she later said in a text message.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, parent company of INQUIRER.net, also sought comments from Singson and TU spokesperson Ben Evardone, but text messages to them drew no replies.
Maguindanao officials have defended the 12-0 scores for TU candidates, saying they were not part of any vote manipulation but were in line with the local culture of reaching a consensus on matters of public concern.
Medina said the teacher “and the other teachers stayed up all night, staying inside a classroom in a still unknown public school somewhere in Maguindanao until 3 p.m. of Monday, May 14.”
“She did not sleep nor was she paid. She stayed up all night along with the board of election inspectors (BEI) filling up ballots.”
No use for indelible ink
The teacher’s claims seemed consistent with those of some local officials who said no elections took place in the province.
“The teacher said that on May 14 at 3 p.m., all precincts closed and no actual voting took place, although the teachers were all inside the precincts. The indelible ink supplied by Comelec Manila was not used at all,” Medina said.
He said other teachers had indicated interest in supporting the statement of the female witness as long as they remained unidentified and their safety was assured.
Should the Comelec continue to demand documentary evidence, the fraud committed would again go unpunished, Medina said.
“We request the Comelec to send an investigation team and talk to the common folk, look for indelible ink on their fingers because the teacher said the ink was not used,” he said.
Challenge to Abalos
To Comelec Chair Benjamin Abalos’ challenge that proof must be shown that fraud was committed, Medina said: “Forego the required affidavits and witnesses. On its own, the (commission) should inspect and find out and interview people.”
One of the GO candidates fighting to stay in the Magic 12, Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, and his lawyers will file an election protest with the Comelec no Monday to denounce delays in the canvassing in some polling centers in Mindanao, specifically in Maguindanao.
This was disclosed Sunday by Pimentel’s father, Sen. Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr., who estimated that the election protest could affect some half million votes in Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat and Shariff Kabunsuan.
Such a block of votes could hold up the proclamation of senators fighting for the last four to five slots, he said.
Pimentel said the reason for the delay of the canvassing was obvious -- operators of “dagdag-bawas” (vote-padding and -shaving) were waiting until all the votes in other areas had been counted so they would know how many votes to produce, using rigged tallies. With reports Gil C. Cabacungan Jr., Maan Festejo and Kathleen Olarte