May 2007
Elections 2007

A watchdog loses some bite

IN WHAT could be a case for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the notoriously slow count of the Commission on Elections has overtaken the once famous “quick count” of the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) more than a week after the polls closed.

IN HAPPIER TIMES. Former Namfrel Chairman Jose Concepcion and former secretary general Guillermo Luz with volunteers. [photo courtesy of Namfrel]

Earlier, many had also noticed that the formerly noisy Namfrel had also taken a backseat to the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) in the interview circuit.

At least with regard to keeping a relatively low profile, that is probably the way Namfrel’s new national chairman, retired banker Edward Go, prefers it. It could also be the way to go for a poll-monitoring group that suffered a blow to its credibility when it stumbled through the 2004 elections.

Namfrel had decided to use an SMS-based system to conduct its quick count for those polls. But Namfrel volunteers had different styles of texting that were not always accepted by the system that the organization had set up. Namfrel’s computer database was also based on the precinct numbers it had acquired from the Commission on Elections a week before elections. But the precinct numbers changed at the provincial level, and the Namfrel system refused to accept results from the revised precincts.

Statistician and IT specialist (and now Halal convenor) Roberto Verzola later came out with a study saying that an “invisible hand” within Namfrel’s national tabulation center manipulated the results of its tally by delaying the canvassing of so-called “FPJ (Fernando Poe Jr.)” areas vis-a-vis GMA (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) strongholds and then aborting its count, doctoring precinct totals and tally completion percentages, and canvassing tampered election returns.

Then Namfrel chairman Jose ‘JoeCon’ Concepcion Jr., however, dismissed Verzola’s statistical analysis as “mere extrapolation. And that extrapolation has no scientific basis.” He added, “Namfrel’s position always has been we are dependent on our quick count.”

In truth, no one wanted to believe that Namfrel could be part of any election fraud, wittingly or unwittingly. This was, after all, the organization that stood up before a dictator in 1986.

FORMER Namfrel chair Jose Concepcion Jr. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

The roots of Namfrel, though, go further back. It began as the National Movement for Free Elections in the early 1950s, and was meant to prevent and report electoral fraud and violence in the 1953 polls. After those polls, the public would not hear of Namfrel again until the 1980s, when it was revived by business and Roman Catholic Church leaders, who tweaked the group’s name into National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections. It rose to prominence during the 1986 snap presidential elections, when it doggedly kept on counting votes even though the then Palace occupant had already declared himself the winner.

The 2007 elections, however, saw a Namfrel that was still unable to shake off questions about its supposed role in the alleged fraud that happened during the 2004 polls.

Questions in Namfrel’s transparency and credibility in fact led to its late accreditation, with election lawyer Sixto Brillantes even questioning Namfrel’s capability to conduct a quick count. Brillantes also said that Concepcion’s post as barangay chairman of Forbes Park violated the nonpartisan nature of an election watchdog.

The Comelec finally accredited Namfrel in March, under the condition that Concepcion resign first from the organization. The beleaguered industrialist now says he is no longer connected to Namfrel in any capacity. Yet Namfrel’s headquarters remain at the RFM building, which is owned by the Concepcion family. Concepcion’s desk remains next to the Namfrel war room. He says, however, that he doesn’t bother with what goes on in the war room. He has filed manifestations calling for a re-examination of the Comelec resolution.

Concepcion’s reluctant replacement was banker Go, who says, “They made me feel it would be so unpatriotic of me not to accept it, so I took it. But I do not intend to be long- term chair. After we submit our final report on this election, I will resign.”

Go headed Namfrel’s finance committee in 2004. He has also been a Namfrel field volunteer. Now 69, he says Namfrel should be led by someone under the age of 55, arguing that the group would be better served if a younger person leads it.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Concepcion signing off at Namfrel’s Operation Quick Count in La Salle Greenhills in 2001. [photo courtesy of Namfrel]

A year before Concepcion left Namfrel, its longtime secretary general, Guillermo ‘Bill’ Luz had also resigned, after the Comelec declared he was a Canadian citizen and recommended the filing of criminal charges against him. Luz had been with Namfrel since 1992.

Despite the loss of two of Namfrel’s most well-known personalities, many believe that the organization will still be able to continue its operations, as it has retained many of its former staff. This year, it was able to mobilize some 300,000 volunteers.

But if automation is fully implemented in 2010, Go believes that there will no longer be any need for a quick count. Even Concepcion says that there is a plan is to phase out Namfrel’s parallel vote tabulation. He says that Namfrel will still participate in the 2010 election, but that it will eventually resume its previous name: Namfrel Bantay ng Bayan

As Concepcion explains it, after 2010 Namfrel will shift from conducting a parallel vote count to teaming up with barangays to see that the pork barrel is allocated properly. Namfrel also plans to conduct a legislative watch in tandem with the barangays, among other activities.

“It will not really quit its job as an institution,” he adds. “I believe that the role of Namfrel will still be looking at the elections to make sure (these are credible), but its major role will now be a partnership at the lowest level, at the barangay.”