May 2007
Elections 2007

Ghosts of past polls haunt Comelec

COMELEC Chairman Benjamin Abalos Sr. [photo by Joe Galvez

BARELY A week left in the run-up to the 2007 midterm polls, Commission on Elections (Comelec) chairman Benjamin Abalos Sr. is still trying to convince people that the May 14 elections will be credible and honest. He probably hoped it would be peaceful, too, but election-related violence has claimed the lives of close to a hundred people so far, including a Cebu mayoral candidate shot dead right in front of the Comelec’s provincial office.

Abalos, however, has assured voters that Comelec is doing everything to prevent the further escalation of violence by declaring conflict-torn areas under its control. He also insists the 2007 polls will be on the up and up — the legacy, he says, of his term, which ends next year.

But the public has had trouble seeing the Comelec beyond the way it has been presiding over past polls, which have used an antiquated and easily corruptible system that practically ensures questionable results. To say that many Filipinos think the Comelec is inept may be putting it mildly, so much so that a significant number probably expect the worst to happen each election.

Just recently, the Comelec got dragged into the Supreme Court after it suddenly refused to reveal to the public the names of party-list nominees. Many speculated that the Comelec was in cahoots with the Arroyo administration to sabotage the party-list election, and even after the commission had followed the Court’s order to reveal the nominees’ names, some people remained palpably irritated with the poll body.

“The highly questionable pronouncements, decisions, and actions taken by Comelec,” said Fr. Joe Dizon, spokesperson of the election watchdog Kontra Daya, “with regard to the party-list election calls into serious question the constitutionally mandated independence of the poll body under the leadership of Chairman Abalos.”

Yet even before the controversy broke out, rumors were already flying thick and fast about how efforts to rig the election results were emanating from within the Comelec itself. The commission has denied these, of course. But it certainly hasn’t helped that the allegations of massive and systematic electoral fraud attending the victory of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo three years ago have yet to be resolved, and that among the supposed major players in that fraud was no less than a Comelec commissioner.

Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform (IPER), also says that the fact that the Comelec has never admitted that the conduct and the results of the 2004 elections were questionable just adds to the poll body’s credibility problem. Plus, he says, it invites the risk that the results of the upcoming elections will not be trusted.

The public has noted as well that nothing has come out of the investigations Abalos himself called regarding allegations that the Comelec’s own personnel were part of the 2004 elections “cheating operations.” To this day, not one of those implicated in the supposed dagdag-bawas (vote-padding and shaving) operations in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has faced prosecution. Instead, they were even promoted, among them:

  • Atty. Renato Magbutay, Region VI director
  • Atty. Remlane Tambuang, Region XI director
  • Atty. Michael Abbas, Region XII director
  • Atty. Ray Sumalipao, ARMM director
  • Atty. Lintang Bedol, Maguindanao provincial election supervisor
  • Atty. Francisco Pobe, Region XIII (Caraga) assistant director

Many of these Comelec personnel were trusted lieutenants of ex-Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano of the infamous “Hello Garci” wiretapping scandal that brought the Arroyo administration on the brink of collapse in 2005. Observers have thus argued that the “cheating machinery” within the Comelec has remained intact — and with the recent promotions, only implying an increased capacity to influence, if not manipulate, the voting results.

A known dagdag-bawas operator in Mindanao as far back as his days as Comelec regional director during martial law, Garcillano is reportedly busy these days not so much with his congressional campaign for the first district of Bukidnon, but because his services have again been allegedly tapped by about a hundred politicians running in the May elections.

In the meantime, Abdullah Dalidig, the chairperson of the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) in Lanao del Sur who blew the whistle on alleged 2004 cheating operations there, is wary of yet another electoral fraud case now that Sumalipao is on top of the polls in ARMM. Dalidig described Sumalipao as the “right hand of Garcillano” in 2004, when he was provincial election supervisor of Lanao del Sur. Sumalipao was later named ARMM assistant regional director.

Aware of the statistical improbabilities and of “birds and bees voting” that have characterized past elections in ARMM, Rene Sarmiento, the commissioner in charge assigned to the region as well as to Region IX, says he has tapped non-ARMM Comelec directors to help him safeguard the votes. If warranted, Sarmiento says he will also order a reshuffling of election personnel.

But Casiple suspects that such a move has already been anticipated by those with less-than-noble plans. Thus, he predicts, any reshuffling will still result in the concerned Comelec personnel manning their pre-assigned places come election day.

He adds that even if the Comelec is serious about combating cheating in the elections, the poll body is simply incapable of preventing it. “It’s a whole system outside of the electoral system, a whole syndicate in which Garci plays only a small part as operator in ARMM,” he says, stressing that police powers and political will are needed to dismantle its structure.

BALLOT boxes get a fresh coat of paint in time for the May 14, 2007 elections. [photo by Joe Galvez]

IF THE likes of Casiple are to be believed, it’s quite a structure, and includes an extensive network of document and signature forgers, as well as access to official materials and equipment.

Last year, for instance, Arsenio Rasalan, a self-confessed vote-rigger, pointed to former Comelec director and election lawyer Roque Bello as being instrumental in the forging of election documents in 2004. In his affidavit, Rasalan said that Bello headed a complex operation to fabricate 10,000 election returns (ERs) and replace them for the ones being kept at the Batasang Pambansa.

Bello denied the allegations. The Comelec, for its part, never conducted any investigation into the matter.

More recently, the opposition through election lawyer Sixto Brillantes Jr., claimed that the security of the printing of ERs and COCs has been compromised with the involvement of a private printer alleged to have colluded with fraudsters to produce spurious ERs and certificates of canvass (COCs).

The memorandum of agreement between the Comelec and the National Printing Office (NPO) stipulates that the printing of election regulated documents — ballots, COCs, ERs, statements of votes (SOVs) — will not in any way be subcontracted to private printers. Yet the Comelec allowed the NPO to lease printing machines owned by National Grand C Graphics, Inc., the same private printer believed to have been part of the alleged 2004 election fraud involving fabricated election forms, to print the election returns. Grand C Graphics personnel were also seen supervising the actual printing of ERs at the government printing office.

In two letters sent to the Comelec, Brillantes raised the opposition’s apprehension that Grand C Graphics personnel contracted by the NPO may have been privy to the security and other control features incorporated or embedded in the ERs and ballots. He also underscored the lack of any bidding process that led to the award of a lease or contract to Grand C Graphics.

But Commissioner Resurreccion Borra, the commissioner in charge for printing of election documents, dismisses Brillantes’s concerns as “rehashed issues.” He says that the NPO did not enter into any subcontracting arrangement but merely leased Grand C Graphics machines to augment NPO’s printing capacity.

“Of course, when you lease your equipment, you bring your own personnel,” says Borra, citing the need to ensure the smooth operation of the machines.

Casiple, taking note of this access by printing employees to the plate, design specifications or finished product, the NPO printing process and the serial numbers, asks, “Who’s to prevent anyone from printing his or her own election documents?” He says with such an access it becomes a simple matter of affixing forged signatures to these fabricated ERs — using the same paper with the appropriate watermarks and security marks and following the layout and numbering of authentic election forms — as was supposedly done by the so-called “golden hands” in the 2004 elections.

He also says that the vigilance to ensure security in the printing of election documents may have already been a tad late as nobody does monitoring of the importation of security paper done way before the elections.

“When the imported security paper goes to the cutting machines of contracted printers to be cut to the size required of election documents, it generates excess,” explains Casiple. “The Comelec does not supervise this process.” He believes the documents used in dagdag-bawas operations in previous elections came from this excess.

EXCESS IS also the name of the game when it comes to the national voters’ list, say election officers and civil-society groups. This, despite a Comelec announcement that it had purged from the list more than a million names corresponding to double registrants, deactivated and dead voters, and those who have transferred residence.

EVIDENCE of fraud during the 2004 elections in Muslim Mindanao was too significant to ignore. [PCIJ file photo]

In San Juan, Comelec election officer Liza Torres says she was surprised to find the names of deactivated voters — those who have not voted in the last two elections — still on the final list generated by the Comelec’s information technology department. She says that since there is not enough time to correct the errors, the names have just been manually crossed out on the list to indicate that these voters cannot be allowed to vote on May 14.

In Cainta and Taytay, Rizal, volunteers of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) reported finding 2,357 double registrants out of 24, 297 voters within four polling centers and 120 polling precincts covered jurisdictionally by the San Lorenzo Ruiz Parish of the two municipalities. Double registrants numbering 353 were also found in Arienda Elementary School in Cainta and Tapayan Elementary School in West Floodway Taytay.

Austri Basinillo, PPCRV chair of San Lorenzo Ruiz Parish, says they were able to identify the double registrants by running an intensive search using FileMaker Pro, a cross-platform database application, through the electronic list of voters (converted into a spreadsheet file from a 2,500-page Word document) given to PPCRV by the Taytay Comelec office. He also relates how they confronted some of the double registrants, who admitted they were herded by their barangay officials to register more than once.

Basinillo says that in addition, their FileMaker Pro search uncovered cases of multiple listing (sometimes involving three names), fathers and sons having the same birth dates, and also birth years dating back to 1900. “Those born in 1900 are probably dead by now,” he says. “If the voters’ list has already been cleansed, how come their names still appear on the list?”

In ARMM, Dalidig likewise disputes claims that the voters’ list in the region has been cleansed, disclosing that a fraudulent voter registration process resulted in an increase in the number of registered voters by more than 100,000.

Observers estimate that the “padding” of the national voters’ list may run up to as much as six million voters. Casiple says this number translates to 35,000 fake voters per district. “With 200 congressional districts,” he says, “this means that 36 precincts per town are ghost precincts.”

Some reports say the reason for the continued appearance of double registrants, dead and deactivated voters in the list is because the cleaned-up version went up in flames during the fire that gutted the old Comelec building last March. But the Comelec itself denies this — and is adamant that the voters’ list is now clean.

IT HAD been as adamant about keeping the names of party-list nominees secret from the public, and were it not for the Supreme Court, the Comelec would have probably kept on ignoring demands for the names to be revealed. In previous years, the party-list nominees were always made known to the public, and so everyone was surprised by the sudden policy reversal.

BALLOT boxes being transported to a canvassing center. [PCIJ file photo]

According to the Comelec, the Party-List Law does not require it to disclose the names. But election lawyer Brillantes counters that neither does the law prohibit the commission from revealing this. He says the Comelec has only itself to blame for the resulting suspicions that it was peddling party-list seats.

Now that the list of party-list nominees has been made public, though, earlier fears have been confirmed that among the nominees are people identified with the Arroyo administration and who are relatives of government officials. They include retired Major General Jovito Palparan, Raul Lambino (of Sigaw ng Bayan and the failed attempt to amend the 1987 Constitution via a people’s initiative), a brother of Comelec Chairman Abalos, a brother of poll commissioner Romeo Brawner, and Assistant Secretary Marcelo Fariñas II of the Office of External Affairs (OEA) under the Office of the President, the first nominee of Agbiag! Timpuyog Ilocano.

As head of OEA’s Special Concerns Group, Fariñas has even been accused of spearheading Malacañang’s “special operations” to reduce the likelihood of a third impeachment attempt against President Arroyo by winning an overwhelming majority of seats in Congress, including those of party-list groups. This “special ops” has allegedly fielded and supported pro-administration party-list groups as a foil against leftist and left-leaning party-list organizations seeking more congressional seats.

It remains to be seen if the Comelec will act on disqualification cases against certain “dubious” groups tagged as Malacañang fronts with the disclosure of the nominees’ list. Earlier, the commission had said that it can disqualify the concerned party-list nominees only after their party gets elected, citing the lack of any procedure.

But former Comelec Commissioner Mehol Sadain disagrees, commenting, “Comelec can subject them to disciplinary action as part of continuing review. It’s illogical to wait for them to get elected first before they can be subjected to disqualification.”

IPER’s Casiple notes, “The Comelec has plenary powers. In the interest of clean and honest elections, they can do anything. They have the power to accredit, but they can’t disqualify?”

By continuing to shield these dubious nominees, he says, the Comelec is already guilty of obstruction of justice. “They’re hiding a lot of things,” says Casiple. “It goes against legal and common sense logic. There must really be a hidden agenda.”