May 2007
Elections 2007

Guardians of the ballot

MANY election watchdogs have proliferated in the May polls because of the failure of the Comelec, the constitutionally ordained guardian of the ballot, to protect the sanctity of elections. [photo courtesy of Carmela Ledesma]

MOST OF them were formed in reaction to the allegations of widespread fraud that marred the 2004 polls, but even the newest among today’s poll watchdogs are admitting they are no match to the election cheats.

Then again, way before May 14, many of the election monitors — old and new alike — were already saying it was impossible to clean up the country’s election system. They had hoped, however, that their larger numbers would minimize poll “irregularities.” One of the newcomers, Kontra Daya, also said they were aiming to expose how the cheats were going to do it.

It is still far too early to even detect exactly what went on behind closed doors during (and after) the elections, even though some winners in the local government polls have already been proclaimed. The good news: at least one of the poll watchdogs, Bantay Eleksyon (BE), says its preliminary conclusion is that the 2007 midterm Philippine elections were “a qualified success,” because the voting process was conducted in a largely peaceful and orderly manner. (Read BE’s report.)

The bad news: BE’s latest reports include those that reveal widespread confusion among voters, a significant level of electoral violence, and increasing signs of electoral fraud. Unfortunately, too, there are indications that BE and the other poll monitoring groups — including the more well-known National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) — have yet to come up with glitch-free systems that would make their mission to limit cheating a real success.

Namfrel, which has yet to recover from its failed 2004 experiment with SMS to conduct its “quick count,” has again encountered problems with its software, causing a delay in its release of regular updates during the first week of counting. BE, which had eight “monitoring sites,” admits that its efforts were marred by low compliance of last-minute instructions, including getting copies of the Voters’ List from the Commission on Elections (Comelec). Communication to some areas, especially the northern provinces and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), was also unreliable, it says.

At least it seems that the massive number of volunteer poll monitors belonging to different groups did not result into bedlam. The ever-widening scope of civil-society efforts to monitor the elections, however, is an indication not only of the citizenry’s growing distrust of the process, but also of the increasing audacity of cheats.

And we thought we had seen the worst of it in the 1986 snap elections.

MORE THAN 20 years ago, half a million Namfrel volunteers had guarded the ballot boxes, some even at the expense of their lives. While the government of then President Ferdinand Marcos churned out numbers that showed he won the polls, Namfrel’s tally indicated the opposite — and helped spark what would be later known as Edsa 1.

Since then, Namfrel has become a fixture in the country’s elections, where its main role has been to conduct a quick count. Beginning 1992, the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) has also been enjoying official accreditation as the Comelec’s citizen arm, with the assistance of the National Secretariat for Social Action-Justice and Peace (Nassa) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

Up until 2004, however, poll watching in the Philippines was practically synonymous with Namfrel alone. But then its foray into SMS went awry, making it unable to complete its tally three years ago. Then Namfrel Secretary General Guillermo ‘Bill’ Luz also declared those elections’ results as credible, despite reports of fraud from the organization’s own personnel in Lanao del Sur. A year later, the ‘Hello, Garci’ scandal erupted, and Namfrel was inevitably dragged into the fray. (See sidebar)

KONTRA Daya convenor Carol Araullo. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

Today, aside from Namfrel, the PPCRV, and Nassa, are groups such as BE and Kontra Daya, as well as the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) and Halalang Marangal (Halal). Acting as the coordinating body for Namfrel, the PPCRV, Nassa, BE, and Lente is the Volunteers for Clean Elections (V-Force), even as other organizations employ other methods to guard the vote.

Kontra Daya convenor and Bagong Alyansang Makabayan chairperson Carol Araullo says the idea is to “cast a wide net to be able to source (data) from as many groups as possible.” V-Force coordinator Benjamin Tolosa, meanwhile, says that the efforts of the different groups — especially those it is handling — actually complement one another. He adds, “One way also to encourage involvement is to be able to present a menu of options that will allow people to see where they can get involved.” (see V-Force flowchart)

For instance, the PPCRV, which became more visible than Namfrel right before the May 14 elections, conducted voters’ education workshops. Its national office developed modules then gave these to local archdiocese and dioceses, which operate in 2,707 parishes across the country.

Traditional voters’ education that employed spoon-fed information no longer works, says PPCRV Secretary General Brother Clifford Sorrita. Instead, the PPCRV now takes a community based modular approach, based on dialogue.

Drawing on popular television shows, the PPCRV called its trainer’s manual “Pinoy Voters’ Academy (Ang Drama sa Likod ng Halalan)” and divided this into three modules: Pilipinas Nag-grow Ka Na Ba? (which draws from people’s experiences); Kababayan, Laban o Bawi? (which asks people to stand up for what they know is right); and Halalan Idol (which encourages voters to choose the candidates who would help them achieve their goals).

A month before the elections, over 300,000 volunteers had signed up with the PPCRV, which was targeting 500,000. The PPCRV’s funding is sourced from donations, including second collections during mass. For this year’s elections, parish donations were used for voters’ education and poll watching, says the group.

THE PPCRV, like Namfrel, is supposed to receive legal assistance from Lente, which is composed of 28 organizations. Although Lente will provide legal services to members of its network, its primary task is to monitor the canvassing process. Lente was formed just this year.

LAWYER Carlos Medina of Lente. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

“When it comes to canvassing, we thought it wise to bring in lawyers, law students, trained paralegals, because in certain matters, you need legal knowledge,” says lawyer Carlos Medina, one of Lente’s convenors. “For example, you need to file (a) complaint, you need to file (an) appeal.”

Lente aimed to mobilize at least 10,000 volunteers so that it could have two lawyers assisted by two law students or paralegals in each of the country’s 1,600 municipalities. It also wanted to deploy two mobile groups per major island grouping.

But after canvassing began, Medina conceded that Lente was facing many challenges in its “systems, organization, and environment.” Still, it was able to receive accounts of alleged cheating and violence during canvassing. Just last Sunday, one of its subgroups received a report from a teacher in Maguindanao who said she was forced to fill out blank ballots with the names of Team Unity senatorial candidates, starting with Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson and Prospero Pichay.

Other Maguindanaoan teachers have since staged a protest, denying they were part of any attempt at election fraud. But Lente is not the only one receiving reports of supposed cheating; similar accounts have been echoed by BE.

Strictly speaking, BE is supposed to be an observer, and thus does not have a direct involvement in the poll-watching process. Its emphasis is on documentation, with a minimum of two organized monitoring teams (OMTs) composed of five members for each cluster expected to fill out weekly monitoring forms, which will be submitted to area coordinators. In the event of an anomaly, OMTs will also fill up and submit incident reports. Another type of BE volunteer is the citizen reporter, who is supposed to give direct information to area coordinators.

Among BE’s targets for observation is the Comelec’s performance. It plans to keep on producing reports long after the winners are proclaimed.

In many ways, BE is similar to Kontra Daya, but while the former has a regular report schedule, the latter has adopted a “come what may” approach. That, however, has not meant Kontra Daya’s reports are benign. In its initial salvo, the group said the “machinery for cheating” employed by the Arroyo administration during the 2004 elections remained intact, and that the Comelec had failed to ensure the security of the production of election returns and certificates of canvass. (Read Kontra Daya’s report)

Kontra Daya — whose convenors come from a wide spectrum consisting of militant activists, teachers, IT specialists, retired generals, and church organizations — also pointed to 22 party-list organizations as allegedly having the support of, or links to, the Palace.

Halal, meanwhile, is often mistaken by many as having tasks already being undertaken by Namfrel. But Halal has taken care to note that unlike the older group, it does not seek to tabulate or consolidate votes. What it is doing, says Halal, is a “citizens’ audit” of the election tallies; specifically, it seeks to tabulate votes as these come in precinct by precinct. (See Halal flowchart)

Table 1: Election Watchdogs
* for identification purposes only

Namfrel early 1980s The National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections was reorganized to watch the vote in the 1986 snap polls. The organization’s credibility suffered as a result of its performance in the 2004 elections, but many hope that Namfrel will be able to redeem itself. Jose Concepcion Jr. (founding chairman); Edward Go (chairman); Vicente Jayme (vice chairman); Eric Alvia (secretary general) Around 300,000
PPCRV 1991 Conceptualized during a meeting at the residence of the Archbishop of Manila, and established in response to the challenge of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting conducts voters’ education. It has been officially accredited to do poll watching since 1992. Henrietta De Villa (national chairperson); Antonio Ventosa (vice chairman for internal affairs); Ernesto Burdeos (vice chairman for external affairs); Bro. Clifford Sorrita (secretary general) Around 400,000
Nassa 1966 The Catholic Bishops’ Cconference of the Philippines’ National Secretariat for Social Action-Justice and Peace focuses on emergency relief, development projects and social justice advocacy. Members of 89 Basic Ecclesial communities across the country
Lente 2007 The Legal Network for Truthful Elections is a nationwide network of lawyers, law students, paralegals, and other trained volunteers set up by various nonpartisan groups engaged in election monitoring work to monitor the canvassing of votes and provide legal services members of the network during the election period. Atty. Jose Vicente Salazar; Atty. Carlos Medina Around 10,000
Bantay Eleksyon conceptualized in 2005, launched in 2007 Bantay-Eleksyon 2007 will conduct a comprehensive monitoring of the 2007 elections, from the electoral preparations to post-proclamation protests. Bantay-Eleksyon 2007 will focus on the performance of the Commission on Elections and its deputized agencies. It will also cooperate with election monitoring efforts focusing on campaign financing, electoral violence, voter registration, poll watching, and other aspects of the electoral process. Andie Lasala, BE coordinator At least two organized monitoring teams (four to five people) per area — eight areas (at least 80 people)
V-Force P2007 V-Force is a consortium of election stakeholders, including Namfrel, PPCRV, Nassa, Lente, and Bantay-Eleksyon. It aims to coordinate the election efforts of its member organizations. The overall effort at coordination and linkage-work is being undertaken by key leaders of One Voice including former Comelec Chair Atty. Christian Monsod, Dr. Benjamin Tolosa, Atty. Carlos Medina, Dr. Antonio La Viña, Bro. Javy Alpasa S.J., Atty. Luie Guia, Ramon Casiple and Vincent Lazatin. Target: one million volunteers (Tolosa said that they were close to reaching this figure.)
Halal 2006 Halalang Marangal aims to tabulate the disaggregated precinct results and make them available to the public on an internet database. Former Senator Wigberto E. Tañada; General Francisco V. Gudani (ret.); former Comelec Commissioner Mehol K. Sadain; former St. Scholastica’s College president Sr. Mary John Mananzan; 2004 TOYM awardee Atty. Ma. Paz Luna, PRRM senior vice president Isagani R. Serrano; and Philippine Greens Institute Executive Director, and IT specialist Roberto S. Verzola. Target: 640,000 (Halal doesn’t have an exact figure of how many volunteers it was able to gather.)
Kontra Daya 2007 Patterned after international poll watchers, Kontra Daya aims to expose cheating and other forms of electoral fraud based on information from a wide range of convenors. Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr.; Fr. Joe Dizon (Kairos Philippines); Bsp. Elmer M. Bolocon, UCCP Bishop. Ephraim S. Fajutagana IFI; Bishop. Deogracias S. Iñiguez (Ecumenical Bishops Forum; Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera National Artist; Fortunato Abat (ret.); Dean Pete Agabin Professor Emeritus, University of the Philippines*; Ricardo Bahague (Computer Professionals Union); Orly Castillo (Concerned Artists of the Philippines); Ana Celestial (TxtPower); Atty. Frank Chavez; RC Constantino; Rev. Reynaldo B. Cortes (Faith, Witness & Service – National Council of Churches in the Philippines); Col. Gerry Cunanan (ret.); Dean Clarita M. Curato, De Los Santos – STI*; Dr. Edelina de la Paz (Health Action for Human Rights); Dr. Sylvia dela Paz, Jossel I. Ebesate(All UP Workers Union – Manila); Amado Gat Inciong (Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties); Dr. Eleanor Jara, Bettina Legarda (Concerned Citizens); Atty. Josefina Lichauco (Bangon); Dean Giselle M. Luna, Trinity University of Asia*; Mother Mary John Mananzan, OSB; Emma Manuel (Alliance of Health Workers); Sr. Lita Navarro, ICM, Dr. Gene Nisperos; Atty. Oscar Orbos; Dr. Minguita Padilla (Sinag); Dr. Carol Pagaduan-Araullo (Bayan); Dean Consuelo Paz, University of the Philippines*; Renato Reyes Jr., (Bayan); Director Carlitos Siguion-Reyna; Atty. Louie Sison, Prof. Triccie Sison; Ateneo de Manila University*; Prof. Judy Taguiwalo (All UP Academic Employees Union); Dr. Giovanni Tapang (AGHAM); Antonio Tinio (Alliance of Concerned Teachers) Target: around 50 to 60 for the national secretariat and quick response teams composed of four to five people

“The origin of the figures is very, very important especially if your totals will already run in the millions,” explains Halal Chairman and former senator Wigberto Tañada. “When it reaches the millions and you don’t know where they’re coming from, and you’re not able to validate the source, as well as the correctness of this count at the precinct level, then the consolidated count is of no use, right?”

That sounds like a direct challenge to Namfrel. Interestingly, though, Halal, like Namfrel in 2004, wanted to use SMS to carry out its audit for this year’s polls. But it was forced to throw out that option after realizing it would be too costly.

IN TOTAL, the number of poll monitor volunteers belonging to various groups could reach more than 1.5 million. Right before the elections, V-Force’s Tolosa said his organization was already close to reaching its target of a million volunteers; Namfrel claims some 300,000 members while PPCRV says it has about 400,000.

Election watchdogs are wary of alleged cheating and violence during vote canvassing. [photo courtesy of Carmela Ledesma]

Beverly Hagerdon-Thakur, Chief of Party of the International Foundation for Election System-Philippines (IFES), says the practice of accrediting civil-society as poll watchdogs is quite unique to the country.

“That’s a little bit dangerous, I think,” she adds. “There’s a conflict of interest there when your poll-watching groups are part of the Comelec.” While she does not oppose Comelec accreditation of poll-monitoring groups, she thinks that the relationship of the commission tends to get too close at times. The line between them should be drawn more clearly, she argues.

Hagerdon-Thakur believes that poll watchdogs should remain independent and critical of the election process. “And Comelec should welcome that,” she says, “because if you’re running a great election and there isn’t an independent citizens’ group to say and validate that, then it’s sort of your word (against public perception).”

Tolosa, however, says that an accredited citizens’ arm simply means the government cannot fulfill its elections duties alone. He adds, though, that there could be a problem if the perception is that the official government agency that is monitoring the electoral process itself cannot be trusted. “And that’s why the official link with government puts you yourself under a cloud of suspicion,” he says, stressing that in this case the accredited poll watchdog’s credibility could be questioned as well.

Yet despite the increasing public criticism of Comelec, Tolosa doesn’t think this occurred in the recently concluded elections. Still, he says that nonpartisan poll watchers will be most needed in bailiwicks of the administration or the opposition, where the lack of candidates from opposing parties might lead to problems in aggregation. V-Force — whose funds come from its member organizations, donations, as well as a “democracy trust fund” set up by the influential Makati Business Club — is also focusing on densely populated areas like central and southern Luzon, and Cebu.

TOLOSA, THOUGH, believes that the most critical components of the voting process are the voters’ education efforts of PPCRV and Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan, even as he clarifies that the duties of the other groups are also very important.

V-Force itself has been trying to build accountability mechanisms in the form of Bantay-Pangako, where candidates will be asked to sign covenants with the communities that they represent. Through these, the communities will be able to monitor whether or not a candidate has fulfilled his or her campaign promises, says Tolosa.

He says that it is important to develop such mechanisms in order to help people recognize that their participation in politics should not end this May, but look forward to 2010 and beyond.

He is optimistic this could happen, noting that many V-Force volunteers are students. This, says Tolosa, who is actually university professor, disproves that notion that young people are apathetic — and gives him hope for the future.

“My experience with young people is not that they don’t want to get involved, but they want to get involved in areas where they think they can make a difference,” he says. “And they felt that getting involved in national politics will not allow them to make a difference.”

Now if only poll monitoring groups could be free of all sorts of glitches and complications.