The provinces of Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)–Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur, Shariff Kabunsuan and Maguindanao—figured in the “Hello Garci” tapes, the conversations between a woman who many believe to be President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and a man identified by many as former commissioner of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), Virgilio “Garci” Garcillano.
In the 2004 elections, the opposition claimed that in ARMM, Arroyo’s votes were padded by 76,455 and her main contender Fernando Poe Jr.’s votes shaved by 41,313. In the final Congress tally, Arroyo won over Poe in ARMM, 549,944 to 272,715. But in the June 30, 2004 report of National Movement of Citizens for Free Elections (Namfrel), which had tabulated election returns (ERs) from 82.89 percent of precincts nationwide, Poe was leading Arroyo. Namfrel is a poll watchdog accredited by Comelec to do the quick count.
Three years later, many controversies continue to hound elections in Maguindanao, Sulu, Basilan and Lanao del Sur. Indeed, myriad forms of cheating were monitored by media and election watchdog groups.
During the first two weeks of the counting, the Genuine Opposition (GO) gained the upper hand over the administration Team Unity, with an 8-2-2 outcome (8 from GO, 2 from TU, 2 independents) both in the official count of Comelec and in the parallel count of Namfrel, its citizens’ arm. Periodically though, TU candidate Miguel Zubiri has landed in the 11th or 12th slot.
The votes from ARMM are again proving to be crucial for TU candidates desperate to make it to the magic 12. It is widely perceived that “special operations” by cheating experts in Mindanao and other regions are ongoing to dislodge GO candidates Antonio Trillanes and Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel from the winning circle. It is also seen by many quarters that the Arroyo administration has targetted another GO candidate, Allan Peter Cayetano, for defeat by utilizing a namesake nuisance candidate and various other forms of harassment and sabotage. However, the Arroyo administration has so far failed to dislodge Cayetano from the top ten winning candidates.
Lanao del Sur
The Kontra Daya sent a 17-member Observer Mission to Lanao del Sur to monitor the special elections held on May 26. Lanao has 39 municipalities and one city. Failure of elections was declared in 13 municipalities last May 14 thus the reason for special polls.
The special elections held recently in this province amounted to a farcical exercise and was thus rendered extremely vulnerable to vote manipulation. Chaos was the order of the day. Kontra Daya witnessed first hand numerous violations of the new Election Code. Evidence of the Comelec’s gross inefficiency, incapacity and, worse, complicity in the cheating, were too rampant to ignore.
At the Magandia Amaloy Elementary School in Masiu town, for example, the KD Mission witnessed the following violations:
- There were no lists of voters posted at the polling precincts;
- There were no secrecy folders and lists of candidates inside the polling precincts;
- Poll watchers of candidates were inside the polling precincts and were seen dictating to the voters on who to vote for;
- Voters who had already voted were not marked with indelible ink by the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs). When we asked one voter, he replied, matter-of-factly, “para makaboto uli.” (..(Its) so that I can vote again)
It was worse at the Pangandaman Central Elementary School in the same town. In all of the six precincts, poll watchers of local candidates and soldiers doing guard duty took turns in filling out the ballots of every voter. Voters did not complain or resist because they said this is the “norm” during elections.
The counting of votes was not done inside the polling precincts. The BEIs said that doing so would be too dangerous for them. After the casting of ballots, the ballot boxes were instead brought to Marawi City for counting. Since 1995, this has reportedly been the practice.
Members of accredited poll watchdog groups were barred from entering the counting areas, specifically at the People’s Park and at the Marawi National High School. The soldiers guarding these counting areas said the counting had not started or that they were not given instructions by the Comelec provincial officer to allow observers to enter.
A national broadsheet reported the “meteoric rise” in the number of registered voters in Lanao del Sur between 2004 and 2007. For the past three years, the voting population increased by 121,150 voters or 43.9 percent.
Many voters did not vote for national positions, i.e. senators and party-lists; at the same time, election officers appeared not to bother tallying votes for said positions. At the Amai Pak Pak Central Elementary School in Marawi City, for instance, the BEIs did not announce the votes for senatorial candidates and party list groups; hence, there were no tallies for these. In the same precinct, the tally sheets for the national positions were nonchalantly being used as table cloth while poll watchers sat on them. The same disregard for the votes of senators and partylists was happening at precincts 15-A, Barangay Diromoyod, and 009-A, Barangay Cabuntongan. When a member of the Mission asked for an explanation, one of the BEIs said they were ordered not to count the votes.
Alienation from the Manila government and national politics in general seems to be one reason behind this apparent indifference to the elections for senators and party lists. Another plausible explanation is the Comelec’s utter lack of a sustained education campaign on their significance and importance. In light of this situation coupled with instructions amounting to coercion given the BEI members, it becomes quite easy for the cheaters to fill out the tally sheets, the election returns (ERs) and Certificated of Canvass (COCs) themselves.
ABS-CBN senior correspondent Ricky Carandang and DZMM reporter Noel Alamar were able to uncover the questionable, if not illegal, transfer of ERs from the provincial capitol to a hotel in Iligan City where Comelec officials were billeted. Comelec Commisioner, Rene Sarmiento, eventually acknowledged the transfer (after initially denying this fact to the two reporters) by saying that he ordered the transfer based on a recommendation of the SAG.
When subsequently interviewed, Sarmiento said there was nothing irregular about the incident. After their expose’, Carandang and Alamar have been receiving death threats. We can only suspect that operators of the ongoing massive fraud are the ones behind this kind of harassment.
The rottenness of the electoral process is exemplified in the Lanao del Sur elections. The Comelec failed in overseeing fair and free and honest elections, especially in Lanao del Sur, where the poll body was an abject failure. The heated and often violent conflicts among local rival politicians simply provide the fertile ground for crooked election officers, acting as a criminal syndicate, to engage in wanton election fraud.
The extreme poverty of the Maranaos is also being exploited by the cheaters. Lanao del Sur is among the top 20 poorest provinces. Nine of its municipalities (Marogong, Piagapo, Tuburan, Sultan Dumalondong, Calanogas, Binidayan, Kapatagan, Bumbaran, Pagayawan) were included in the country’s 40 poorest municipalities in the year 2000.
Maranaos are commonly known as the Muslim tribe that derived its livelihood from trading activities or what is called “buy-and-sell”. In the rural areas, the Maranaos trade their local products such as palay (rice grains), corn, coconut, tobacco and coffee. In urban centers, they vend a wide array of products such as low-budget apparel, costume jewelry, movies in VCDs and DVDs, etc.
Maguindanao has also been at the center of controversy. The pro-Arroyo governor, Andal Ampatuan, boasted of a TU sweep in his province a few weeks before the elections. Subsequently, all twelve TU senatorial candidates reportedly won while the GO candidates obtained an almost zero vote in the entire province. This is not only politically implausible; it is statistically improbable, if not impossible but apparently the elections cheats did not bother coming up with more credible, albeit manipulated, results.
The opposition and almost all election watchdogs have called on the Comelec to disregard or set aside the COCs from Maguindanao because of the patent and wholesale fraud that marked the entire election process. Their charge: no real elections took place in Maguindanao.
For example, more than 100 election inspectors were forcibly taken and detained, for three nights and two days, and made to manufacture votes for a local mayoralty candidate and the administration senatorial bets. This was according to four election inspectors presented by the opposition as witnesses to poll fraud in the province.
In an affidavit, a BEI member said that the authorized elections officer had yet to collect the election returns and the 38 ballot boxes from Pagalungan, Maguindanao. The 190 uncanvassed ERs contained all the votes in eight of 12 barangays in the said municipality. How can the provincial canvass be over, and a 12-0 sweep declared, when there remained untabulated election returns in this town?
If the administration would insist on canvassing the votes from Maguindanao, such blatant cheating will haunt the Arroyo regime in the same way as the “Hello Garci” scandal has marred Arroyo’s legitimacy as president. The 12-0 victory is just too unacceptable for the Filipino people who utilized their votes to protest against the anti-people and repressive Arroyo administration.
In Sulu, a public school teacher testified before the Comelec that she saw her fellow school teachers and a barangay chair fill out ballots in their town in the early hours of election day.
In a press conference, GO lawyer Diego Palomares Jr. said that no elections ever took place in the second district of Sulu. The latter has 10 municipalities with around 100,000 votes.
Lente lawyer Raissa Jajurie, in an account published in an online publication, said she saw the BEIs writing on the ballots which had already been thumbmarked.
At the national canvassing, TU allegedly won in Sulu with 10-2 outcome against the Genuine Opposition (GO).
Meanwhile, in Basilan, congressional candidate Jim Hataman-Saliman had sought the declaration of failure of elections in “certain barangays” in at least six towns of Basilan province.
The canvassing of votes in the remaining town of Basilan was suspended after Saliman filed the petition. The Comelec has yet to hear Saliman’s petition.
In areas where these election irregularities have been recorded, Comelec men closely identified with the notorious former Comelec Commissioner Garcillano, have retained their positions, or worse, have been promoted..
Among them are Jubiel Surmieda and Renault Macarambon, members of the Comelec’s Special Action Group (SAG) tasked to oversee the conduct of special polls in ARMM. Another is Jose Tolentino Jr., head of the SAG, who was implicated in the MegaPacific scam but was not charged. (The scam involves a multi-billion contract to automate the 2004 elections.)
More to the point, election officials repeatedly mentioned in the “Hello Garci” tapes such as Lintang Bedol and Rey Sumalipao, are still very much around, supervising the conduct of the polls in ARMM.
Sumalipao is the former Lanao del Sur provincial election officer who confirmed in 2004 that the wiretapped conversation between him and Garcillano was true. He has been promoted as the regional director for ARMM. No less than Comelec executive director Jose Pio Joson said in a news report, that he wants Sumalipao to be axed ‘to end poll fraud noise.’ Joson was quoted as saying, “Since 1995 he [Sumalipao] has always been involved in alleged fraud. The Commission should not be complacent about it.”
In 2004, Bedol was assigned to Sultan Kudarat shortly before the 2004 elections. He also sat as chairman of the Cotabato City board of canvassers. In these two areas, the count turned out to be problematic. Today, Bedol is the chairman of Maguindanao provincial board of canvassers.
Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos has refused to dismantle the cheating machinery in ARMM by pulling out these implicated election officials and having them investigated. Calls for such decisive action alongside other major electoral reforms before the May 14 elections have consistently fallen on deaf ears – both at the Comelec and in Malacanang.
The same cast of characters that marred the 2004 elections in the ARMM were activated for the 2007 mid-term elections. The Comelec has been exposed as the main instrument of the Arroyo administration for the massive fraud that took place, and is thus most immediately liable.
The cheaters and their patrons have been taking advantage of the prevailing socio-economic, political and cultural conditions of the Bangsamoro people to advance their vested interests. Extreme poverty is a condition that has been fully exploited by the poll cheaters who believe that anyone in dire need can be bribed.
The ARMM is one of the poorest regions in the entire country. Its per capita gross regional domestic product is only P3,433 or a staggering 75.8 percent lower than the national average. Poverty incidence in the region is a high 45.4 percent in 2003, almost twice the national average of 24.4 percent.
Based on 2003 Functional Literacy, Education and Mass Media Survey (FLEMMS), ARMM has the lowest literacy rate with seven out of 10 persons aged 10 to 64 years considered as basically literate. It also has the lowest functional literacy rate with 62.9 percent.
The Bangsamoro have traditional practices for selecting leaders which involve ijima (consensus) and shura (consultation). Elections have led to the disintegration and corruption of these traditional practices to varying degrees. Moreover, mayors have now generally become more influential than the sultans thus underscoring the fierce rivalry for such local elective positions.
The Maranaos have a traditional practice called ‘kanduri’ or thanksgiving, in which gifts are shared with extended family on special occasions like birth and others. Kanduri has been exploited by politicians; it is used as a guise for bribing voters and provides cultural acceptability for such illegal and corrupt practices.
While the wealthy and powerful spend hundreds of millions of pesos on their electoral campaigns, buying out rival candidates, rigging votes and engaging in various other forms of electoral manipulation, the Bangsamoro people suffer a deprivation of essential social services, maldevelopment and extreme poverty.
Although elections seem to have become an opportunity for the poor and desperate to earn a few pesos, it is undoubtedly the grand cheaters in power who bag the biggest loot.
As in the 2004 presidential elections, the Arroyo government has cynically and deliberately exploited the impoverished and anarchic situation in Mindanao to achieve its narrow partisan objectives. It has belabored an incredible 12-0 sweep by Team Unity in selected provinces, as part of a clumsy attempt to shoehorn its trailing candidates into the 11th and 12th slots in the national count. Ultimately, the Arroyo administration must bear the onus of failing miserably in fostering conditions for fair, credible, and free elections in Muslim Mindanao. ##