Surveil -- By Amina Rasul

ARMM civil society and elections

Posted on June 03, 2011

Observers probably wonder why a great number of Muslim civil society organizations, including those that have been advocating democracy and electoral reforms, have supported the proposal to postpone the 2011 regional elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The simple answer is that most people in ARMM do not have confidence in the electoral process. This cynicism persisted even after the "successful" conduct of automated elections first in 2008 then in 2010.

Allow me to give a brief background. During the 2008 regional elections, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) set up two kinds of automated election system (AES) technology to ascertain possible election outcome.

The Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) technology was deployed in half of the province of Maguindanao, while the Optical Mark Reader (OMR) was installed in the other half of Maguindanao (at that time known as Shariff Kabunsuan Province before the Supreme Court nullified its creation), Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, and Marawi City.

Given that the 2008 ARMM elections were considered a pilot test, it is important to revisit the lessons and recommendations contained in the report of the Comelec Advisory Council (CAC) to the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee on AES in October 2008.

The report noted that the use of DRE technology made the voting process easy and the counting fast. However, many voters and members of the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) were unfamiliar with the system, for there was hardly any opportunity to test the DRE before the elections.

Findings on the OMR included cases of votes shaded in the OMR ballot were tampered, unscrupulous erasures, advanced (or pre-election) shading of the ballots.

The CAC report also noted, "the lack of time for preparation, training and education on the use of the technologies hindered the full utilization of automation, otherwise the recent ARMM polls could have been [very successful]."

The report concluded by arguing that, "the problem of corruption cannot be solved by technology alone but by the individual and collective conversion of voters, politicians and election stakeholders (underscoring supplied)."

Despite these problems, ARMM voters preferred having their elections automated.

A post-election survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) revealed that majority of 900 voters surveyed from ARMM thought that the automated regional elections were successful. More than 80% of respondents said that the election process was either "definitely" improved or "probably" improved.

However, only 19% thought that the automated system would make electoral cheating impossible. Thus, even though voters welcomed a faster way of counting the election results, they understood that faster does not necessarily translate to cleaner elections.

This same pessimism pervaded the application of the AES during the 2010 national polls. Many civil society organizations questioned the capacity of the Comelec and its partner, Smartmatic-TIM, Inc., to ensure the credibility of election, given the limited preparation time and the publicís apprehension about the AES. These conditions, CSOs believed, might lead to disenfranchisement of a huge number of voters, especially when there was inadequate period to educate voters about the new system. (Then vice-presidential candidate Mar Roxas believed hundreds of thousands of his voters were disenfranchised)

Did automation make the casting, counting, and canvassing of votes more efficient? Yes. More importantly, did the new system resolve the perennial problems of ARMM elections like vote buying, election related violence, harassment of voters? Sadly, no. The best thing we can say is that the counting of ballots, fraudulent or not, was fast.

We at the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy did a survey of provincial reports covering the ARMM, culled from media reports as well as incident reports prepared by election watchdogs like the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), the Legal Network for Free Elections (LENTE), the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), and the Citizens Coalition for Electoral Reforms (C-CARE).

To begin, the SWS had conducted a survey in February 2008 on "Muslim Mindanao Attitudes towards Democracy and Elections."

A total 1,300 Muslim respondents were surveyed from the ARMM and from non-ARMM areas of North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte Isabela City (in Basilan), Zamboanga City, and Cotabato City.

The findings showed that respondents observed a "clean and orderly [election] in their precinct." However, they acknowledged that electoral violence had become a

"way of life" in their province. Following the path of least resistance, they would rather have unopposed candidates to reduce the level of violence. This attitude prevails to this date.

Not surprisingly, all of ARMM’s 118 towns were declared hot spots last election.

However, reports from the Philippine National Police showed that the 2010 elections were relatively peaceful, as the number of incidents and casualties had significantly declined. Only 180 violent incidents and 155 deaths were recorded, lower than in 2004 and 2007.

Apart from reports of violent incidents in several towns, voting in ARMM was marked by reports of computer glitches, fraud, widespread and open vote buying, harassment of voters.

These issues were compounded by reports that some 43,000 voters registered at least twice for the May 2010 elections.

Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento said that the double and multiple registrants "could not have done this mistakenly...they really intended to cast their vote more than once during Election Day."

Further, election watchdogs worried about the abnormal increase of ARMM’s voting population. According to Namfrel figures: Lanao del Surís registered voters grew by 16% to 459,012 in 2009 from only 396,722 in 2007; Sulu by 12% to 280,257 from 250,571; Tawi-Tawi by 11% to 156,027 from 140,232; and Basilan by 8% to 195,845 from 181,445. Maguindanao recorded the biggest increase at 78% -- from 336,774 to 601,057.

How did the voting population increase when there had been a steady exodus of adults from ARMM to seek a better life outside their region?

Unfortunately, the voters’ lists have not been cleaned.

Let me share a few more examples of the many problems we noted in our survey:

  • There were accounts involving 37 municipalities that had problems receiving data from precincts. Such problem delayed the proclamation of winning congressional candidates by at least 48 hours.

  • In Mangal, Sumisip, Basilan, a private army group forcibly took election materials and official ballots. One PCOS machine was reported destroyed in Barira, Maguindanao.

  • Vote buying was rampant. The international watchdog Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), which deployed at least 39 foreign watchers to 500 clustered precincts nationwide, observed blatant vote buying.

  • A Bantay Halalan (Election Watch) priest coordinator in Maguindanao said that the night before elections would generally be calm because moneyed candidates would engage in massive vote buying, from P300 and higher.

  • "Flying voters" (i.e., those who vote more than once in different places) were reported everywhere, some even caught in action by TV news reports.

  • Pre-shaded ballots were also discovered in Datu Blas Sinsuat.

  • According to GMA 7, poll watchers noted the involvement of many Board of Elections Inspectors (BEIs) in illegal voting.

Despite many reports of violence, intimidation and fraud, the military still declared the May 10 elections as "generally orderly." The elections may have been peaceful and orderly; but were these honest?

Given the results of the 2010 elections, ARMM civil society groups have little faith that the ARMM elections will reflect the will of the people. Can Comelec assure ARMM residents that the conditions have changed? Most of the ARMM civil society groups have serious doubt, which is why they support the postponement of the ARMM elections. Their battle cry: "Reform ARMM Now!" Reform should start, whether ARMM elections are postponed or not. Should elections take place, the Aquino administration must focus attention to ensure that the ARMM elections will be free and fair.

Now that would be reform indeed!