ASIAN foreign observers expressed deep regret over the failure of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to conduct peaceful, honest and orderly elections last May 14 in the six provinces of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Reporting its findings at a press conference today, the 21-member delegation of the international observer mission coordinated by the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) deployed in Muslim Mindanao said the ARMM polls had been marred by widespread violence, blatant vote-buying and election irregularities.
ANFREL said all the mission members from Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Thailand were witnesses to the “rampant disrespect of suffrage rights of the voters” in the region, pointing to several instances of cheating and unethical practices of candidates and election officers that, it said, were conducive environments for fraud.
The presence of the international election monitors, ANFREL noted, did not even deter vote buying, threats and intimidation of voters by the candidates’ supporters.
Amin Shah Bin Iskandar, coordinator of the National Institute for Electoral Integrity (NIEI) in Malaysia, said that some voters received P100 allegedly from Tawi-Tawi gubernatorial bet Hadji Sadikul Sahali. Aside from P100 cash, bribes, he said, came in various forms like free gasoline.
Iskandar also narrated his experience in a Tawi-Tawi precinct where he saw one poll watcher dictating the names of candidates to a voter who dutifully wrote them down on his ballot.
ANFREL delegates also observed how some members of the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) were involved in irregularities as they did not follow the proper procedures in the distribution of ballots, and in the casting and canvassing of votes.
â€œDuring the canvassing of 195 precincts in a gymnasium, as the BEI chairman read the local candidate’s names on the ballots, the other two members were already tallying the results of the national elections (senatorial level),” narrated Steven Rood, country representative of The Asia Foundation, assigned to Sultan Kudarat.
“The tally sheets were spread on the floor and there can never be enough room to do the counting (of votes). But at least we saw three precincts doing it the right way.”
In Maguindanao, some BEI members were seen filling up the ballots for the voters and mass-thumb printing them.
Peace-keeping measures around the polling precincts in some major provinces of the ARMM proved ineffective, claimed Malaysian Mohamad Yunus Lebai Ali, NIEI director, deployed to the province of Shariff Kabungsuan.
â€œ(When) I was in Shariff Kabungsuan, I encountered two armed groups in a heated situation and that made me feel physically unsafe (in the precincts). My colleague Somsri even experienced two bombings only a few meters away (from her)â€ said Ali, referring to companion Somsri Hananuntasuk of Thailand, ANFREL director, who was also in Maguindanao last Monday.
Despite the low quality of elections in ARMM, ANFREL expressed hope of seeing significant reforms in the election process, and the legal and political environment to ensure free and fair elections in the future. Educating the electorate, it said, can destroy the clannish governments in ARMM and eradicate fraudulent practices.
Iskandar suggested that NGOs be involved to create programs that will inform the voting population of the basics of the electoral system. He added that if the trend of political dynasties in the Philippines is allowed to continue, “violence will reign in the region, massive fraud will remain to wallow, and politics will eventually lose its credibility.
â€œIn the future, no one will believe the elections anymore,â€ the Malaysian delegate warned.
ANFREL explained that a review and a more careful study of the system can be used to magnify the ill trends of politics in Mindanao, especially those utilizing arms in order to intimidate the public. This, ANFREL said, must be stopped.
The group also said that the Comelec must strictly enforce election laws and that it prioritize transparency to erase any influence on its operations. Secrecy must also be practiced to ensure a free and effective election, it added.
Glenys Banal, a journalism student at the Kalayaan College, is currently doing her internship with the PCIJ.