Killing rivals easier than cheating in polls
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - February 18, 2019 - 12:00am

It may sound ridiculous but election-related violence, it seems has become the consequence of the success in the country’s having adopted the automated election system (AES). At least that has become the seeming pattern established in the past three elections held in the Philippines since the AES replaced the past manual voting and counting system that we had.

The country’s use of the AES shortened the long wait for the proclamation of winners when this was first tested during the May 2010 presidential elections. From manual count to the automated machines called as precinct count optical scanning, or PCOS for short, the winner of the presidential elections was proclaimed in a matter of few days. Thus, Liberal Party (LP) standard-bearer Sen. Benigno Simeon Aquino III was the country’s first PCOS-elected president.

For the fourth time, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has tapped anew the London-based Smartmatic for the coming mid-term elections on May 13, 2019. And long before the official campaign period for all senatorial and party list group candidates kicked off last week, the Comelec started grinding their preparations for the biggest political event this year in our country.

Comelec official spokesman James Jimenez underscored this last Wednesday during our weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay breakfast forum that we hold at Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle, Malate. Or, this was a day after all political machineries rolled out their respective national campaign vehicles. Veteran election lawyer George Garcia joined Jimenez also as guest in our news forum.

Speaking for the Comelec, Jimenez noted with satisfaction on how the seven-man poll body has been able to oversee the modernization of our country’s election system with the latest advancements in technology. Jimenez recalled how the Comelec undertook nationwide information and education through these years that enabled Filipino voters cope with the basic knowledge on the use of the modern election system. 

Our country’s maiden use of modernized election system, of course, went through the proverbial birth pains. Losing candidates challenged the credibility of the election results as allegedly tampered or manipulated. The PCOS machines got so much bad publicity and earned the monicker “hocus-PCOS” for the alleged electronic fraud.

In fact, a number of those losing candidates who claimed being victims of “hocus-PCOS” filed election protests before the Comelec. While some of the past three election protests prospered, none of these cases succeeded to prove the alleged fraudulent results due to the machines that could have warranted the Comelec to disqualify the company in the conduct of succeeding elections in the Philippines.

Thus, there was nothing to stop Smartmatic when the company decided to bid anew to undertake the computerized election again for the Comelec in May 2013 using the refurbished PCOS machines. Despite becoming the favorite whipping boy of election losers, Smartmatic won the latest public bidding conducted by the Comelec for the conduct of the coming mid-term elections on May 13, 2019.

For the coming polls, the Comelec decided to purchase over 97,517 vote counting machines (VCMs) of Smartmatic for P8.1 billion under a lease contract arrangement. In apparent bid to veer away from the pejorative “hocus-PCOS” tag, they are now referred to as VCMs as more generic term to mean the machines.

The Comelec first used the VCMs in the May 2016 presidential polls won by former Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and former Camarines Sur Rep. Leni Robredo in the vice presidential race. Except for the contested victory of Robredo still pending before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), Jimenez could not recall a specific election protest that is still pending at the Comelec law department.

Ironically, the Comelec got confirmation from Garcia who is currently serving as the election lawyer of former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in the PET case against Robredo. Citing he is under “gag” orders from the Supreme Court against talking matters pending before the PET case of his client, Garcia conceded to the credibility of the VCMs in terms of election results at the local level.

Many of these local election protest cases, Garcia pointed out, are resolved by opening the ballot boxes to determine the alleged discrepancy of the machine results from the manual audit of the ballots. From his experience of these local election protest cases – either from the “protestee” or “protestant” he represented – Garcia noted no solid evidence to indict the accuracy of the machines. “And I would like to confirm not a single election protest has substantial change in the manually counted ballots from the machines,” Garcia swore.

Jimenez could only heave a sigh of gratitude to Garcia whom he teasingly asked: “Leave the dark side, come over to our side.” Garcia was nominated to President Duterte for the Comelec chairmanship. Incidentally, it was Garcia who represented Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III in the two disqualification petitions filed at the Comelec against his re-election bid. The Comelec ruled last week in favor of Garcia’s client.

While automated elections indeed reduced the incidence of the pernicious problem of cheating, fraud, ballot snatching, and other election-related crimes, it gave rise, however, to much malevolent phenomenon. That of deadly killings and assassinations of candidates even before the campaign starts.

Both Jimenez and Garcia aired common concern on the rise of killings and assassinations of candidates as “desperate” measures resorted to now by political warlords, especially those in the countryside.

As Jimenez puts it, Comelec is not a “super” body to address each and every election problem.

Character assassinations by competing candidates are part and parcel of election campaigns. Now, it would seem killing a potential rival is much easier and cheaper than cheating in automated polls.

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