FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

For years, our poll authorities have been celebrating the “success” of our automated electoral system. Now they are trying to convince us the vendor who supplied the technology that made “successful” automated elections possible should be barred from participating in forthcoming biddings.

There is a lot of dissonance here that the Comelec must clear. The more we examine its decision to ban the sole supplier of our automated elections system, the more the decision appears rash.

Comelec’s decision to ban technology supplier Smartmatic happens only two weeks before bidding. For the 2025 elections, the poll body has a budget of P18.8 billion. That is a lot of money. It will be the largest contract in Philippine history, possibly the biggest election automation budget in all of Asia.

Large contracts, we know, have a way of distorting judgments.

The Comelec chairman has been trying to link the ban on Smartmatic with the money laundering case filed against former poll chairman Andres Bautista in the US. But Smartmatic is not named as a respondent in the case. Any suggestion that Bautista’s money laundering involved bribes from the technology supplier is at best speculative.

The technology supplier denied having anything to do with the monies the former Comelec chairman tried to squirrel away. Those funds could have been raised from a host of other shadowy transactions he was involved in.

It could even be that the money is legitimately his. The allegations have yet to be proven in a US court.

One Comelec commissioner submitted a Separate Opinion dissenting from the ban on Smartmatic’s participation in the bid. The commissioner argues that the poll body’s power to enforce election laws is not a blank check for blacklisting technology providers without legal basis. This Separate Opinion finds the ban whimsical and arbitrary.

The Comelec’s own Legal Department shares that opinion. In the view of the poll body’s lawyers, there are “no legal bases to review the eligibility of Smartmatic or prohibit it from participating in the procurement process of the Comelec.”

The chair of the poll body is a lawyer. More than any other, he should understand the maxim that a respondent is innocent until proven guilty by a competent court. The decision to ban the incumbent technology provider is entirely speculative. It makes the poll body a kangaroo court.

Smartmatic has been Comelec’s technology provider since 2010. Since then, the company secured contracts amounting to P25 billion – averaging P5 billion per election. This is overshadowed by the automation budget of P18.8 billion for the 2025 elections.

For many voters, the disappointment about the big money we have been spending on automation has less to do with the performance of the machines as it does with the quality of candidates elected to responsible positions. It seems an over-investment. So much taxpayer money spent to elect trash.

Considering that bidding happens in days, the Comelec has not been educating the public about the potential alternative technology suppliers left in the field.

Will they be offering more reliable technologies? Do they have exemplary records in other countries that have used their systems? Will the machines we procured for previous elections be entirely junked?

Beyond speculating on any possible unseemly relationship there might be between Smartmatic and Andres Bautista, Chairman Garcia might try assuring the public that the integrity of automated elections we all have gotten used to remains safe.

Today, by the way, the DOTr is set to release the service contract on which bidders will base their bids. A tight schedule of 20 days was provided the bidders. That schedule is too tight, some of the potential bidders argue.

The ADB, which is advising government on the privatization of services at the Manila International Airport, suggests the deadline be moved to the end of January. This is to provide bidders enough time to study the service contract and put together viable bids. The quality of the bids is essential to the success of this privatization program.

Rehabilitating the airport is surely an important undertaking. We do not want second-rate bidders winning control of our premiere air facility because the more solid bidders did not have enough time to do due diligence. This will be a calamity for the whole nation.

Our elections, too, are important. We do not want a bunch of also-rans cornering the bidding simply because the more competent bidders were not allowed to participate.

Whatever our opinion of Smartmatic might be, it is without question the industry leader in automated election technology. All other competitors must be measured against what the industry leader offers – both in price as well as technological adequacy.

Should the bidding be held in the absence of the industry leader and some fly-by-night enterprise manages to corner the contract, this will be a fiasco. The Comelec will have to accept responsibility when that happens.

For five election cycles, the Comelec seemed quite happy with the technology supplied by Smartmatic. There were always conspiracy theories about how the votes were counted. But the poll body never found reason to take the technology provider to task for any serious breach.

Accusations were made. But none were sustained after due investigation.

Now the usual provider has been barred from participating in the bidding simply on the suspicion that it might be party to Andres Bautista’s wealth. That is unfair.

There should be another forum for reviewing the rash decision taken by Comelec.

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