"People massed up here because last Sunday night, a group of Maranaos came here to transfer the ballot boxes to the provincial canvassing center at the MCC. Why would they get it when the Comelec was there for only half a day? Who will receive these ballot boxes at night time? This move is a threat to the voice of the people," said Ramon Cardenas, one of the campaign staffers of Vicente “Varf” Belmonte, who is leading in the congressional race in the first district against incumbent governor Imelda Dimaporo and Nikki Badelles, daughter of three-term Rep. Mariano Badelles.
Dimaporo’s husband, Abdullah has been proclaimed as reelected representative of the second district while son Khalid has been proclaimed the new governor. Abdullah also earlier served as governor.
Human rights groups and members of non-governmental organizations also came to the City Hall here to "protect the sanctity of the ballot and to document whatever will transpire here."
In a statement, the Iligan Movement for True Democracy, Belmonte’s support group, alleged that on May 19, “poll watchers from the opposition were disallowed to enter the provincial legislative building where provincial canvassing is done."
"The following morning, our lawyers found out that three ballot boxes from the towns of Bacolod, Maigo and Kauswagan were forcibly opened," the group related.
"Are we just going to accept how they malign the sanctity of peoples' votes? Must we condone always that the result of election in our district be dramatized? Must we condone these threats from armed group and those who'd like to stay in power even if the people have not voted them?" the statement read.
"If those ballot boxes in Lanao were forcibly opened at night, then it can also be done to these ballot boxes of Iligan city if brought there,” the group said.
Reelectionist Iligan City mayor Lawrence Cruz and the 10 elected councilors have been proclaimed by the Commission on Elections. Only Belmonte has not been proclaimed winner although he was also leading in the Comelec count.
The first congressional district comprises the city of Iligan, and the seven towns of Lanao del Norte’s Linamon, Kauswagan, Bacolod, Maigo, Kolambugan, Tubod and Baroy.
According to the final, unofficial count of Namfrel as of 5 pm May 19, Belmonte got 58,962 votes against Team Unity-backed candidates Angelique Dawn Badelles (45,670) and Imelda Dimaporo (42,956).
The Belmonte camp vowed not to allow the Iligan City votes moved to the MCC, claiming the certificates of canvass would suffice.
Supporters of Belmonte took out their rosaries and recited prayers. They sang "Our father" and "Maayong Iliganon." They also sang Yeng Constantino's song "Hawak Kamay".
"We are not here to quarrel. We only wanted to show that we cannot be bought and we want to stand behind Varf Belmonte who will win this election," said barangay coucilor Milagros Lluisma.
"This struggle is not for us. It is for the future of our children. True, we are from the opposition, but we have not cheated," Lluisma further said.
Supporters of Belmonte wore green, yellow and orange stickers on their sleeves and t-shirts for easy identification. Others wore red armbands.
A number of women brought white rosaries with them while others held the 6×3-feet taurpulins of Belmonte. Another group even cooked food in front of the city hall.
"We have here a shaky political condition. The fears of the people are valid. We just hope the armed forces will not be used and potential violence will be put down," said Adona Orquillas, executive director of Ranao Disaster Response and Rehabilitation Action Center.
"Opening boxes by force at night time is a clear human right violation and it tampers the sacredness of people's votes," she added.
"This election-related conflict has no religious dimension. But we know that in time of crisis, people pray," she said.
Members of the Lanao and Human Rights Advocates and staff from Namfrel were also around to document.
A party-list group also displayed placards that read: "protect the votes of the people."
Poll watchers of Governor Dimaporo, most of them male, sat at the left side of City Hall. Others took a nap under the shade of trees.
"We are relaxed," said Engineer Cassan Darapa, who heads the support group of Dimaporo.
"What they are doing there is just an exercise of their rights. We are just watching and hoping that nothing will happen," Darapa added.
"Whatever is the decision of the Comelec, we will just follow," he said.
Special operating units of city police set up checkpoints along the winding road to the hilltop City Hall. (Violeta M. Gloria/MindaNews)