Elections in Maguindanao: Few voters at the precincts but very high voter turnout

Image“This is the completion of the phase of voting. When you have this already, that means you are a qualified citizen of the country,” he laughed as he joined his nephew, ARMM Governor Datu Zaldy Ampatuan, who waited for him outside the door.

There was no ballot secrecy folder where Datumanong voted at around 9 a.m. But he and the other voters, including his wife, did not seem to mind.

In three other schools along the highway of Ampatuan town near the boundary of Sultan Kudarat province, there were no secrecy folders to speak of, too. And before 9 a.m., voter turnout was negligible.

At the Kamasi Elementary School, of  987 registered voters in five precincts there, only 14 had voted (1.4%). At the Kauran Elementary School, of 1,981 voters, only 54 had cast their vote (2.7%). There were also a few voters in the Datu Zacaria Sangki Elementary School.

Two days later, Maguindanao election supervisor Lintang Bedol told MindaNews voter turnout in all 22 towns was at least 90%.  According to the documents Bedol showed, Ampatuan town posted 93.8% as 9,958 of 10,613 registered voters allegedly voted.

Datu Unsay town posted the highest although statistically improbable, voter turnout of 99.78%. Of 10,172 registered voters, only 22 did not show up to vote.

Members of the Board of Election Inspectors in the schools MindaNews visited said there were few voters now than in the past because “wala kasing kalaban ang mga kandidato” (candidates have no opponents).

In 20 towns, candidates for mayor, vice mayor and the towns’ eight councilors each — a total of 200 — had no opponents. Only those in Pagalungan and Talitay towns had, ARMM Gov. Ampatuan said. But even the rivals, he said, are also pro-administration.

The provincial slate for governor, vice governor and 10 board members, also ran unopposed.

Ampatuan acknowledged this was a crucial election for the ARMM as this was the first national election after the controversial “Hello Garci” expose on cheating in the 2004 Presidential polls mentioned all five ARMM provinces then – Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi, and Sultan Kudarat.

“What is important is we can rectify the negative impression that here in the ARMM, there is cheating,” he told MindaNews while waiting for his uncle, Datumanong, to finish voting.

Bedol, Maguindanao’s election supervisor, figured in the controversial wiretapped conversations as the subject of seven calls between then Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano and unidentified male and female callers, one with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, one with Senator Robert Barbers and two with Bedol himself.

In most of these conversations, Bedol was mentioned as “tao natin” (our man) and the man who would  “gagawa ng paraan” (find a way), referring to the number of votes involving presidential candidate Arroyo and senatorial bet Barbers.

Bedol was pulled out of Maguindanao two days before the May 10 polls and transferred to Sultan Kudarat province as election supervisor and later as the third chair of the board of canvassers in the equally controversial Cotabato City polls. These were the two areas where he was expected to “gagawa ng paraan.”

“I do not know what is in the mind of the person at the other end of the phone pero certainly the Commission en banc is a witness itself, the national board of canvassers is a witness by itself and should I have done something erroneous, then my certificate of canvass submitted to the national board of canvassers and later to the electoral tribunal, is not going to be approved….. Kung merong mali tayong ginawa doon or anomalous doon, eh certainly it will be detected and it will not pass the national board of canvassers,” he told MindaNews in early July 2005.

Maguindanao, in fact, was mentioned in the “Hello Garci” conversations not for the number of votes that were to be added, but more to ensure, as Pres. Arroyo told Garcillano, that “consistent yung mga documents sa Maguindanao” (the documents in Maguindanao are consistent).

Ms Arroyo won overwhelmingly over Fernando Poe, Jr. in Maguindanao, at a ratio of 3 to 1 (199,431 against Poe’s 63,313), prompting critics to say Datu Zaldy Ampatuan, then mayor of Shariff Aguak town, was chosen by Malacanang as ARMM gubernatorial bet in 2005 because it was “payback time.”

Ampatuan the candidate told MindaNews in a July 2005 interview, “I think that’s not the final reason why the President chose us. I went through the process. There was a search committee headed by (then Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-) Deles and Lakas-CMD party. We are very fortunate that we were leading in the interviews and the final selection of the search committee. We had 10 out of 10 members nung magkaroon ng botohan.”

Malacanang sources told MindaNews then that the President’s personal choice was actually businessman Datu Ibrahim Paglas,  former mayor of Datu Paglas town. Paglas was on a fellowship in Washington D.C. when summoned to return home briefly, if only to file his certificate of candidacy for ARMM governor.  In fact, the deadline for filing of certificates of candidacy was extended, the sources said, precisely to accommodate Paglas.

The promises made to Paglas, however, were never fulfilled. By early June, before the campaign period for the ARMM polls could begin, “Hello Garci” broke out.

Ampatuan won the ARMM gubernatorial race of 2005 with 594,091 votes. Paglas came in a poor third with 110,256.

His uncle, Datumanong, says he considers the 2007 election “a very important election for the ARMM” because ARMM “has been a great recipient of the blessings of the administration in terms of peace through the peace process and other ways of maintaining the peace and order and of economic development in the area which improved the livelihood of the people.”

Image“This is a very big factor that the people look on to for the purpose of selecting their candidates for the Senate and that is why it will not be surprising if in many of the LGUs (local government units) of the ARMM you will have a massive support for the administration candidates because the people here feel that the president is one leader of the country who has given so much for the people of the autonomous region,” he told MindaNews.

As chair of the House Justice Committee, Datumanong was criticized for refusing to yield despite calls that he inhibit himself from presiding over the impeachment proceedings on the grounds of his alleged bias for President Arroyo.

"The chair would like to state that first, he’s not inhibiting himself, and second, that this is a political position which has been directed to me by the House in the plenary," he said on August 16, 2005.

Ms Arroyo named Datumanong Public Works and Highways Secretary in January 2001 before appointing him Justice Secretary two years later.

Datumanong, like the provincial slate this year, also ran unopposed for the lone congressional seat of the “reduced” Maguindanao. (The first congressional district was carved out to become what is now Shariff Kabunsuan province).

He resigned as Justice Secretary in December 2003 to run for the second congressional district of Maguindanao in the May 10, 2004 polls, a post he occupied before he was named to the Cabinet.

Datumanong was proclaimed winner five days after election day in 2004 but Midpantao Adil, lawyer of the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino in Maguindanao, said they would protest Datumanong’s proclamation, claiming the election returns in the second district were prepared a day before the May 10 polls.

Datumanong, who got 116,914 votes against Mastur Salendab’s 9,972 votes, dismissed Adil’s allegations.

Three years later, the Genuine Opposition and watchdog groups urged the Commission on Elections to declare a failure of elections in Maguindanao, claiming massive fraud, including ERs allegedly filled out a day earlier.

Comelec chair Benjamin Abalos on June 6 announced the Comelec had declared a failure of elections in the 22 Maguindanao towns following the failure of Bedol to produce documents that would support the results of the provincial canvassing.

The Comelec, he added, will also summon on Monday, June 11, the proclaimed winners in Maguindanao,  to bring with them documents supporting their proclamation. [Tomorrow: The 12-0 sweep]