Elections in Maguindanao: Getting zero ?through force? or ?through love?

Election irregularities such as pre-filled ballots or election returns,  no actual voting, the opponent getting zero – are not a secret in the province. Suggestions offered by the candidates were, in fact, based on the anticipated form of cheating the rival politicians would employ.

Liberal Party gubernatorial bet Datu Ibrahim “Toto” Paglas  and reelectionist assemblyman Tommy Ala suggested that ballot boxes in Maguindanao be distributed morning of election day itself to prevent pre-filled balloting.

Guimid Matalam, Partido ng Masang Pilipino gubernatorial bet, warned the opposition would not participate if the election paraphernalia were distributed days before the August 8 election.

Matalam, a veteran politician, noted that ballots would be filled by candidates in “controlled municipalities” if the election paraphernalia were distributed days earlier. He said this is the reason why candidates, including the late presidential bet Fernando Poe, Jr., a favorite movie actor among the Moro, got zero a year earlier.

Comelec chair Benjamin Abalos, however, replied that there are two ways of controlling – “one, through force; two, through love.”  He said as a former politician who had control over some votes “through love,” his loyal followers could give his opponent zero “and that’s in Metro Manila.”

Two years later, Abalos no longer invoked his “love” and “force” explanation on why opponents could get zero.

Faced with reports that 19 senatorial candidates, including several Genuine Opposition candidates got zero in 22 municipalities in the May 14, 2007 polls, Abalos said, they set aside the certificates of canvass (COC) from Maguindanao because Maguindanao election supervisor Lintang Bedol, chair of the Provincial Board of Canvassers, hilself said “that when the canvass was conducted, nobody was present…. that is why none of the COC of the statement of votes or other paraphernalia was given to any party, and further reflection on the COC where there were 19 candidates who got zero in 22 municipalities. This for us is statistically improbable.”

Even before the 2005 “Hello Garci” tapes on the 2004 Presidential elections, the ARMM provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur and the Islamic City of Marawi, had been perceived as venues for electoral fraud.  

Abalos said during the covenant-signing in 2005 that blame for electoral fraud in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao does not lie with the Comelec. “Ever since history,” he said, “Mindanao has always been problematic. It only became the center of attention now because of Gloriagate.”

“Where did the birds and the bees come from? Here in Mindanao. But why are we the only ones who are deemed evil?,” he asked.

The “birds and the bees” became a famous phrase in 1949 when Elpidio Quirino ran for president. His opponents and critics claimed  Quirino won because even the birds and the bees and the dead voted in Lanao.

Then dreaded by many, the Moro areas were used by politicians in Manila as a virtual “reservoir of votes” especially since the road and telecommunications systems were very poor. Those who eyed national seats but were losing in other areas could win in places like Lanao or faraway Tawi-Tawi, where no one would dare investigate “ghost towns” and where election results, because of the distance, came in trickles.

Because firearms were plenty in the area, a politician unsure of winning could resort to harassment so that Comelec would declare a failure of election and hold special polls.

When Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in 1986, among the first things that the Aquino administration sought to do was to clean up the voters’ list and purge “ghost towns.”

Datu Michael Mastura, historian and former Maguindanao representative to Congress, recalls there was a purging of the “ghost villages” and the voters’ list, but only to a limited extent.

An Aquino partymate told this reporter that the purging was “done on a selective basis.”

A plebiscite on the new Constitution in February 1987 was coming, and so was the first post-Marcos congressional election of May 1987. Fears of a return to power of the Marcos loyalists led to the “selective” purging.

“Those who cooperated with the administration were preserved. But all were done without the knowledge of Cory (Aquino),” he said.

The latest effort to purge the list of multiple voters or “flying voters” was in 2003 when registration was computerized and required photographs.

Three weeks before the August 8, 2005 ARMM polls, he said at least 100,000 multiple registrants in the ARMM had been discovered but still have to be excluded from the voters’ list. Ten thousand of them were charged, he said.

Bedol told MindaNews then that 30,000 of the multiple registrants were from Maguindanao and a thousand of them were “under investigation” but they could still vote because “they have not been convicted.”

How many thousands more of multiple registrants were added to the ARMM between 2003 and 2007? How many more in Maguindanao which has been divided into two provinces (the other is Shariff Kabunsuan) and where even government agencies can hardly cope with the fast creation of  new municipalities (Maguindanao and Shariff Kabunsuan have a total of 33 towns – 22 for the former and 11 for the latter).

On the eve of the elections, poll watchdogs in Lanao del Sur asked why the number of registered voters in Lanao del Sur rose from 275,572 in 2004 to 396,913 or an increase of 121,341 which is “statistically improbable. 

“We are beginning to think that there will always be cheating every time elections are held in Lanao del Sur,” Salic Ibrahim of the Maranao People Development Center told MindaNews in Lanao.

Asked about this problem, ARMM Governor Datu Zaldy Ampatuan told MindaNews on election day this year: “actually we have the Comelec to do the proper work and we will give them our trust and confidence to be able to resolve that issue.”

The commission of electoral fraud in Maguindanao or all of the ARMM, may not lie with the Comelec as Abalos maintains but it cannot escape blame.

Commissioner Resurreccion Borra challenged politicians during the covenant-signing in July 2005 to “stop tempting (and corrupting) the Comelec officials in the field.”

“The vicious cycle of poverty in the ARMM will remain,” Borra said as he asserted that politicians use the internal revenue allotment (IRA) “to corrupt Comelec officials.”

Comelec’s lack of funds has also been blamed for the lack of independence of what is supposed to be an independent body.

Abalos in 2005 said he had been begging for an increase in the Comelec’s budget every year. “We always criticize Comelec,” he said “but please consider that (election) officials in the municipalities do not even have funds for stamps to use in sending mails.”

“So you have to be friendly with local officials. Help us resolve this,” Abalos said. 

Being “friendly” often means having Comelec, supposedly an independent body, holding office in town halls or provincial centers. The Comelec office in Pagalungan, Maguindanao, for instance, is right beside the mayor’s office within the municipal hall compound.

Bedol has been holding office on the ground floor of the still-to-be-inaugurated Provincial Capitol of Maguindanao  “matagal na” (months ago) even before the May 14 elections.

MindaNews bumped into him on the ground floor on June 6. He denied he was in hiding and was vague about the documents required by the National Board of Canvassers (NBC).

On June 11, Bedol claimed before the NBC and reporters in Manila that the missing election documents that would support the provincial board’s canvass, were stolen on May 29 from his office.

The provincial capitol is a heavily guarded compound. Heavily-armed men guard each floor. The huge gate through which persons and vehicles enter and exit, at least a hundred meters away from the capitol, is heavily-guarded as well. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)