Lanao canvassing delayed some more, opposition cries foul

As it turned out, the capitol’s legislative hall was barricaded by supporters of reelected Vice Gov. Irma Ali of Lakas-CMD. The reason: they wanted her name cleared because she was implicated in a National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) report that she may have something to do with the forcible opening of three ballot boxes from the towns of Maigo, Kolambugan and Kauswagan which were kept inside the prayer room of her office.

"We will open this legislative hall only if Ali's name is cleared," said Mateo Cortes, barangay captain of Poblacion in Salvador town and Ali’s supporter.

Senior Supt. Linog Bagul, provincial police chief, arrived at the scene about noon time but failed to disperse the barricade after dialogues.

Because of the barricade, the Provincial Board of Canvassers (PBOC), which was mandated by the Commission on Elections in an en banc resolution to convene today (Wednesday) to settle the disputed certificates of canvass from the three controversial ballot boxes, failed to enter the legislative hall.

Lawyer Arthur Abundiente, lead counsel of congressional candidate Varf Belmonte, commented that “the barricade has no justifying issue but just part of the general scheme to delay the canvass of the remaining COCs and the proclamation of the leading congressional candidate.”

According to the final, unofficial count of the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) as of 5 p.m. May 19, opposition candidate Belmonte got 58,962 votes against Angelique Dawn “Nikki” Badelles (45,670) and outgoing Gov. Imelda “Angging” Quibranza Dimaporo of Lakas-CMD (42,956).

Dimaporo’s husband Abdullah has already been declared winner in the province’s second district, while their son Khalid, a neophyte, also won in the gubernatorial race.

"I was told that they need to put up this delay while waiting for the arrival of President [Gloria Macapagal] Arroyo from New Zealand for political negotiation," Abudiente added.

He pointed out that if they wanted the name of Ali cleaned, they should go to the office of NBI and complain there because the capitol was not the proper venue.

Lawyer Rogelio Bagabuyo, counsel for senatorial candidate Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, joined the other counsels in “demanding the Comelec to proceed to canvass the COCs.”

“You have incurred a week-long delay and this is illegal. We cannot wait forever until this barricade be dispersed. The people who barricaded here have obstructed us entry to the canvassing center and they have committed a criminal act,” he stressed.

Provincial election officer Hamilton Cuevas said that the PBOC was supposed to reconvene to retrieve the envelopes and COCs from the forcibly opened ballot boxes. The COCs, he added, will then be compared to other authentic copies of COCs from the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) and Namfrel, the majority and minority parties.

If discrepancies are found, the COCs will be turned over to the NBI for technical investigations, Cuevas said.

In a related development, Iligan residents supportive of Belmonte and members of cause-oriented groups claiming to protect the sanctity of the ballot, were delayed from proceeding to the provincial capitol to witness the scheduled canvassing when traffic enforcers blocked the public utility vehicles they were riding.

Officials of the Land Transportation Office (LTO) argued that the PUV drivers violated traffic rules by travelling outside their authorized routes. LTO operatives headed by Rex Pangandag confiscated the PUV drivers’ licenses and their vehicles’ keys at the Kulasihan Bridge in Maigo town, about 20 kilometers going into the capital.

“I don't care about this caravan,” said Pangandag. “They violated the traffic law by travelling without permit from the LTFRB (Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board). They don't have franchise to travel here. We are just performing our duty,” he added.

Pangandag said that they have been “doing this everyday.”

But a passenger who disembarked from one of the PUVs blurted out: “This is just an obvious tactic to prohibit us from going to the provincial capitol.”

When people started to mass up at the checkpoint, Pangandag immediately left the checkpoint.

“This is a blatant strategy to stop us from going to our destination,” said an angry Msgr. Jemar Vera Cruz, vicar general of the Diocese of Iligan. “This is illegal and unconstitutional. You cannot block people's right to travel. This is a form of harassment,” he added.

He stressed the people only wanted to peacefully witness the canvassing and to find out if the forcibly opened ballot boxes were replaced or tampered.

The situation at the Maigo bridge caused traffic jam along the highway, affecting motorists between the cities of Pagadian, Ozamiz and Iligan.

The tense situation normalized only when Dr. Melchie Ambalong, co-convenor of the PPRCV and the People’s Electoral Alliance for Credible Election (PEACE), talked to police officers to release the car keys to the PUV drivers. She also paid the penalty of P500 per PUV at the provincial LTO office.

But when they finally got to the provincial capitol compound, they were only greeted with the barricade that rendered their efforts and sacrifices useless.