LANAO DEL SUR SPECIAL POLLS: ?A deliberate systematic and institutional failure?

Make a public bidding and whoever wins the franchise gets to operate the Comelec. The government will earn; the franchisee could be a professional and credible firm. Why, it may even lead to professionalizing this whole election business,” says Sharief, who also goes by the name “Bin Ladin” for his uncanny resemblance with the Al Qaeda chief.

We have lost faith in these election officials,” said Sharief whose “desperate measures” also included filing a case against Comelec officials before the Shariah court of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, for alleged “massive vote padding” to “not counting the votes” cast in their favor, and even to the failure of election personnel to show up in many towns during the May 14 polls.

In the Shariah court, punishment is severe and justice is swift” unlike in the Philippine legal system where justice grinds slowly, he said.

Sharief only articulates a growing public cynicism and lack of trust in the electoral process and judicial system. It is also an indictment on the technical competence of the poll body in managing the elections in Lanao del Sur – perennially tagged as a “failure of election” hotspot.

The May 14 regular and May 26 special polls in the province were only a continuum of a poll history marked by violence, fraud and irregularities that run from missing election officers, missing election returns, warring political factions, blatant forms of cheating, and even dismal conditions of polling and canvassing centers.

Calls for electoral reforms also went unheeded by the Comelec which, despite anticipating them, failed to act on these problems prior to the midterm polls. This “systematic and institutional failure” of the polls, as electoral watchdogs described it, could be blamed solely on the Comelec “and they should be made accountable.”

No prosecution or administrative sanctions were also made on erring election officers who had been implicated in past fraudulent deals. It also failed to “cleanse its ranks” and did not seriously make good its promise to revamp its roster of executives.

Failure of election: Similar patterns

The patterns leading to a declaration of a failure of elections in 13 of 39 Lanao del Sur towns (and in seven towns during the 2004 polls) are similar.

Comelec-ARMM director Rey Sumalipao himself listed down the reasons in an interview over Cotabato City-based DXMS radio on May 14: kinship and close affinity with political candidates of election officers and inspectors; threats on election officers preventing them to serve because it is risky or many of their relatives are running; objections raised by rival camps in the composition of the BEI; and not enough security personnel.

But poll groups suspect that this election failure declaration is deliberate to allow “unscrupulous local politicians to refine their cheating operations,” said Salic Ibrahim, executive director of the Maranao People Development Center (Mardec) and C-Care coordinator for Lanao del Sur. “The longer the election process, the more opportunities for fraud (to) come in.”

The fears are well-founded. As the special polls were conducted, alleged election operators identified with Malacanang were suddenly visible in Marawi City and Iligan City, raising speculations that they were there to manipulate the results to boost the winning chances of Team Unity senatorial candidates.

Talks were also rife that deals to make the TU win big in the province were forged in the coffee shops inside malls in Cagayan de Oro City, according to Lacs Dalidig, chief of the Lanao del Sur National Movement for Free Elections. “Dadayain rin nila itong election (They will also cheat in this election),” Dalidig said.

Nobody seems to be in command”

Sumalipao, who was implicated in the Garci scandal, appealed over DXMS radio on May 14 for people to “please, let us calm down, soften our hearts, for democracy to reign.”

By the time the special polls were conducted on May 26, Sumalipao was no longer visible and could not be reached for comment by the media or poll groups. His mobile phone was turned off. So were many of the election officers who had seemed to disappear on the day of the polls and during the canvassing.

There seems to be no one in charge, no election officer seems in command,“ De Villa said during a coordination meeting on May 26 in Marawi City among electoral watchdogs including the PPCRV and its legal arm, the Legal Network for Truthful Reporting (LENTE).

De Villa flew to Marawi City with Namfrel national chair Edward Go to personally monitor the elections only to experience first-hand all sorts of blatant cheating and scenes of pandemonium in canvassing centers.

In the morning of May 26, Army soldies barred de Villa and Go from entering the gate of the Lidasan Elementary School in Kapai, Lanao del Sur where voting was being held.

De Villa said they were shown a handwritten order purportedly signed by a “Comelec officer” prohibiting anyone to enter the polling center except for two poll watchers from political parties. The “official’s name” was not indicated in the order but a mobile number was written below the signature.

De Villa and Go were with a group of pollwatchers including Salic Ibrahim and some members of the media.

Ibrahim said that when they identified themselves to the soldiers, an Army captain approached them and said will discuss the matter with the Comelec election officer who was reportedly inside the municipal hall at that time. They were later allowed to enter the polling precincts when the Comelec officer reportedly gave a go signal.

Earlier, PPCRV was able to request Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento to intervene when several PPCRV monitors were not allowed to see ballot boxes being brought out from the municipal hall to the polling center. They were allowed inside when Sarmiento reportedly called up military officials.

Sarmiento, according to De Villa, is very accommodating and accessible. “He is ‘well-meaning’ but the problems are just deeply-rooted,” she said.

To Sarmiento’s credit, efforts were exerted to bring in special action officers and tabulators from other parts of the country, except those coming from ARMM, to man the polls. Some of the SAOs, however, admitted to poll watchers that they were helpless in accosting violators.

What can we do?” an exasperated SAO said. “Baka di kami makakalabas na buhay dito.” (We might not get out of this alive). [Tomorrow: “It is really frustrating.”]