LANAO DEL SUR SPECIAL POLLS: ?It is really frustrating?

Even national Comelec officers could not do anything as their orders were simply ignored by the BEIs (Board of Election Inspectors), observed Lente co-convenor Carlos Medina. He cited the case of members of the BEI in Masiu and Lumba Bayabao inside the Lanao del Sur provincial capitol gym who repeatedly defied orders of Comelec officers. Asked why, the BEIs would simply ignore them, claiming “Iba ang utos sa amin.” (“We have different orders.)

"It is really frustrating. The BEIs simply refused to give us ER copies. They are following their own law here. They are not even obeying orders from the national Comelec,” said Medina. “But you can’t blame the teachers. They are also victims of a system; they are afraid if they do not follow whoever is giving them orders,” said Medina.

Other Lente lawyers also reported similar cases where Special Action Officers (SAOs) could only watch in dismay even as BEIs were caught not doing the correct procedures such as in the tabulation of votes and the preparation of the election returns.

For instance, under Sections 210 and 211 of the Omnibus Election Code, the aggregate sum of votes should be recorded by the BEIs both on the tally sheets and on the election returns which should be prepared simultaneously with the counting of the votes in the polling place. “The period between the time counting is finished to the time ERs are given is also a cause of concern,” he said.

There should be an appeal to follow the rule of law and procedures,” Medina said, voicing out sentiments shared by most lawyers. Schooled on the rigid technicalities of the OEC and other election laws, they were exposed to the alarming realities of laws not being followed in Lanao del Sur.

Lawyer Aimee Mendoza of the alternative law group, Saligan, who had been assigned to the Marawi National High School, observed that there seems to be a systematic and organized cheating primarily initiated by Comelec as the patterns are consistent in all precincts. “No one can pull this off without the Comelec.”

Mendoza said that while they were in the Marawi National High School, ballot boxes from Madalum town were missing but it turned out later that counting was already done. This was her account:

So when we found out that the ballot boxes were missing, we went around asking people where these could be. We were told that the boxes were already transported to the provincial capitol and so we proceeded there. We were surprised that even the Comelec support staff assigned to Madalum was also looking for the ballot boxes. Later, she texted me that the boxes were already inside the Titanic Building in the Provincial Capitol compound and that the canvassing is scheduled the following day.”

She also said that when they caught BEIs on some irregularities and informed them on the correct procedure, “they would act as if they follow what you tell them. But as soon as you turn your back, they would go back to doing the act complained of.”

Lawyer Raissa Jajurie, Saligan-Mindanao coordinator, also shared a similar experience with the BEIs when she reminded them that the recording of votes on the tally sheets and on the election returns should be simultaneous. The BEIs would simply tell her that “Kagawian na namin ito. Di kasi kayo tagarito” (We’re used to doing this here. You’re not from here).

As soon as poll centers closed at 3 pm on May 26, the ballot boxes were transported to the four centers in Marawi City where the tabulation and the canvassing of votes were to be conducted. But as of noon of May 28 or two days after the polls, the municipal canvassing of election returns in the 13 towns had not yet even started. Worse, only five towns had finished counting the votes, five towns had not started the counting at all, and counting was still ongoing in three towns.

But the delays in the counting of votes, the filling up of election returns, and the conduct of canvassing – despite strict procedures in the Omnibus Election Code governing these processes – could be part of an overall strategy, according to Hadji Abdullah Dalidig, Namfrel provincial chief in Lanao del Sur, “to give operators of "dagdag-bawas" (vote shaving and adding) the opportunity to muster votes for the administration' s TU candidates.”

Aside from the delays, election returns were also missing and so were a number of election personnel who had reported "sick" or were "taking a rest" in neighboring Iligan City. Nobody is telling us where the ERs are," said Medina.

Lente, Namfrel and the C-Care also met difficulties in retrieving ERs because of the refusal by some BEIs and election officers to hand them the sixth copy. This despite two orders of Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento instructing election last May 19 and May 23 to give the sixth ER copy to Namfrel.

Frustrated, Namfrel’s Dalidig turned over the task of retrieving the ERs to Lente. Namfrel was only able to retrieve 1,042 ERs out of 2,609 expected from the 26 towns where elections were held on May 14.

Lente was also only able to get its first batch of the ERs sixth copy after it chased the SAO for Lumbayanague from the Amai Pakpak Elementary School. The car chase went through a maze of narrow streets clogged with vehicular traffic but ended abruptly inside the campus of the Mindanao State University where canvassing was supposed to be held.

When they asked the SAO why she would not give them the ER copies, Medina said they were told that no such order was allegedly issued by the Lanao del Sur election supervisor. Medina and the Lente lawyers finally got 31 ER copies from the Lumbayanague BEI when she alighted from the van inside the MSU campus.

Medina said they were able to get hold of the ERS from Sultan Dumalundong municipality before the ballot boxes were taken away by unidentified persons.

The four centers where tabulation and canvassing of votes were held were scenes of mayhem and disorder. Inside the Lanao del Sur Provincial Capitol gym, for instance, the stench from leftover food and human waste was so obnoxious that counting of ballots had to be stopped several times.

Not daring to leave because of the tight security imposed by Army soldiers, the poll watchers used the stage as their makeshift toilet, worsening the situation. The gym is the venue for the simultaneous counting of ballots for two municipalities. At least 200 poll watchers stay inside the gym until the counting of ballots is over.

The same conditions were observed in Amai Pakpak Elementary School , Marawi City National High School and Marawi People's Park described as "health hazard" by poll observers.

Election special action officer Roy Prule said he nearly puked when he entered the gym to bring the ballot boxes from the town of Butig last Monday. Prule said he had asked the Comelec national headquarters in Manila to find a new venue for the counting of ballots for the town of Butig.

Col. Raynard Ronnie Javier, commanding officer of the Army’s 103rd Infantry Brigade, said they brought fire trucks Monday night to bring water to clean the gym. "I am afraid my soldiers will get sick because of the poor conditions inside the gym," Javier said. He said the Comelec should have anticipated the influx of people inside the gym and provided portable toilets and garbage bins. [Tomorrow: Military presence]