THIS BLESSED HOUSE: Postscript to the Maguindanao polls

One contestant screamed, “Commemorating the greatest humiliation of the President of the Republic of the Philippines, from the land of flying tomatoes…. GENERAL SANTOS CITYYYYY!!!” This is in reference to a visit by former President Fidel Ramos to the country’s tuna capital where irate activists pelted him with a fresh harvest of the Lycopene-rich fruit.

My personal favorite, however, alluded to the city of my childhood. “From the land of bombings and kidnappings…. COTABATO CITYYYYYY!!!”  

Today, I have not heard of, yet am very eager to watch a contestant who would do the daring by introducing himself this way: “From the land of fraudulent elections and public school administrators turning up dead…. MAGUINDANAOOOO!!!” No one else can best parody the current state of affairs. Not even the cast of Wazzup! Wazzup!

No one needs to remind me that the recent election is not a laughing matter. Especially in a province where one could end up dead or dismembered just by the mere insinuation of electoral fraud. But what else do we have except our sense of humor to compensate for our leaders’ lack of virtue?

I am short-tempered by nature but the events following the May 14 polls became a test of my patience. Friends would text me, “What’s happening in your place? It’s in the news.” My natural impulse would be to ignore the messages but after getting the same message ten times or so, I would text them that I have no idea what’s happening because I was in Bangkok having a boob job. There was no escaping people I bumped into at the mall or my favorite café. After the pleasantries, the conversation would obviously lead to their asking about the elections in Maguindanao, the highlight of which would be the less-than-original remark, “Grabe pala ang dayaan doon sa inyo.”  I mustered every bit of composure and gave my Dalai Lama-inspired answer, “It’s really worrying us. Let’s just pray that it won’t escalate to violence.”

It’s already a big burden on our backs to prove to the world that being Moro is not synonymous to Abu Sayyaf or Al Qaeda. For those who live in Maguindanao, proving that we are not a fraudulent people is a new battle. Or is it?

But you say these are all allegations. They have their precedents. I don’t recall which year it was, but my cousin Phillip and his best friend Junie conducted a political experiment. I was an accomplice since I was not yet of legal age. For senators, they wrote the names of Elsa Payumo, Nora Daza and Elaine Cuneta in their ballots. During counting, they expected the votes would be counted. The three ladies received zero in that precinct. 

A few years later, I became party to electoral fraud myself. I was delivering boxes of juice to a precinct in one of the towns in Maguindanao. An elder cousin, who was a councilor of the town, called me and asked me if I had the time to fill up ballots –ballots that were two inches thick. Before I could react, he gave me a pencil and directed me to a chair inside the precinct. On my third ballot, the lead broke and I made it an excuse to dash out of the place.

And they say electoral fraud in Maguindanao is a figment of the loser’s imagination.

Hold the chainsaw. I am not yet finished. There has been electoral fraud in Maguindanao for as long as I can remember. Or since I was old enough to vote. Electoral fraud is a non-issue if a leader of a town or a province holds enough influence to be unchallenged in the polls. That gives him the rein to direct the contents of the certificates of canvass or CoCs. Because of his influence, he can even decide who to put in the municipal council or provincial board, usually political allies and family members. Choices for senator depend on party affiliations, and, as Senator Panfilo Lacson puts it, the ability of a candidate to buy votes, regardless of party affiliation. One just needs to show the money.

Election fraud only becomes an issue if two parties are fiercely vying for the posts. There would be finger pointing, who cheated who, and lawyers would take turn crediting and discrediting the CoCs, showing off their oratorical prowess to convince the Comelec that their clients rightfully got the mandate of the people.

The CoCs are not the most reliable documents to check if one cries electoral fraud. They can be easily fabricated. Hello Gracia, they can even be prepared a day before the elections. The Comelec can waste money and time looking for the Maguindanao CoCs, which were reportedly lost according to the provincial election officer Lintang Bedol, but it won’t prove a thing.

Those who are crying fraud should instead check individual ballots. But that’s not going to be easy since the Comelec could always deny this motion. But lawyers would know what to do. Ballots are the best evidence of electoral fraud. More often than not, they have been filled up by the same person, usually with a ratio of 10:1, either in the polling precincts on election day or a secret location the night before. This would pose another problem. You have to be a handwriting expert to spot the scam. If you are not, hire one. Which brings me to an issue in the Lanao special polls in which experts from the National Bureau of Investigation were brought in to authenticate signatures but were dismissed by the Comelec for heaven knows what. While you are at it, hire a fingerprint expert as well because the same person will put his fingerprints in all boxes that require them.

Witnesses would be helpful in establishing electoral fraud but most of them are scared out of their wits to even say a single word. Unless one wishes to be a cold corpse. Whatever happened to the teacher who verified massive fraud in a TV news program? The one who was even present at a rally protesting accusations that teachers were part of the fraud?

It is hopeless to intellectualize about electoral reforms in Maguindanao, or in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao for that matter. At least in the mean time. It is particularly hard to rant about the problems of Maguindanao when you belong to a family who has taken advantage of this muck for a long time. But I am not the type who would bask in past (and sometimes, questionable) glories. The people of Maguindanao must realize that their future does not depend on foreign dole outs and empty promises. It depends on competent leaders who can and will actually work for their benefit; qualified people who would spend their internal revenue allotment or IRA properly and not treat it as a personal bank account. Hell yeah, we must stop putting the wrong people in the right places. It’s easier said than done, aye?

One of the key points of the recent elections was the extent of media coverage. Allegations of electoral fraud in Maguindanao attracted media frenzy. Among the controversial areas was my hometown of Pagalungan where my mother’s brother was vying for the mayoralty post against a distant nephew. The nephew won over the uncle. The uncle cried that he was cheated. The allegation became headline news. The uncle did not waste time rallying the media to his side, which portrayed him as the poor victim of electoral fraud.

But selective perception in the part of the media missed one thing. Several weeks before the election, in an attempt to put the electoral process in his own hands, the uncle initiated a gun battle against his opponent’s supporters, which included his own cousin. In our election history, fraud alone does not have the monopoly of evil.

The Comelec en banc has not counted the Maguindanao votes for senators yet. A special elections is far fetched. Koko Pimentel’s petition in the Supreme Court has a fifty-fifty chance of being granted. Should the Comelec en banc choose to count the Maguindanao CoC, it can mean that electoral fraud can and will prevail not only in the province but in our country’s electoral experience.

Unless the people say enough is enough.   

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Gutierrez Mangansakan II is a writer and documentary filmmaker from Pagalungan, Maguindanao. In 2005, he was named Defender of Cultural Heritage by the Fookien Times Philippines Yearbook for his efforts in preserving and nurturing the rich tradition of his Maguindanaon ancestry. For comments, please log on to )