“Priority numbers” given to Shariff Aguak voters

SHARIFF AGUAK, Maguindanao (MindaNews/09 July) –  There wasn’t a long queue at the social hall of the Kamasi Elementary School in Ampatuan town although around 20 residents from two clustered barangays lined up to receive their registration forms at the voters’ registration center (VRC) some 20 minutes before registration officially started at 8 a.m. Monday.

In contrast, it looked like a typical election day in the Shariff Aguak Central Elementary School whose two erstwhile famous voters — Datu Andal Ampatuan, Sr., and Datu Zaldy Ampatuan  who are presently detained in Bicutan in connection with the November 23, 2009 massacre of  58 persons — last trooped to the polls in the August 2008 elections for officials of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao where the latter was reelected for another three-year term.

Outside the main gate at around 8:15 a.m. two long queues of about 150 persons had waited on the roadside, holding small squares of paper containing numbers. They would be called to enter, according to priority, until around 8:20 a.m. when the Army and police personnel agreed to let them queue for their turn outside the registration center.

Army Capt. Joclyn Mangadlao, chief of the14th Mechanized Infantry Company, argued with the police that the residents should be allowed inside the school compound or they would be accused of violating their rights. The police personnel on the other hand expressed fears “baka ma-technical tayo sa ten meters,  Sir,” (we might be violating the ten-meter rule of the Commission on Elections).

Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez said “the police are supposed to stay ten meters away.”

The crowd, however, was becoming unruly and police and military personnel had to stay close to the  classrooms-turned-voting registration centers, to ensure an orderly registration. Some soldiers had to stay by the door. Jimenez said this can be allowed if the election officers call on them to do so.

The registrants lined up with their “priority numbers,” a decision that Mangadlao said was made in a meeting with  Comelec personnel and  local government officials on Sunday.

There were three VRCs in the school compound for barangays Poblacion Mother, Poblacion 1, Poblacion 2 whose officials were visibly present, overseeing the registration of their constituents.

Rebecca Asin of Poblacion 1 said she was absent from work in the Department of Budget  in Buluan, Maguindanao, so she could register on the first day.  “Kailangan unahin ang registration kasi importante ito” (The registration should be given a priority because this is important).

The lone VRC in the Kamasi Elementary School in Ampatuan town and the three VRCs in the Shariff Aguak Central Elementary School had no generators. Election officers there said they were still awaiting their arrival.

The Comelec teams and the voters’ registration machines (VRMs) or biometrics machines in both schools were from outside Maguindanao. The team at the VRC onstage the social hall of Kamasi Elementary School, is from Pampanga. Ardith Comin, interviewer, is Acting Election Officer of Sta. Rita while Ma. Rowena Tala, encoder, is the election assistant in Lubao.  The VRM on the table was marked “Sta. Rita, Pampanga.”

In the Shariff Aguak Central Elementary School, the Comelec personnel there were from North Cotabato and Sarangani provinces.

Ferried registrants

Outside the school compound, more vehicles carrying registrants were arriving on the first hour of the registration.  Curiously, along the national highway, hundreds of peddlers lined near the terminal and market , in their makeshift stalls.  But  Col. Mayoralgo dela Cruz, chief of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Brigade, said it was “market day.”

In neighboring Datu Unsay town,   there were no trucks or jeeps or motorcycles ferrying registrants at the Datu Unsay Elementary School, unlike in past elections. Teachers there said there was no registration. Maguindanao Governor Esmael Mangudadatu said the registration was suspended “kay gusto ni Mayor Reshal Ampatuan sa opisina” (because the mayor wants the registration in her office). The mayor could not be reached for comment.

Mangudadatu’s candidate lost to Reshal in the 2010 polls. Reshal is wife of  Andal Ampatuan, Jr.,  the principal suspect in the November 2009 massacre.

There was no checkpoint at the boundary of Sultan Kudarat province and Maguindanao, despite  reports in the past that some voters in Sultan Kudarat and neighboring provinces are being brought into Maguindanao to register.

P02 Melvin Robles, who was manning the police detachment near the Kakal bridge told MindaNews at around 7:20 a.m. that there was no order to set up a checkpoint.  Usually, he said, the checkpoint  is conducted jointly with the Army’s 46th IB.

But tanks were visible in the series of checkpoints set up by the 1st Mechanized Infantry Brigade along the highway leading to Cotabato City.  Dela Cruz said the boundary with Sultan Kudarat  province is not within his jurisdiction.

In Guindulungan town, registrants waited for their turn at the Comelec office beside the town hall. Election Officer Norijean Hangkal said 25 persons had registered as of 9:25 a.m.

Areas of concern

The Citizens Coalition for ARMM Electoral Reforms (C-CARE) , the group that has been monitoring the conduct of the local, regional and national elections in the  ARMM since the ARMM elections in August 2005 fielded 600 volunteers to monitor the registration in the ARMM provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi and the cities of Marawi and Lamitan.

C-CARE chair Indah Enriquez told MindaNews 377 barangays in Maguindanao were listed as “election areas of concern” while 82 were listed as “election areas of immediate concern.”

According to the Comelec, EACs are areas with intense political rivalry and with the presence of partisan armed groups while the EAICs are areas where there is  a strong presence of armed insurgents involved in election-related violence.

The Comelec listed 532 EACs : 377 barangays Maguindanao, 107 in Lanao del Sur, 29 in Sulu, 18 in Basilan and one in Tawitawi  while there are 368 EAICs: 171 in LDS, 82 in Maguindanao, 66 in  Sulu, 34 in Tawi-tawi and  15 in Basilan

Enriquez said among the complaints during the first day of registration in Maguindanao were the non-application of indelible ink and the harassment of a volunteer of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting in Barira town by aides of a politician.

A number of the registrants, particularly those who could not read or write,  were assisted in the filling out of the forms.

The election officials who were deployed here acknowledge they cannot be certain if, indeed, those who lined up are really from the place or the young ones are above 18 or will turn 18 before the May elections.

Comin, the interviewer in the VRC in the Kamasi Elementary School who is from Pamapanga said the registrants in their VRC should be from barangays Kamasi and Tomicor.  Kamasi had 1,101 voters as of April 2011 while Tomicor had 540 before the listing was annulled.

But Comin acknowledged their job is merely ministerial, that they  just receive the forms provided the registrants bring the requirements such as ID cards. But the approval on whether a person is qualified to vote does not rest with them, she said. The listing still has to be cleaned up, she said.

If the voter is assisted in the filling out of the form, they put the name of the person who assisted. If they have doubts  that the registrant is above 18 or will turn 18 before the May 2013 polls, they put some markings, she said.

A young girl who looked 14 or 15 who was waiting for her turn to register in the Kamasi VRC told MindaNews she was from Purok Nabatdog in Barangay Kamasi and was turning 18 in April next year. She said she came early hoping she could still attend class. Asked where she was studying, she said she forgot the name of her school.

Minutes later, after asking some of her relatives, she told MindaNews she was in third year highschool at the Esperanza National High School in Esperanza, the last town in Sultan Kudarat province at the boundary of Maguindanao.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)