Mindanao-based rights group fears a repeat of ‘Hello Garci’ poll scandal amid Mindanao hotspot tag

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 21 March) – The militant group Barug Katungod Mindanao (Mindanao Stand for Human Rights) expressed fears on Thursday that a repeat of the 2004 “Hello Garci” poll scandal may likely happen again after the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) declared the entire Mindanao as an election hotspot.

COMELEC’s declaration was announced on Tuesday, citing that armed threats and election-related violence across Mindanao were among the reasons that COMELEC En Banc considered to warrant such election hotspot declaration.

“This developed in the wake of suspected election-related incidents in the last two elections, together with serious armed threats posed by the New People’s Army (NPA), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and rogue elements of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and/or Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other analogous groups,” COMELEC said in a statement.

But Aglipayan Bishop Antonio Ablon, convenor of Barug Katungod Mindanao, said the poll body’s declaration was seen as a political effort to influence and manipulate the 2019 mid-term elections that would favor political bets endorsed by President Rodrigo Duterte.

“I would anticipate therefore an election result which would favor the administration’s candidates both senatorial and local to ensure Duterte’s federalism. Remember that GMA’s ‘Hello Garci…’ was in Mindanao. They wanted not only to repeat it but to do more,” Ablon told MindaNews in Facebook interview Thursday.

Ablon was referring to “Hello Garci” or the “Gloriagate” scandal in 2004 where an alleged wiretapped conversation over the phone between then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and then Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano to rig the election in her favor were released to the public.

Ablon also argued that COMELEC’s basis for its declaration was “baseless” considering the whole island of Mindanao is still under martial law.

“Mindanao is now like the ‘Double Barrel Tokhang.’ We have the martial rule and now with COMELEC’s recent decision to control elections in the island,” Ablon said.

For its part, Lt. Col. Ezra Balagtey, Eastern Mindanao Command (EMC) spokesperson, welcomed the COMELEC’s declaration, saying “it is our duty and obligation to protect the right of suffrage of the people, hence we are ensuring that the people will elect their leaders this coming election freely without coercion and intimidation.”

Reacting to Ablon’s claim, COMELEC spokesperson James Jimenez has assured the public that the poll body won’t engage in partisanship as the May election nears.

“With regard to the apprehension that this declaration might lead to partisanship by the COMELEC, the election management body reassures the public that this will not happen. The results reporting procedures of the automated election system are fully transparent and protected by multiple redundancies which, by and large, have been proven successful in preventing cheating in the last three automated elections – 2010, 2013, and 2016. There is no reason to fear that it will be otherwise in 2019,” Jimenez said in statement sent to MindaNews Thursday afternoon.

When sought to explain how the COMELEC En Banc reached such decision to declare Mindanao as election hotspot, Jimenez said that it was a result of consultation with local officials, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).

“While it cannot be gainsaid that there are areas within Mindanao that are relatively peaceful, the inescapable reality is that election related violent incidents respect no municipal borders; and that the activities of armed groups and terror organizations are not always clearly demarcated. By placing all of Mindanao under Category Red, the COMELEC simply seeks to ensure utmost responsiveness to whatever need may arise,” he said. (Mart Sambalud / MindaNews)