Armed soldiers guard balloting, canvassing
BUTIG, Lanao Del Sur — It did not matter if it was held in an old and open public market. Streams of voters still came as the third attempt to hold elections in this remote town finally pushed through on Sunday.
Polls also pushed through in the five barangay (villages) in Pualas and in one village in Lumba Bayabao where special elections failed on Saturday.
The situation in the province was generally peaceful on Sunday, with only two reported cases of gunfire. In both instances the shots came from soldiers who fired warning shots to pacify unruly crowds.
The 42 precincts in this town, two hours away from Marawi City, were clustered in three areas: In an elementary school, in the Butig National High School and the bulk at the Butig Public Market, right across the town hall grounds, where military trucks and two armored vehicles were parked.
The number of soldiers sent to the small town of over 8,000 voters was doubled: 200 army soldiers on board 15 military trucks arrived early Sunday morning.
Three military helicopters were flying over the area.
Polls here did not push through twice, on May 14 and on Saturday, after teachers assigned to work as Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) did not show up. They were afraid they might get caught in the intense family feud between political rivals.
Of the 126 teachers assigned to serve as BEIs, only six showed up on Saturday, according to Commission on Elections special action officer Roy Prule Ediza.
“They said their fellow teachers got sick, or went somewhere. We were not able to complete teams of BEIs,” Ediza told the INQUIRER. He tried forming new teams of BEIs, but time on Saturday was not on his side: It was getting late and there had been no power supply into the town in the last few days.
The clashing parties eventually proposed to have policemen serve as BEIs instead, Ediza said, showing text messages from representatives.
So on Sunday, as balloting finally began after lunch, policemen could be seen carrying ballot boxes filled with election paraphernalia. The special elections began late because Ediza had to wait for a copy of the written resolution authorizing the rescheduled polls from the Comelec en banc in Manila.
The 126 policemen came from the Lanao Del Sur Provincial Police and from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Regional Mobile Group. Only a handful of them were women and had experience working as BEIs, Chief Insp. Richmond Tadina, the provincial police operations officer, told the INQUIRER.
Most of the policemen were carrying rifles and wearing combat uniforms when they reported to their respective precincts at 1:15 p.m. Voters had been waiting as early as seven hours before, said 31-year-old voter Alex.
“It is okay to have policemen as BEIs. We are not afraid. We don’t see any problem,” 20-year-old voter Omair also said. It was his first time to vote.
The watchers from rival parties were difficult to deal with. They insisted on accompanying the policemen transporting the ballot boxes, and wanted to get into the rooms, and, in the public market, into the narrow stalls barricaded only by straw ropes and weak wooden posts.
In the public market, a policeman lost his temper when two watchers from just one party wanted to stay in the stall where he was.
“Back off! We are here so the elections could continue!” he shouted.
In Lumba Bayabao, polls also pushed through at the Maribo Elementary Schools, where 1,855 voters were registered, special action officer Fernando Cotom also told the INQUIRER.
Tension was rife for a few minutes when soldiers spotted a man carrying a gun about 2 p.m. The man resisted when he was asked to leave and some people were starting to get unruly so the soldiers fired warning shots.
Polls in Barangay Yaran, Dapao, Notong, Bualan and Bantayan in Pualas also pushed through on Sunday after the Comelec resolved problems in the clustering of precincts. Election materials did not reach these areas on Saturday after gunmen opened fire at the convoy carrying the ballot boxes.
The canvassing of votes for the 10 towns where the Saturday special elections pushed through started late Sunday as thousands of watchers trooped to the canvassing areas in Marawi City at the provincial capitol, the Amai Pak Pak Elementary School, the Marawi National High School and at the People’s Freedom Park.
Traffic on streets leading to these areas was jammed Sunday as cars parked on the narrow roads and watchers gathered in front of the gates, preventing the BEIs from getting in.
The mayhem was enough to delay the verification of the BEIs.
Soldiers were all over key streets, holding check points, stopping cars and verifying documents of motorcycles.
At the Marawi National High School, soldiers had to fire warning shots Sunday morning when tension between watchers of rival political parties in Kapai town turned into a brawl.
It was in Kapai where gunmen opened fire at the town hall on Saturday afternoon, just as the voting was about to end.