MANILA, Philippines — The Commission on Elections Wednesday placed the violence-wracked province of Shariff Kabunsuan in Mindanao under its control, and announced it was sending “a lady with guts” to the area to count the votes after two other officials refused the job, fearing for their lives.
The poll body appointed Josllyn de Mesa, one of the senior lawyers at the Comelec’s law department, as new chair of the Provincial Board of Canvassers (PBOC) to preside over the tabulation of votes.
De Mesa was the third lawyer to head the canvassing board at Shariff Kabunsuan — a province with a voting population of close to 200,000 — after the previous PBOC chair backed out “because of security considerations,” Election Commissioner Rene Sarmiento said at a press conference.
A second Comelec officer, based in Manila, was subsequently appointed to take over the canvassing but also refused the assignment.
Sarmiento did not give their names.
De Mesa is scheduled to go to Shariff Kabunsuan on Thursday to take charge of the canvassing, along with a composite team of Comelec lawyers.
She will be accompanied by Luzon-based regional directors Gregorio Lardizabal and Emmanuel Ignacio.
“No one [would] accept the position as head of the provincial board. [But] we have this lady with guts enough to accept the responsibility. It takes a woman to accept the awesome responsibility,” Sarmiento said.
He said the Comelec had placed Shariff Kabunsuan under its control to “ensure that [the canvassing] would go smoothly.”
He added that the poll body was prepared to call on the military to deploy more troops, particularly the Marines, “depending on the situation”.
The Comelec assumes jurisdiction over an entire province, including its administrative functions, when it is placed under the poll body’s control.
But in the case of Shariff Kabunsuan, Sarmiento said he limited the Comelec’s control to the deployment of military troops in the province.
“Normally, we take over even the local administrative functions but because of too many concerns we’re handling now, we [limited control] to providing troop augmentation from the Armed Forces, not only the PNP (Philippine National Police),” Sarmiento told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, parent company of INQUIRER.net.
Battling for governor
Three politicians — incumbent Gov. Bimbo Sinsuat of Lakas-Kampi, former Sultan Kudarat Mayor Tocao Mastura of Kampi and former ARMM Gov. Zacaria Candao of the United Opposition — are fighting for the post of governor.
While balloting was taking place on Election Day, two bomb explosions rocked Datu Udin Sinsuat town, wounding one civilian. In Sultan Kudarat town, a bomb explosion also wounded one civilian.
Hours later, after polling precincts closed, a bomb attack near the town hall of Sultan Kudarat, where canvassing of votes were being done, injured two people.
‘They are scared’
In Matanog town, tension between supporters of warring local politicians has also erupted.
A few days after the elections, unidentified armed men torched a portion of the town hall of Buldon. No casualties were reported.
Earlier this week, unidentified armed men fired an M-203 grenade launcher at Parang Elementary school where votes were being canvassed. No casualties were reported.
Comelec Chair Benjamin Abalos Sr. said that the commission en banc decided to place the province — which is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) — under its control upon the recommendation of Sarmiento, its commissioner in charge in the area.
“There has been complaints, particularly from the candidates [asking], why up to now the PBOC has not met. It’s because the one supposed to head the PBOC ay takot na takot [fearful] for his safety,” Abalos said.
Sarmiento said the first PBOC chair “did not take the responsibility” because of the “tension” among at least two gubernatorial candidates.
“There was apprehension … They [the candidates] are vigorously and passionately contending for the position,” Sarmiento said.
“We understand that some of the CoCs coming from the municipalities have already been forwarded to the PBOC. Unfortunately, there was no chairperson to convene the PBOC to canvass these,” Abalos said.
The Comelec chair dismissed the idea of holding the canvassing of Shariff Kabunsuan votes in Manila.
“No. We stay put in Mindanao and do the canvassing there. Let me repeat, we have to show sovereignty there,” Abalos said.
The Comelec had to rely on might to enforce its will in another troubled area in ARMM — Lanao del Norte province.
A riot by protesters failed to deter police and election officers from moving the counting of votes cast in Iligan City to the provincial capitol in Tubod.
Supporters of Varf Belmonte, the opposition candidate for a House seat representing Iligan’s first district, tried to prevent the transfer of the certificates of canvass (CoCs), throwing stones at policemen, who broke up their rally.
Several protesters and policemen suffered cuts and bruises, according to Supt. Virgilio Ranes, Iligan police chief.
Belmonte has rallied his supporters against the transport of the CoCs to the provincial capitol, saying the results could be rigged in favor of his opponent, Gov. Imelda Dimaporo, a candidate of the Arroyo administration.
Belmonte said Dimaporo wielded undue influence in the provincial capitol, being the chief executive.
Belmonte was leading when the CoCs were canvassed Wednesday.
Based on the partial, official results, Belmonte had 52,783 votes against Dimaporo’s 35,150 votes. The other congressional candidate, Angelique Badelles of Kampi, got 39,315 votes.
Comelec Commissioner Nicodemo Ferrer issued an order banning members of the Lanao del Norte provincial security unit from the canvassing site.
Instead, Ferrer asked the military and the police to secure the Sangguniang Panlalawigan building.
Election officer Chuvasco Caiña led the transport of ballot boxes containing the CoCs to Tubod.
The ballot boxes were heavily guarded by the members of the SWAT team, policemen from the regional command and 32 Infantry Battalion Philippine Army soldiers.
In Digos City, Davao del Sur Rep. Douglas Cagas and his supporters continued their protest, this time against the decision of Comelec provincial supervisor Maria Febes Barlaan to refer to the Manila head office a controversy involving the CoCs of the towns of Matanao, Bansalan, Sulop and Malita.
Rep. Claude Bautista, Cagas’ rival in the gubernatorial race, has petitioned the Comelec to exclude the CoCs from Matanao, Bansalan and Sulop.
Cagas, claiming there was an attempt to rig the Malita result in Bautista’s favor, also wanted the CoC from the town excluded from the canvass.
“It is no longer within my capacity to resolve those cases,” Barlaan said.
In Sulu, followers of Moro leader Nur Misuari continued calling on the Comelec to declare a failure of elections in the province following the defeat of their leader in the gubernatorial elections.
According to the Comelec count, Misuari had 19,121 votes while businessman Sakur Tan had 84,434 votes.
The total number of votes for Misuari was not even half the 53,096 votes that reelectionist Gov. Benjamin Loong got.
Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) cited widespread fraud and disenfranchisement of voters as reasons in asking the poll body to void the result of the elections in Sulu.
The Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) also reported widespread cheating in the island-province. With reports from Richel Umel, Orlando Dinoy and Edwin Fernandez, Inquirer Mindanao