MANILA, Philippines — At least two election officers have asked about the government’s Witness Protection Program before they would come out to help uncover the alleged electoral fraud that occurred in Maguindanao province.
Howard Calleja of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) said the two potential witnesses asked him for details of the program when he contacted them by mobile phone on Wednesday.
Calleja was in General Santos City at the time as chief legal counsel of the PPCRV and an observer in the Commission on Elections’ investigation of the fraud that allegedly marred the elections in Maguindanao last month.
The PPCRV banded together with other poll watchdogs to monitor the recent midterm elections.
Working under the umbrella group One Million Volunteers for Clean Elections or VforCE, the watchdogs were the first to disclose that teachers in Maguindanao were forced by gunmen to fill out ballots with the names of the Team Unity (TU) senatorial candidates on the eve of the elections.
Teachers in the town of Pagalungan claimed that armed men seized their ballot boxes and filled out the ballots with the names of the TU candidates.
12-0 for TU
Tallies in the provincial certificate of canvass (CoC) showed a 12-0 win for TU in the province.
The CoC also showed that 19 senatorial candidates did not get any votes, a situation the Comelec called “statistically improbable.”’
Genuine Opposition (GO) candidate Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III Thursday petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the Comelec from canvassing the disputed tallies from Maguindanao, which could allow TU candidate Juan Miguel Zubiri to displace him from the 12th Senate slot.
More potential witnesses
Calleja said he was approached by a local PPCRV officer while in General Santos City and was told that initially there were “four or five” election officers willing to surface and talk about the alleged irregularities.
The PPCRV officer said there could be more potential witnesses as more people who served as election officers in the May 14 polls had indicated a willingness to talk, according to Calleja.
The PPCRV staffer then contacted two of the election officers who Calleja communicated with by mobile phone.
“Their main concern at this point is how to assure their safety and security. And not only for themselves and their immediate families but also for their other relatives,” Calleja told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a restaurant in Intramuros, Manila.
The election officers’ request for protection came after the fatal shooting of Musa Dimasidsing, Maguindanao schools district supervisor.
Dimasidsing was shot dead on June 9 at a madrasah (Islamic school) in Pikit town, North Cotabato province, where he had taken refuge. He was the one who had affirmed the testimony of Pagalungan teachers that there was “harassment and intimidation” during the elections.
Calleja said that while the two officers were aware of the possibility of being uprooted from their hometowns for good after going public, things might become difficult for the relatives they would leave behind.
“There is always this fear of reprisal from parties who may be displeased by their disclosures,” he said.
The lawyer said he was not able to promise the two election officers anything as he himself was not familiar with the Witness Protection Program of the Department of Justice.
“In particular, the two want to clarify the extent of application of the program, like until what degree of consanguinity probably. We understand that (among some Muslim communities), there is this strong culture of clannishness, which may work against the relatives of the potential witnesses,” Calleja said.
“Other than their inquiries about the protection program, they presented no demands,” he said.
Distrust for Abalos
Lawyer Carlos Medina of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) earlier said that teachers he was in touch with were hesitant to come out because they distrusted Comelec Chair Benjamin Abalos.
Medina said the teachers suspected Abalos himself might have been part of the fraud machinery.
The election officers Calleja talked to, however, said they were willing to face Abalos “or anyone else as long as their safety and security are assured.”
At a news conference, Calleja, Medina and other VforCE representatives urged the Comelec to declare a failure of elections in Maguindanao.
If special elections were to be held in the province, they said the following conditions should be met:
• The poll body should cancel all gun permits and disarm paramilitary units in the province.
• The Marines should be deployed to ensure the safety of voters, election officers and watchers.
• All local Comelec officials should be replaced with trusted Comelec personnel from other areas.
• All ballots should be counted “in safe and secure areas.”
• Full media coverage and the “effective participation” of watchdog groups must be ensured.
• The Comelec must undertake voters’ education activities in Maguindanao before the elections.
“If special elections cannot be conducted under these circumstances, then no such special elections should be held anymore,” the joint statement said.
“In such a situation, we believe that it will be reasonable and acceptable to disregard the votes for senators in Maguindanao,” it said.
Pimentel asked the Supreme Court to order the poll body to exclude Maguindanao tallies and to proclaim the winner for the last Senate spot based on election results from the rest of the country.
According to Pimentel, no laws or rules allow the poll body to go to a province, meet with Comelec officials to check election documents and determine which among these would be used in the canvass of votes to determine the winners in the senatorial race.
A declaration of failure of elections in the province could not be done as well considering that the local winners had been proclaimed and no petition to declare such a failure had been filed, he said in his petition.
He noted that Zubiri would have to get more than 120,000 votes from Maguindanao to overtake him.
TU lawyer Romulo Macalintal said the documents retrieved from Maguindanao seemed authentic, but the opposition’s counsel Leila de Lima said the figures in the documents were “revolting.”
The Comelec would decide next week whether to reconvene a special provincial board of canvassers to retabulate the tallies.
Pimentel said the Comelec would help perpetuate electoral fraud if it continued with its expedition to salvage votes from Maguindanao at this late stage.
He said the Comelec, as the National Board of Canvassers, should not fish for documents and instead could only canvass votes based on documents submitted to it.
Pimentel said the poll body laid down no standards on how to determine the fitness of the election documents it will find.
The Comelec in effect placed into its hands the outcome of who will take the last Senate seat “in the guise of pursuing the true will of the people in Maguindanao,” he said.
Koko Pimentel takes case to SC
Petition seeks to halt Maguindanao vote count
MANILA, Philippines — His hopes hanging in the balance, Genuine Opposition (GO) candidate Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III said he was filing in the Supreme Court on Wednesday a petition to stop the Commission on Elections from canvassing disputed vote tallies from Maguindanao, which could push Juan Miguel Zubiri of Team Unity (TU) past him in their battle for the last Senate slot.
The filing of the petition would coincide with Wednesday’s trip to General Santos City of a three-man Comelec panel led by Chair Benjamin Abalos for a meeting with Maguindanao poll officials on alleged vote fraud in the province during the May 14 elections.
Instead of going directly to Maguindanao, the Comelec panel has decided to meet with the province’s 22 election officers and their provincial supervisor, Lintang Bedol, in General Santos City.
“We will ask the Supreme Court to prevent the Comelec from using for canvassing the figures they will get from any documents gathered from Maguindanao,” Pimentel told the Philippine Daily Inquirer by phone.
Pimentel said he doubted the veracity of whatever election documents the Comelec team would be able to gather, pointing out that more than a month had passed since the elections.
“These documents are no longer trustworthy,” he said.
Opposition lawyers have expressed the fear that the vote tallies that Maguindanao poll officials would submit had been “manufactured.”
Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez said that in General Santos City, the poll inspectors “will be able to talk freely” and this would also ease security problems.
Pimentel said he was filing Wednesday a petition for prohibition and certiorari against Abalos and Commissioners Rene Sarmiento and Nicodemo Ferrer, who will accompany the Comelec chair on the trip.
Abalos and Ferrer plan to remain in General Santos while Sarmiento will make a side trip to Lanao del Sur, which was also the scene of alleged poll cheating.
Comelec’s tabulation of the Maguindanao provincial certificate of canvass (CoC), or vote tallies, was stalled by allegations that in some areas, public school teachers were forced by armed men to write down the names of TU senatorial candidates on the ballots.
In other areas, gunmen filled out the ballots themselves.
The incidents allegedly occurred in several barangays (villages) in the town of Pagalungan.
Plea for fairness
Based on the Comelec’s last official tally, Pimentel is ahead of Zubiri by more than 111,000 votes, without the Maguindanao tally.
Lawyers of both GO and TU said that with the Maguindanao votes, Zubiri would knock Pimentel off 12th place. An unofficial Maguindanao tally shown to reporters gave Zubiri 195,823 votes against Pimentel’s 67,057 votes.
Zubiri has been urging the Comelec to go ahead with the tabulation of the Maguindanao votes.
Abalos on Tuesday said it was unfair of GO to conclude that the poll documents from Maguindanao were fake.
“Let us see, let us not just say they are manufactured. Anyhow, once they are presented, they have the right to object to all of these,” Abalos told reporters.
Comelec has been looking for the municipal certificates of canvass from the province that were supposed to back the provincial CoC showing the TU senatorial slate winning all the top 12 spots.
Comelec officials themselves have expressed doubts about the provincial tallies, saying it was “statistically improbable” for 19 out of the 37 senatorial candidates to have received no votes at all.
Task Force Maguindanao, chaired by Ferrer, was formed to investigate alleged election fraud in the province.
Bedol caused a stir when he came to Manila and told Comelec officials that his copies of vote tallies had been stolen.
Abalos earlier said the Maguindanao municipal election officers had told Comelec they could not go to Manila for lack of funds. Instead, they asked that the commissioners come to Maguindanao.
Regional Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan has presented a copy of the minutes of the provincial canvassing signed by Bedol and other members of the provincial Board of Canvassers. Abalos said this might prove that elections were indeed held.
The findings of the Abalos team would be evaluated by the Comelec en banc prior to a ruling on the Maguindanao fiasco.
If the documents were proved authentic, Abalos said, the special provincial board of canvassers would be reconstituted to tally the votes for the national positions — senator and party-lists.
GO lead counsel Sixto Brillantes said the opposition party would not join the Abalos trip on Wednesday.
“We do not intend to participate in the Maguindanao trip. Anyway, it is very much like a fishing expedition because they’re going there even if they don’t even know what documents they are seeking,” he told reporters.
TU lawyer Romulo Macalintal said his clients would join the Abalos trip and thus end the controversy plaguing the Maguindanao voting results.
“TU is ready to go there and see for itself the proof that elections were held in Maguindanao, based on the documents that the election officers are said to present,” he said.
Doubts about the figures reflected in the CoC from Maguindanao deepened when Bedol claimed his copies were stolen from his office.
The municipal CoCs and statement of votes should support figures reflected in the provincial CoC.
Ampatuan: Elections held
Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan has repeatedly said that elections were held in his province and that the victory of TU was the result of consultations among local leaders.
“It’s unfair to come to that conclusion (that no elections took place) just because the PPCRV was only able to deploy volunteers in those areas,” Procalla earlier told the Inquirer.
MANILA, Philippines – Sen. Rodolfo Biazon on Thursday proposes the creation of an independent commission to investigate erring officers of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) during the 2004 and 2007 elections.
Biazon, who led the Senate investigation into the so-called “Hello Garci” scandal that tainted the 2004 presidential election, felt the Comelec cannot conduct an impartial investigation of its own men.
Back in 2005, Comelec Chair Benjamin Abalos did not order an investigation of then commissioner Virgilio Garcillano and other Comelec officers implicated in the wiretapping scandal.
The tapes purportedly caught phone conversations between President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Garcillano during the canvassing of votes in 2004, discussing the President’s margin of one million votes over the late movie star Fernando Poe Jr.
“I am supporting the call of Comelec Commissioner (Rene) Sarmiento for a prosecutorial investigation,” Biazon said in a news conference Thursday at the Manila Polo Club with Genuine Opposition coalition officials and election watchdog groups.
“I think the inquiry in aid of legislation is already done. We have enough information to prosecute, to pursue legislation. Now is the time to prosecute these ‘bantay-salakay’ (unscrupulous) officials of the Comelec,” added the former military chief.
According to Biazon, had the Comelec taken action on the officers implicated in the poll-rigging controversy, there would have been no more questions of election fraud in the recently concluded May 14 mid-term elections.
“There’s a ray of hope, since we have no less than a commissioner himself who has voiced the sentiment. So I ask civil society to support the sentiments of Rene Sarmiento,” he said.
Biazon’s idea is the formation of another commission like those of the Feliciano and Melo Commissions, which were both appointed by Malacañang.
The Feliciano Commission investigated the July 2003 Oakwood mutiny while the more recent Melo Commission investigated the string of extra-judicial killings blamed on the military.
But it should also include representatives of poll watchdog groups like the Catholic Church-based Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) and the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) “because they have the pieces of evidence” of election fraud, he added.
A team from poll watchdog Kontra Daya which monitored the special elections held recently in 13 Lanao del Sur towns Tuesday exposed alleged irregularities and manipulations committed during the canvassing of votes in Marawi City.
In one amusing incident, several tally sheets that the six-member team led by Emmie de Jesus were looking for turned up as table cloth in one precinct in Lumbayanage town.
Kontra Daya said that in precinct number 0010-A, the counting area in one of the classrooms in Amai Pak Pak Central Elementary School Marawi where votes for Barangay Kadigilan, Lumbayanage town in Lanao del Sur province were being counted, the ballots did not contain votes for senators.
“With this predicament, the boards of election inspectors (BEIs) and poll watchers decided to place the tally sheets for national positions at the back of the classroom. Later, the tally sheets were used as table cloth,” De Jesus said in a statement from Marawi.
De Jesus, who is also secretary-general of the women’s group Gabriela, said this was also a “cause of alarm” as the empty tally sheets “might be used to pad votes for TU candidates who are trailing in the senatorial race.”
“This practice, whether deliberate or not, is very susceptible to machinations by the Commission on Elections and other parties in interest,” she said.
In some precincts, the BEIs deliberately did not read votes cast for some senatorial candidates, she said.
In other precincts, where BEIs read the votes for senators, tally sheets showed that Genuine Opposition candidates Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero, Aquilino Pimentel III and Antonio Trillanes IV were leading the senatorial race.
The only Team Unity candidate who got as many votes as the GO candidates was Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram.
De Jesus said their team also observed numerous irregularities in the conduct of the special polls in the province.
In Masiu town, an hour ride from Marawi, De Jesus said they talked to people who have just voted but whose index fingernails were not marked with indelible ink.
When asked why they did not have their nails inked, the voters casually told the Kontra Daya members, “Para makaboto uli kami (So that we can vote again).”
There was also unreasonable and unexplained delay in the counting of votes in public schools in Marawi City despite the presence of the BEIs and the poll watchers. In several counting areas, poll watchers were unreasonably barred from entering, De Jesus added.
MANILA, Philippines—A shouting match, a fistfight in a polling precinct and an envelope of P20 bills that was literally up for grabs were part of the firsthand accounts given by heads of poll watchdogs who went to Lanao del Sur to observe the special elections there Saturday.
Former ambassador Henrietta de Villa described the scene in several towns as “pandemonium,” adding that “the reported irregularities in Manila are nothing compared to the customs they observe there during elections.”
De Villa, chairperson of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), was with Edward Go of the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) in Kapai town Saturday to supervise their volunteers monitoring the special elections in Lanao del Sur.
“People in the lines (outside the school) were shouting at each other. And no one seemed to be in command as people waited for the elections to begin,” De Villa said.
Go, in a separate interview, recalled seeing “people pressed against the fence around the school where voting was to be held.”
Both said voting in Kapai was delayed by more than two hours. As expected, voters lost their cool while waiting.
When the school gates were finally opened around 9:30 a.m., De Villa said voters ran to the precincts “like a herd of stampeding horses, shouting like anything. It was like a market place.”
Go said that “everybody wanted to be first” in the precincts.
In one precinct, De Villa said, a shouting match erupted over allegations that two sets of voters’ lists were being used by the board of election inspectors (BEI).
Go said that one contender was a watcher of Lakas-CMD while the other worked for Kampi.
He described some of the scenes he saw that day as “noisy and chaotic.”
De Villa said that in another precinct, she saw a BEI chair being accused of stashing ballots in her bag.
“When (the people) looked at the bag, (the ballots were) there. But the BEI chair dismissed everything, saying that the ballots were planted,” the PPCRV chair said.
Nearby, a fist fight also broke out, but the brawl was cut short by “a soldier who fired a warning shot in the air.”
“There is nothing in Manila quite like that,” De Villa said.
She said that in a public school in Masiu town, no secrecy folders were used to keep prying eyes away from ballots while they were being filled out by voters.
And halfway into election day, supporters of various candidates were still giving away campaign materials right inside the polling areas, De Villa said.
Inside another precinct, one person was coaching a voter on what to write on his ballot. Near the door of another precinct, De Villa chanced on a man “distributing what appeared to be flyers.”
“It turned out that he had a wad of P20 bills and an envelope in his hands. I grabbed one bill, naghatakan kami (We fought over it), I got the envelope and the P20 bills,” she said.
De Villa eventually learned that P20 was the going rate per vote for a council seat.
In the meantime, she is keeping the envelope and the wad of money “as souvenirs.”
Despite her victory, it was far from over for De Villa.
Minutes later, she chanced upon two young boys loitering near the school.
“I asked how old one of them was and he answered, ‘16 po,’ prompting his companion to say, ‘no, tell her that you’re 17!’ They still admitted that they were allowed to vote in the school even after I told them that what they did was wrong,” De Villa said.
A few steps later and the PPCRV chair caught a burly man persuading a “disabled” woman to allow him to fill her ballot for her.
De Villa said the man introduced himself as a “political party volunteer.”
“He explained that it was better for him to list down her preferred candidates since the instructions in the polling precinct were in English and that the woman was considered disabled since she only knew Arabic. By the way things looked, it appeared she was very hesitant to hand over the ballot to him,” De Villa said.
The PPCRV chair reached a third polling venue in Madalum town just as voting hours closed at 3 p.m.
According to the law, all those still unable to vote at that time were required to submit their names to the BEI chair. The chair, in turn, will list their names and call them one by one before closing the precinct.
“Names were being called through a bullhorn,” De Villa said. But after a while she noted that around 30 voters waiting for their turn disappeared before their names were called by the BEI chair.
Others present told De Villa that her presence intimidated those waiting and that they were probably flying voters who would rather not be caught by the PPCRV chairperson herself.
Go and De Villa said they reported the incidents they witnessed to election commissioner Rene V. Sarmiento.
Go said he would rather not make any comment yet on the conduct of the elections. “While we were there, the counting has not yet started. Although I have observed that the situation was much … tension-filled.”
Go recalled calmly filling his ballot in a public high school in Taguig City “in about 20 minutes.”
De Villa said she has much sympathy for Sarmiento whom she said is now “performing a superhuman job” of making sure that tallying and canvassing of the results in Lanao del Sur are kept orderly.
“When I cast my vote in St. Paul College in Gilmore (Quezon City), I thought it was already disorganized since my precinct was among those clustered and I had to vote somewhere else. But my gosh, what a difference compared to Lanao del Sur,” De Villa exclaimed.
The PPCRV chair said her firsthand experience of a Mindanao special election “shows a totally different environment there.”
“The challenge here is for us to work a transition, to make the elections in Mindanao as orderly as possible. The current situation is a recurring problem, so there should be solutions (implemented) to ease the situation, so there will be no more need for special elections,” she added.