Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Cheating Fields

By Carolyn Arguillas in Maguindanao
NEWSBREAK Contributing Writer
"So will I still lead by more than 1M?

"Hello. Doon ba sa Lanao del Sur tsaka sa Basilan di raw nagma-match yung SOV (Statement of Votes) sa COC (Certificates of Canvass)?

"Yung kabila may teacher daw silang hawak Calanguyan, Tawi-Tawi"

"Oo sabi ni Teng dapat sigurado natin consistent yung mga documents sa Maguindanao."

DB, a "political operator" (one who conducts "special ops" or special operations for "principals" or candidates) in a national election, laughs as he explains why President Arroyo seemed so frantic in her wiretapped conversations with Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, about SOVs and COCs that did not match and documents that must be "consistent."

"You have to be consistent. You have to make sure the total number of votes you add to your principal's votes from your 'target' (read: candidate or candidates whose votes will be reduced in favor of your candidate) does not exceed the total number of votes cast. The documents must correspond. It shouldn't be so blatant."

What started as a "trial and error" method among friends in Northern Mindanao ("including Garci") to ensure the victory of a "principal" 10 years ago, has since been "perfected" and practiced elsewhere, DB says.

"Operation Dagdag Bawas was just a cottage industry then. Today it has become a multimillion business," DB adds.

But that's getting ahead of the story.

Corrupting the Comelec
Even before the "Hello Garci" tapes, the ARMM provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur and the Islamic City of Marawi, had been perceived as venues for electoral fraud. For Benjamin Abalos Sr., chair of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), the blame for the fraud in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao does not lie with the Comelec.

Commissioner Resurreccion Borra went a step farther. In remarks at the covenant-signing with ARMM candidates on July 18 in Davao City, he challenged "politicians and candidates" to "stop tempting [and corrupting] the Comelec officials in the field."

"The vicious cycle of poverty in the ARMM will remain," Borra said as he asserted that politicians use the internal revenue allotment (IRA) "to corrupt Comelec officials."

Abalos, on the same occasion, said he does not blame his people in the field because "ever since history Mindanao has always been problematic. It only became the center of attention now because of Gloriagate."

Apparently peeved by questions on the Comelec'S capability to supervise the elections in a controversial region, Abalos said: "Where did the birds and the bees come from? Here in Mindanao. But why are we the only ones who are deemed evil?"

The "birds and the bees" became a famous phrase when Elpidio Quirino ran for president in 1949. His opponents and critics claimed that Quirino won because even the birds and the bees and the dead voted in Lanao.

Then dreaded by many, the Moro areas were used by politicians in Manila as a virtual "reservoir of votes" especially since the road system and communications were very poor. Those who eyed national seats but were losing in other areas could win in places like Lanao or faraway Tawi-Tawi, where no one would dare investigate "ghost towns" and where election results, because of the distance, came in trickles.

Because firearms were plenty in the area, a politician unsure of winning could resort to harassment so that Comelec would declare a failure of election and hold special polls.

Cleaning Voters' List
When Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in 1986, among the first things that the Aquino administration sought to do was to clean up the voters' list and purge the list of "ghost towns."

Datu Michael Mastura, historian and former Maguindanao representative to Congress, recalls there was a purging of the "ghost villages" and the voters' list, but only to a limited extent.

An Aquino partymate told this reporter that the purging was "done on a selective basis."

"Those who cooperated with the administration were preserved. But all were done without the knowledge of Cory [Aquino]," he said.

The latest effort to purge the list of multiple voters was in 2003 when registration was computerized and required photographs.

Abalos says at least 100,000 multiple registrants had been discovered but still have to be excluded from the voters' list. Ten thousand of them were charged, he said.

Lintang Bedol, Maguindanao election supervisor, says 30,000 of these multiple registrants are from Maguindanao and a thousand of them are "under investigation."

The 100,000 registrants in the ARMM or the 30,000 in Maguindanao alone could have voted last year and could still vote in this year's ARMM polls because "they have not been convicted," Bedol says.

Aside from these multiple registrants, a major problem facing the Comelec in Maguindanao is the substitution of voters. "The greatest number of election fraud cases would involve substitution of voters," he says.

As of April 28, 2004, according to Comelec records, ARMM had 1,057,458 voters, distributed as follows: Maguindanao (334,287); Lanao del Sur (275,572); Sulu (209,677); Tawi-Tawi (120,455); and Basilan (117,467).

A hundred thousand multiple registrants represent 10 percent of the total voting population in the ARMM. They can make or unmake a candidate for senator, vice president, or president.

Abalos says these multiple registrants can still vote if they insist. "You can't do anything because [they're] registered."

DB says Operation Dagdag-Bawas takes note of the areas with multiple registrants as it does "controlled areas."

He emphasizes that the operation is not a one-shot deal. It is, he says, a continuous effort that requires investments in nurturing friendships with election officials in the field and the central office in Manila, especially since elections come at least once in three years. The operator also has to befriend mayors and governors, town officials, the military, the media, or anyone whom you could approach for help during election time.

When Comelec field officials go to Manila, DB says, they sleep on tables in the central office because their per diem is not enough. "We pity them, so we treat them at restaurants and bars and provide lodging, not necessarily in hotels but in apartelles that are comfortable enough." The Comelec officials never forget these "acts of kindness," DB says.

Negotiations may come in months before the elections (he tells his contact in the Comelec, "Give me two slots at this price") or immediately after the votes are cast, for "emergency" padding of votes although that would mean competing with other political operators. The highest bidder wins.

In 1995, DB says, the cost of a vote in the Dagdag-Bawas operation was P3 each. When a desperate candidate needed a hundred thousand or a million votes, he/she could get that number provided he/she paid. By 1998, the cost of the vote had risen to P7. In 2001, the price was as high as P15 because political operators of candidates belonging to the same party were outbidding each other.

Last year was even worse, he says, with one senatorial candidate paying P50 per vote. The market price then was P10.

"You have to know which areas are the controlled areas so you can plan ahead," DB says.

For DB, a "controlled area" is either an area controlled by a politician, where one's principal can be assured of "secured votes," or an area where friends from the Comelec can help.

'Treasure Hunting'
Mastura refers to DB's "special ops" as "treasure hunting."

"Normally," he says, the ones interested in this scheme are candidates for national posts. In the Senate, "treasure hunters" include those who are aiming for number one and the tailenders.

"They come here to go treasure hunting for votes for dagdag-bawas," Mastura says. But he adds, "That did not start here. Locals were just used."

The reported helicopter chase from Cagayan de Oro to Iligan to Marawi between Presidential Assistant for Mindanao Jesus Dureza and Partido ng Masang Pilipino's Jimmy Policarpio in May 2001, was reportedly part of "special ops." DB says helicopters are the quickest means of moving within Mindanao, and the fastest way to bring cash, too.

Dureza was reportedly trying to prevent Policarpio from delivering cash to Comelec officials in the ARMM for deposed President Joseph Estrada's senatorial bets.

Dureza says he monitored reports that Policarpio was giving money to Comelec personnel so they tried to prevent that from happening by following him. He denies he was carrying money.

DB says Policarpio "was just a smokescreen," and was in fact so "high profile" so that the administration's political operators would monitor him. "What they did not know was we were there, on the ground. They didn't see us. We saw them."

Mastura said the "treasure hunters" take advantage of the "controlled votes" although he adds that "controlled areas" are not a monopoly of the ARMM. Outside the ARMM, politician's bailiwicks are also "controlled votes."

DB acknowledges they operate in "controlled areas" outside the ARMM and outside Mindanao.

No Actual Voting
Mastura says that with the holding of more elections, "people have become aware... This is not to say there is electoral awareness or education. But they know [an election] can be manipulated so people don't care."

Vote buying, he says, did not originate in the Moro areas. He says money is given only to the power broker. In the controlled areas, "there is no need to buy votes because there is no real voting."

Mastura says the "treasure hunters" take advantage of the controlled vote. "Controlled votes are captive votes. You can predict a captive vote."

In "controlled areas," Abalos says one candidate can have his opponent get zero either "through force" or "through love."

Datu Zacaria Candao former ARMM and former Maguindanao governor, says that, indeed, in "controlled areas," there is "no actual voting." Datu Guimid Matalam, the ARMM vice governor under Nur Misuari and a candidate for governor this year, says the same. So does Datu Ibrahim "Toto" Paglas, another candidate for governor.

Cotabato City Mayor Muslimin Sema says there has never been an honest election in the ARMM.

When the ballots and other election paraphernalia are sent days earlier, Candao says, "the following will happen: they'll fill up the ballots, fill up election returns. There is no actual voting. They will just leave 10 to 20 pieces to be filled up on election day."

Like Mastura, Paglas, and Matalam, Candao, who had been elected governor of Maguindanao several times and was the first elected governor of ARMM, looks forward to "an election that will reflect the will of the people."

Candao says that in 2001, he filed a petition for an annulment of votes credited to his rival candidate for governor, by presenting as evidence the book of voters which the voter signs before casting his/her ballot.

"The book of voters contained identical signatures from cover to cover," he says. He asked Comelec to receive the evidence, which had been examined by a technical team from Comelec Manila, but Comelec "never gave me a schedule of hearing."

Candao says MalacaƱang played a "very big role in influencing Comelec... I failed to get that [schedule of hearing] in three years," by which time [2004], the term of office for the post he vied for had ended.

Power Competition
Abhoud Syed Lingga wants the electoral process examined deeper and revised to make it truly reflect the will of the Moro people. Lingga, head of the Bangsamoro Research Institute, acknowledges that elections are not the traditional way of choosing leaders. But he says elections are "within the democratic teachings of Islam."

Lingga explains that the ARMM has many competing powers—constitutional power, traditional power or the influence of datus, and revolutionary power or the power of the liberation movements.

"When there's competition of powers in society, the tendency is for the system to break down," he says, recalling that even before the emergence of the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, there was already a competition between constitutional power and the power of the datus. Sometimes, he says, there is a "marriage of convenience to balance constitutional power and the power of the datus. In many cases, the datu class also gets the political positions."

Add to all these problems Comelec's lack of funds, and you'll see why "independence" may be alien to election officials.

Abalos says that in most towns, there is only one Comelec official, who cannot be expected to be in each and every precinct during the election.

In Maguindanao, Bedol says he has 28 casual employees out of 68 personnel. In the 6 newly created towns, "you do not find any election officer there except one coming from an adjacent municipality. We pair that election official with a casual to be appointed with the consent of the Comelec."

He says he keeps begging for the Comelec's budget every year. "We always criticize Comelec," he says, "but please consider that [election] officials in the municipalities do not even have funds for stamps to use in sending mails."

"So you have to be friendly with local officials. Help us resolve this," Abalos appeals.


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