COMPOSTELA, Compostela Valley, Philippines – With a voting population of just over 800, the special elections for five communities in Barangay (the village of) Gabi here could become one of the costliest, at least for the pockets of the candidates.
The Commission on Election is set to conduct the polls for the village on Friday, an exercise that will decide who will be the next mayor of Compostela.
Villagers said unidentified men were seen roaming around the village, and local officials feared these men who were said to be moving clandestinely from house to house were trying to buy, scare off voters, or both, into favoring any of the two mayoral candidates.
“Tension has been high in here since Monday’s election was postponed,” said village chief Fausto Libranza. “People are becoming worried.”
And reports of vote buying have been running high, although police and local officials have yet to arrest anyone said to have been involved in any forms of poll cheating.
On Thursday, police and military officials talked to residents to allay their fears and reassure them that the conduct of this Friday’s elections has been secured.
The bitterly contested mayoral race between Adolfo Ang and rival Lema Bolo has taken a nail-biting turn after ballots for Gabi were switched with those of Baguio City’s on Monday, rendering at least 800 registered voters unable to exercise their right to suffrage.
The Comelec on Monday decided not to push through with the elections in Gabi, thinking the Gabi votes was insignificant to determine the outcome of the local race. But when Ang, a businessman, garnered a slim lead of 94 votes over Lema Bolo, wife of incumbent Mayor Jessie Bolo, the Gabi elections became imperative and decisive.
As of 1 p.m. Thursday, the independent candidate Ang has 17,429 votes against the Liberal Party bet Bolo’s 17,335, according to the Comelec’s partial and official report.
The counted votes represented 98.21 percent of the total votes cast in Compostela.
The remaining 808 votes in Gabi were definitely crucial to either candidate.
For an election operator who has worked for many politicians in southern Mindanao, the remaining Gabi votes are a virtual magnet for vote-buying and other “special operations.”
“The Gabi voters become an easy prey for ‘special ops’ since there were few people to buy out and the stakes were high. A P1,000 per vote is not a bad investment for a candidate,” the election operator who requested anonymity, said.
Libranza, the village chief, acknowledged he had received reports about votes being bought for as much as P1,500, but added they have not arrested anyone buying or selling their votes.
At P1,500 per vote, the candidate needs to spend at least P1.212 million to cheat and, win.
Gabi barangay chairman Libranza said he would work with authorities to prevent cheating, violence and intimidation from marring Friday’s polls.
“Everyone is eager to vote, but people were apprehensive due to the reported presence of unidentified men who could be goons or supporters of candidates, roaming the village,” the 82-year old Libranza said, admitting it was the first time in his over 20 years as village chief in Gabi that an election has been postponed.
Senior Supt. Camilo Cascolan, Compostela Valley police chief, said a special police, army group called Task Force Gabi, has been activated to protect the residents.
“The police and the Army are here to protect you as you exercise your democratic right to choose your next leader. You have nothing to be afraid of,” Cascolan told residents during a dialogue.
Cascolan said he and Col. Angelito de Leon, his counterpart in the Army’s 1001st Infantry Brigade, have appealed to the candidates to rein in their “passionate” supporters outside of Gabi not to interfere in the conduct of polls in the village.
Cascolan said his office did receive reports on vote-buying in Gabi but failed to make any arrests.
“The meeting was cordial and both candidates agreed to play it fair and clean,” said Colonel De Leon.
The villagers and the security forces also agreed on a 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew to preempt the movements of “goons and gold” and keep Friday’s elections peaceful and credible.
Libranza urged his constituents to vote with their hearts, minds and hands. He said the curfew that started Wednesday night, could last until the completion of vote counting in Gabi.
“Please do not sell your votes. Your democratic right is sacred. If someone gives you money and ask you to vote for his candidate, just accept the money and run. Vote with your conscience,” Libranza said.
For Esterlita Malmis, 47, she and the rest of their community would troop to the polling center as early as 7 a.m. to cast their vote.
“I’m voting for my children and any amount of money would not sway me. Of course, if someone tries to buy me, I’ll just take the money and run,” the mother from Purok (Community) 1, said.
Riza Lejano, 54, said she was excited for Friday.
“I’ll go to the polling precinct as early as 7 a.m. so I can vote immediately,” she said.