MANILA, Philippines?Irregularities and glitches were the rule rather than the exception in the Philippines? first automated elections, according to foreign observers who visited several provinces on May 10.
And the voters, volunteers and teachers should take the credit for the success of the polls, the foreign observers said.
?We?re missing the point if we concentrate on the machines. It?s the people who matter?whether they were able to vote in free, fair and democratic elections,? Justine Kiwaniku, a Canadian who monitored the balloting in Pampanga, said Thursday at a press conference in Manila.
Kiwaniku is among the 86 foreign observers from 11 countries who comprise the People?s International Observers? Mission 2010 (PIOM), which was organized by the Philippines? Compact for Peaceful and Democratic Elections (Compact) and People?s Movement for Change (Pagbabago!).
Those who visited barangays (villages) in Tondo, Manila, and Payatas, Quezon City, said the chaos in urban poor areas was caused by the lack of preparedness of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and its partner Smartmatic-TIM Inc., as well as problems with the voting machines.
They said it was only because of the voters? perseverance and the diligence of the teachers serving as members of the boards of election inspectors (BEIs) that the balloting was able to proceed.
The observers came from Canada, France, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Argentina, the United States, Germany, Japan, Denmark and Australia. Some of them live or work in the Philippines.
They recounted the situations that they witnessed?vote-buying, intimidation of voters, harassment of candidates, negative campaigning targeting militant groups, and the presence of military men and armed goons in precincts?and which they wrote about in a blog (http://piom2010.wordpress.com).
The observers were unanimous in criticizing the lack of secrecy in the voting precincts.
Rathika Sitsabaiesan, who observed the balloting in the provinces of Albay and Sorsogon, said the short secrecy folders could not cover the ballots fully as these were filled out by the voters.
As a result, people outside could take pictures of the voters filling out the ballots. There were even cases of voters passing the ballots through the windows and the ballots returning already filled out, she said.
Sitsabaiesan said the watchers of the political parties breathed down the voters? backs. Some dictated the names of the candidates, others shaded the ballots themselves.
American Matthew Robert Lang, a Presbyterian clergyman who went to Surigao del Norte province, said party watchers were practically running the precincts he visited.
Lang said his group had secured an affidavit from a voter who was taken against his will to a barangay office and had ink smeared on his finger even if he had yet to vote.
In an interview after the press conference, Canadian journalist Stefan Cristoff blamed Smartmatic for the poor performance of the voting machines in Payatas.
Cristoff, who also monitored the midterm elections in Manila in 2007, said that despite the automation, the old problems of disenfranchisement, intimidation and militarization took place this year.
?I hoped that with automation, there would be more democratic elections. But what happened was systemic disenfranchisement instead. If you have electronic voting, the idea is that it should function. But it did not,? he said, referring to malfunctioning precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines.
Cristoff praised the teachers in the district of North Fairview, Quezon City, who, he said, made the effort of cutting the sides of the ballots which could not be fed into the machines because the ballots were not cut properly.
Asked if thought his and his colleagues? observations reflected the general situation on Election Day, Cristoff said: ?Those problems were the same wherever we went. What we?ve seen appears to be the rule rather than the exception. And we find them unacceptable.?
The true heroes
American Rhonda Ramiro, secretary of Bayan-USA who observed the polls in Iloilo province, was all praise for the BEIs and volunteers of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the accredited citizens? arm of the Commission on Elections (Comelec).
?The true heroes of the day are the grassroots people,? Ramiro said.
The observers also assailed the foreign governments who commended the ?peaceful? elections.
?Eighteen people being killed on Election Day cannot by any international standard be judged peaceful,? said Randall Garrison, a councilor from the township of Esquimault in British Columbia, Canada.
Garrison and his local guides, who observed the polls in Lanao del Sur province, were caught in the exchange of gunfire between rival political groups in the town of Tugaya. A 19-year-old voter, Aslia Panda, was killed by a stray bullet.
David Crotty and Valerie Anne Raoul said they witnessed the influence of private armies and militarization in Abra province.
Said Raoul: ?The teachers were heroic but they were overwhelmed. They are really to be admired ... But for them to be running the precincts from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. without a break is inhuman.?
She also noted a smear campaign on certain progressive candidates, and presented a poster printed with slogans labeling two senatorial candidates as members of the communist New People?s Army.
?They made it happen?
The 13-person international team led by Carlos Montemayor Jr. that visited Payatas concluded in a report: ?The people made it happen, and not Smartmatic or Comelec!?
The other 13-person international team led by Geneve Rivera that visited Tondo said in its own report: ?Voters were willing to wait for hours on end despite the sweltering heat, just to be able to cast their votes. The teachers contributed more than their share of assistance, despite the limited preparation provided to them.?
Only one Smartmatic technician was available at every polling center visited, creating stress on teachers and major delays to voters when the machines failed, the observers said.
They said that in Isla Puting Bato, Tondo, there were an incredible 43 machines and precincts at Rosauro Elementary School with an estimated 35,000 voters. Many teachers wondered why the ratio of precincts and voters to Smartmatic technicians was so low.
At one point in North Fairview Elementary School, observers noted that 5 out of 10 machines had failed. By 10 a.m., only 17 votes had been counted at precincts with failed machines, causing many voters who arrived at 7 a.m. to leave when they realized how long they would have to wait, having received numbers in the 200s.
Technicians no IDs
Smartmatic technicians were never identified through an ID, the observers said. One technician in Tondo admitted to only days of training; many did not seem familiar with troubleshooting processes.
The teachers were very worried about being at ?the front lines,? the observers said.
On Election Day, there was complete mayhem as voters crammed together in the heat waiting for their number to be called. But they persevered through the hours-long wait and the puzzlement over the new procedures, the observers said.
When they were finally able to vote, the people were seen clapping, giving thumbs-up signs and exclaiming ?Congratulations!? when the machines accepted their ballots.
In a separate press conference, an election observation mission of the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) noted incidents of violence, technical glitches and ?severely compromised? secrecy in certain precincts.
But it said the Philippine government showed ?notable progress? in implementing ?a reasonably acceptable procedure? and ?generally displayed collective political will? to conduct the elections.
Asked to comment on the outsider assessment, Ana de Villa-Singson, PPCRV media and communications director, said: ?For me, the best thing to look at is what we Filipinos feel about our own elections.? With a report from Tarra Quismundo