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Lawmakers, poll watchdogs back Duterte call vs Smartmatic

05:36 AM June 01, 2019

UNENDING SCRUTINY A batch of Smartmatic vote-counting machines awaits voters inside a classroom at President Corazon Aquino Elementary School in Batasan Hills, Quezon City on May 13. President Duterte has called on the Commission on Elections to ditch Smartmatic for another technology provider “free of fraud” in time for the 2022 presidential elections. —NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

Several lawmakers and poll watchdogs on Friday welcomed President Duterte’s call for the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to ditch the Smartmatic voting system and look for another technology provider that is “free of fraud.”

“Whether or not the suspicions against the integrity of Smartmatic are valid, the efficiency of the system is now put under question,” Sen. Panfilo Lacson said.

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“I think it’s about time for us to look for other suppliers,” he said, adding that he was open to adopting a “hybrid system” that allows manual vote count at the precinct level.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, head of the congressional oversight committee on the automated election system (AES), said the President made a “good point” in raising the possibility of using a new balloting system in the next elections in 2022.

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“We need a new system in 2022,” Pimentel said.

‘Look for one free of fraud’

In a meeting with members of the Filipino community in Japan on Thursday night, Duterte said the votes were “not being counted truthfully” and Filipinos “no longer want that Smartmatic.”

“I would like to advise Comelec now—I won’t wait for the State of the Nation Address anymore—dispose of that Smartmatic and look for a new one that is free of fraud,” Duterte said.

“You have three years,” Duterte told the Comelec. “The elections were recently concluded. Replace that now because it is no longer acceptable to me, to the people and even to the congressmen who are here. … Improve on the system. Stop using Smartmatic.”

Panelo clarification

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, however, clarified on Friday that Duterte’s remarks “does not mean that the just concluded elections is not honest nor credible. It is.”

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“The President is not comfortable with these allegations that produce a whiff of fraud or delay in the announcing of the election results,” Panelo said.

He added that Duterte did not want the same allegations to taint future elections.

Opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan, however, said the Duterte administration should also hold accountable those who violated the laws and used public funds to ensure the victory of proadministration candidates.

“Many times, the President threatened local politicians that he [would] put on hold their projects if they would not support his candidates,” Pangilinan said.

“Hundreds of VCMs (vote-counting machines) either malfunctioned or were defective in an election where vote-buying was rampant and in which the President himself called it ‘normal,’” he said.

Need for legal basis

Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez said Smartmatic could not be blacklisted on a whim as there should be “a legal basis to ban any supplier,” he said.

Jimenez assured the public that Smartmatic had “no hold” on the Comelec and the services it provided were won by the company legally through public biddings.

Jimenez noted that while Mr. Duterte had concerns about Smartmatic, “it was clear that he wasn’t turning away from the automated system.”

There was no comment from Smartmatic.

The Comelec is a constitutional commission that is independent of the three branches of government—the executive, legislative and judiciary—but its members are appointed by the President. Four of its seven members had been appointed by Mr. Duterte, including its chair, Sheriff Abas.

In March 2012, despite opposition from various election watchdogs the Comelec decided to buy Smartmatic voting machines that it had leased for the 2010 presidential elections for use in the 2013 midterm polls. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Bolstered position

The court, however, ruled in April 2015 against the Comelec’s plan to refurbish the machines for the 2016 presidential polls, saying that the P268.8-million repair contract with Smartmatic did not undergo public bidding.

In March last year, the Comelec decided to buy for P2.1 billion the 97,000 vote-counting machines it had leased from Smartmatic for P8 billion for the 2016 elections for use in the 2019 midterm polls.

Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said the President’s remarks bolstered the position of the Makabayan bloc in the House that Smartmatic should have long been banned from Philippine elections.

The House committee on public accounts has opened an inquiry into the Comelec’s procurement contracts for the 2019 elections that received P9 billion in funding.

In a hearing on Tuesday, congressmen questioned Comelec officials about the alleged irregularities that marred the May 13 polls, including the use of pens that caused blots on the ballots, the porous paper used for the ballots, the 1,165 defective storage cards and hundreds of malfunctioning vote-counting machines and the seven-hour delay in the transmission of poll results.

Makabayan senatorial candidate Neri Colmenares expressed fears that allowing Smartmatic to get involved in the 2022 presidential elections “will again subvert the true will of the people” that would place the polls three years from now in “potential jeopardy and perilous state.”

Namfrel: Heed Duterte advice

The National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) urged the Comelec to heed the President’s “advice.”

“The conduct of Philippine elections, automated or not, should be left at the hands of Filipinos,” Namfrel said in a statement.

It said Republic Act No. 9369, or the Automated Election Law, should be amended because it prevented local systems developers from participating in developing and supplying an AES.

Namfrel also pushed its earlier proposal to go back to manual balloting with a computer-assisted vote count that is open to the public, electronic generation and transmission of election returns, and automated canvassing and consolidation of the poll results.

Danilo Arao, convener of the poll watchdog Kontra Daya, said Duterte’s call for reforms “should not just be limited to the Comelec’s questionable partnership with [Smartmatic].”

“That the rich and powerful continue to dominate and bastardize the election system is also a glaring evidence of fraud as money politics and even ‘fake news’ become a ‘new normal’ in Philippine politics,” Arao said. —WITH REPORTS FROM JULIE M. AURELIO, JOVIC YEE AND INQUIRER RESEARCH

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TAGS: lawmakers, Poll Watchdog, Rodrigo Duterte, Smartmatic
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