Comelec bars Smartmatic from poll biddings, cites bribery raps
MANILA, Philippines — The Commission on Elections (Comelec) has disqualified Smartmatic Philippines Inc. from all poll-related public biddings due to its involvement in the bribery charge filed by US authorities against former Comelec Chair Andres Bautista.
It is considered a big blow to Smartmatic, which has been involved in six Philippine elections, starting with the country’s first automated polls in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 2008, the national elections in 2010, 2016 and 2022, as well as the midterm elections in 2013 and 2019.
Voting 5-1 with one abstention, the seven-member Comelec en banc on Wednesday granted the petition filed in June by a group led by former information technology chief Eliseo Rio Jr. to disqualify Smartmatic from participating in the bidding for the new automated election system to be used in the 2025 midterm elections.
Comelec earlier moved the deadline for the submission and opening of bids for the Full Automation System with Transparency Audit/Count (FASTrAC) project to Dec. 12 from the original schedule of Nov. 28 pending a decision on the petition against Smartmatic, whose parent firm is headquartered in London.
In its decision, however, Comelec rejected the grounds raised by the petitioners on the alleged discrepancies in the transmission of the 2022 election results and the purported preelection meeting between Smartmatic and representatives of then presidential candidate and now President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Maintaining that “no irregularities attended the conduct of the 2022 national and local elections,” majority of the Comelec commissioners instead cited the corruption case filed in the United States last October against Bautista in relation to Comelec’s procurement of voting machines from Smartmatic in 2016.
Comelec Chair George Garcia and Commissioners Socorro Inting, Rey Bulay, Ernesto Ferdinand Maceda Jr. and Nelson Celis voted to disqualify Smartmatic from all election-related projects.
Threat to Comelec integrity
Commissioner Aimee Ferolino dissented, saying the majority did not give Smartmatic the opportunity to argue against the alleged bribery since the disqualification petition was based on alleged irregularities in the transmission of results, while Commissioner Marlon Casquejo was listed as on official business.
“The charges against Smartmatic and former Chairman Bautista are of public knowledge and tend to cause speculation and distrust in the integrity of the electoral process,” said Comelec in its decision released on Wednesday.
“Given the gravity of allegations related to bribery and compromised procurement process, as independently determined by foreign bodies, the Commission recognizes the imminent threat to the strength and integrity of our democratic processes,” it added.
“Consequently, pursuant to administrative powers which covers all aspects of election, the Commission is compelled to take decisive action to disallow Smartmatic from participating in the procurement process,” said Comelec, which said it would seek to permanently ban Smartmatic from all government projects.
In a separate opinion, Ferolino said the Comelec’s administrative authority was limited to implementing election laws.
“It strikes me that a distant matter has been interjected into this case,” she said, pointing out that the case against Bautista “is still pending investigation and there is no supporting evidence on record.”
“In ruling against Smartmatic based on an issue never properly raised, Smartmatic was deprived of its right to be properly notified of the allegations against it and was not given an opportunity to defend itself against those allegations,” Ferolino said.
Role in past elections
The poll body also said that it “cannot overlook the serious, unresolved allegations against Smartmatic related to previous elections.”
“Although these allegations, stemming from [and] potentially spanning at least three election cycles, have not been conclusively proven, their gravity and potential to damage public trust warrant the Commission’s proactive measures to safeguard the integrity of elections and democratic institutions,” Comelec pointed out.
According to Comelec, it has been cooperating since October last year with the request of the US government for evidence against Bautista and other individuals and entities for violation of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering.
Bautista was “formally charged in September 2023 in connection with allegations of receiving bribes in exchange for awarding a contract for election machines to Smartmatic Corp.,” Comelec said.
“Bautista and others are alleged to have laundered the bribe money through multiple entities. It was revealed that Bautista established a foreign shell company which was used to receive bribe payments from Smartmatic,” the election body noted.
Although it questioned the last procurement of voting machines, Comelec maintained the integrity of the results of the 2016 presidential and national elections, where then-vice presidential candidate Marcos protested his narrow loss to former Vice President Leni Robredo.
The US Department of Homeland Security filed the case against Bautista for money laundering, conspiracy and bribery at the US District Court in Florida on Sept. 19, 2023. This came after his estranged wife, Patricia Paz Bautista, flagged his alleged ill-gotten wealth reportedly worth P1 billion.
Both Smartmatic and Bautista, who served as Comelec chair from April 2015 until he resigned in October 2017 amid an impeachment threat for unexplained wealth, have denied the bribery allegation.
Clean track record
In a statement on Wednesday, Smartmatic expressed “profound disappointment” in the Comelec decision and insisted that it has not been indicted along with Bautista.
“In its 23-year history, no Smartmatic company has ever been indicted in the United States or any other country in connection with election or election-related contracts,” the company said, challenging Comelec officials to “ show to the public any indictment against Smartmatic.”
“We are confident there is no such indictment in the United States,” it stressed, adding that it has “consistently adhered” to the procurement processes of Comelec in the past 15 years.
“Our significant role has played a key part in establishing the Philippines as a global model for election integrity,” Smartmatic added.
In the Lower House, ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro said on Wednesday that Smartmatic should still be investigated for alleged irregularities in the 2022 national and local elections despite its disqualification by Comelec.
Castro said Comelec’s decision was a “good development” given the “numerous issues” raised against Smartmatic, but the automated elections provider should still be placed under scrutiny.
“We in the Makabayan bloc filed numerous resolutions in the present and previous Congresses to investigate it. We hope that even with its disqualification, Smartmatic would still be investigated so that Philippine elections could not be manipulated anymore,” the House deputy minority leader said.