By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANIla — A Lanao del Sur-based electoral watchdog expressed strong opposition to proposals to postpone the August 8 2011 elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Healing Democracy, a Maranao grassroots project aiming to organize and educate the Lanao del Sur electorate, said postponing the polls would be “a desecration of democracy.”
Executive Secretary Paquito N. Ochoa, Jr., has earlier announced that Pres. Benigno Aquino III favors the postponement of ARMM elections to give the peace process a chance. According to new Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Sixto Brillantes, deferring the ARMM polls was one of the concerns aired by President Benigno Aquino III before issuing his appointment. The Comelec has previously vowed to be ready for the ARMM elections in August. It said that P1.8-billion ($41.237 million) budget will be allocated to cover the all the expenses for the elections. Reports quoted Brillantes as saying that Aquino wanted to know if the ARMM polls could be synchronized with the May 2013 elections.
There have been eight postponements since the first set of ARMM officials was elected on Feb. 17, 1990. Only once have the elections been conducted on the date specified by law, and that was in 2008.
Lanao del Sur lawamaker Pangalian Balindong has already filed a bill to postpone the August ARMM elections and synchronize it with the 2013 regular elections. Several representatives, however, rejected the bill, questioning its legality.
“Congress continuously undermines the democracy of the Bangsamoro people by its intention to postpone the polls without the consent of the stakeholders,” said Healing Democracy.
The group is a consortium of the Christian Organizations for Rural-Urban Development (CONCORD), Inc, HEALING DEMOCRACY partners include Liga ng Kabataang Moro (LKM) Lanao; Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM); Ethnic Groups Development Resource Center (EGDRC); Rural Missionaries of the Philippines; Community-Based Health Services(CBHS) Northern Mindanao; Suara Bangsamoro Northern Mindanao; Kawagib Alliance for the Advancement of Moro Rights; Samahan ng mga Lingkod na Artista sa Mindanao (SALAMIN); and Moro-Christian People’s Alliance (MCPA) Lanao.
The group was originally established to monitor the conduct of the May 2010 national elections in the ARMM.
Healing Democracy said the polls and its conduct are provided for in RA 9054 and ratified through a plebiscite conducted among the residents of ARMM. It accused congress of distorting ratified laws.
“What Congress should be discussing is not how to derail the electoral process but how to ensure clean and credible elections reflecting the will of the Bangsamoro people,” the group said.
Organizers of Healing Democracy said among the many concerns being echoed in discussion groups in Mindanao are the problems plaguing ARMM’s lack of autonomy. Its statement was signed by the group’s project manager Rev. Beltran E. Pacatang.
“This is evidenced by the contentions discussed above and by the series of elected officials handpicked by Malacañang. For the national government to continue manipulating the legal-political process of ARMM elections is to aggravate this problem,” they said.
The group also expressed outrage against the Comelec’s decision to continue using the Precinct-Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines in the coming ARMM elections, particularly in Lanao del Sur. It said that based on what happened in the May 10, 2010 elections, including the special one in June 3, the use of PCOS machines has defeated the declared purpose in protecting the rights of voters.
Delayed election procedures and technical glitches, transmission failures, as well as incidents of fraud and violence were just few of the election related fraud and violence experienced with the use of the PCOS machines that Healing Democracy had documented.
“ The fundamental democratic principle of ‘private voting and public counting’ has been subordinated by the machine’s task of covert counting. Many Maranaos interviewed by Healing Democracy documenters-monitors expressed doubts regarding the counting of votes through the PCOS machines because it is done beyond the scrutiny of the voters, including the watchers,” it asserted. “Adding insult to injury, many precincts in Lanao del Sur did not use the designated PCOS in counting because the ballots were actually shipped to a centralized counting/canvassing hall in the Provincial Capitol at Marawi city. The oft-repeated reason of COMECLEC for doing so is “security considerations.”
The organization also criticized what it termed as a “most awkward mandate” designed by the commission in Lanao del Sur. The Comelec replaced school teachers with police trainees as Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) and canvassers inside polling centers, while armed private armies and Civilian Volunteers Organization (CVO) elements who were said to be under the command of incumbent public officials were posted outside the precincts.
Healing Democracy laid down a demand to congress and the Comelec that they should heed the clamor of voters “for once.”
“We stand with our recommendations to the Comelec and congress to seriously enforce measures in ensuring a clean, fair, credible and transparent election while upholding the Bangsamoro people’s right to suffrage. We also challenge the Comelec to totally reform reform the automated electoral process to solve the glitches and weaknesses of the AES, Smartmatic’s non-compliance of major contract provisions, ineptitude in administering the elections that result in the chronic failure of elections in Lanao del Sur and some provinces of the country. Finally, we also call on the people especially our Bangsamoro brethren to be more vigilant this upcoming ARMM election and help deter any attempt to desecrate democracy by way of fraud and violence,” it said.
Among the solons who are against the postponement of the ARMM polls are Maguindanao Rep. Simeon Datumanong, Leyte Rep. Sergio Apostol, Cagayan de Oro City Rep.Rufus Rodriguez, Davao del Sur Rep. Mark Douglas Cagas IV, Davao City Rep. Karlo Alexei Nograles, Agusan del Norte Rep. Ma. Angelica Amante-Matba and Sultan Kudarat Rep. Raden Sakaluran.