Notes from the Field

Skepticism Mounts as Philippine Elections Approach: Can Independent Poll Watch Groups Help?

May 5, 2010

The May 2010 national and local elections will claim many firsts: the first nationwide automated elections in the Philippines and in Asia, and also the most expensive election in the country’s electoral history. Strange bedfellows share the same stage in campaign sorties (Leftist leaders who were detained by former President Marcos share the same Senatorial slate with Marcos’ son, Bongbong Marcos). It could be the first elections where speed becomes the norm, with winners proclaimed in a week or less. As the first “real” election after President Arroyo’s long nine-year reign, it has become an unprecedented high-stakes event, that, if conducted in a credible and transparent manner, will restore public confidence in the legitimacy of elected officials, and dispel pessimism surrounding electoral processes overall.

In such a politically-charged environment, what role can civil society groups like independent poll watch groups and local non-governmental organizations play, and can they remain nonpartisan and impartial?  When political parties pay poll watchers between $12 to $100 to monitor (and guard their votes), can nonpartisan groups recruit, without monetary compensation, the number of volunteers needed to effectively monitor elections?

The need for nonpartisan poll watch groups is real. A 2008 survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations showed that 52 percent of respondents witnessed independent observers during the 2008 automated Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) regional elections. Among those who saw an independent observer, 38 percent said the presence added to their confidence that the election would be clean and honest, compared to 13 percent who believed it made no difference. Since this was the first pilot automated election, civil society organizations became more involved than in the past. For instance, the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) had played an active part in the bidding period for the automation of the 2010 elections. In addition, Ambassador Henrietta de Villa, ambassador to the Vatican from 1996-2001 and PPCRV national chairperson, as well as Ramon Casiple, Consortium on Electoral Reform’s (CER) chairperson, were all part of the Commission on Elections Advisory Council.

Despite a relatively smooth process, the ARMM Regional Elections were not entirely free from criticism. Post-election reports indicated that the same irregularities and anomalies afflicting earlier elections still plagued this election. For example, while automation eliminated “wholesale cheating” during the counting process, it did not put an end to “retail cheating” at the precinct level before and during election day. Additionally, some voters were disenfranchised due to a lack of exposure and education on the new technology. Reputable reports also indicated that underage voters and “truckloads” of non-ARMM citizens transported to precincts also cast votes. Such weaknesses show that automation is not enough, and that enhanced and careful monitoring is still critical to ensure that vote buying, violence, and precinct-level fraud are minimized.

Determined to protect the May 10 elections, civil society groups are mobilizing volunteer poll watchers, conducting voter education campaigns, and establishing response teams to preempt and address election-related problems. To date, three local civil society groups are accredited as “citizens arms” to monitor the elections: the PPCRV, the Legal Network for Truthful Elections, and the Citizens Coalition for ARMM Electoral Reforms, Inc. (Citizens CARE). PPCRV hopes to deploy half a million volunteer poll watchers on election day, while LENTE plans to deploy 4,000 to focus on monitoring election fraud. Citizens CARE hopes to send 6,000 volunteers to the ARMM. The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) has deployed 41 international observers from 14 countries to observe the elections.

However, poll watch groups have not been spared from controversy themselves. In February the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) denied the longstanding election watchdog National Movement for Free Elections’ (NAMFREL) application to monitor the May 10 elections. The PPCRV was accused of influencing COMELEC’s decision to deny NAMFREL’s accreditation, and for refusing to share the fourth copy of the election returns (which has been a bone of contention among watch groups since time immemorial). Although COMELEC cited “partisanship of the leadership of NAMFREL” as the main reason for the denial, ugly rumors still hound the PPCRV. To make matters worse, PPCRV just announced plans to undertake a parallel count based on the fourth copy of the upcoming election returns (the machines will in fact print some 30 copies) – a task traditionally undertaken by NAMFREL.

The CER, is proving to be an active civil society player in the lead-up to the elections, and has established nationwide VotePeace Response Teams in election hotspots to reduce violence. In Samar, the Northern Samar Peace and Development Forum (based in Eastern Visayas) has established local monitoring teams and has organized peace forums where local candidates come together to commit to peaceful elections. In Maguindanao, Integrated Development Services, in partnership with the Iranun Supreme Council for Peace and Development, spearheaded a peace covenant signing among the local candidates from Barira, Buldon, Parang, Matanog, Sultan Kudarat, and Sultan sa Mastura in Maguindanao Province.

Does this enhanced commitment mean that the Philippines is on its way to achieving lasting electoral reform? I would say we are halfway there, but civil society cannot do it alone. All stakeholders must collaborate for true reform: COMELEC needs to fairly administer the elections; the military and the police need to ensure safety; the media need to provide fair, accurate, and, to the extent possible, unbiased coverage of the elections; and the general public needs to place their bets on reform-minded candidates who will sustain these electoral reform initiatives. In other words, to vote for a candidate who maintains the optimism and enthusiasm for elections and the democratic processes and who believes that good governance is not for those who govern, but for everyone to practice – not only for this generation, but for generations to come.

Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s Director of Programs in the Philippines. She can be reached at mbuenaobra@asiafound.org.

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